Taming of the Shrew


What is funny?

There are many answers to that question. Different things strike different people’s funny bones. Yet there are broad categories of genre that literature and film get divided into, one of them being comedy. Shakespeare’s works are often categorized into Tragedy, History, and Comedy. Taming of the Shrew is usually stuck into this last category. But does it belong here?’

There are other questions swirling around this play that make it difficult to digest. A couple of them are:

  1. Who is the protagonist and therefore who are we rooting for?

  2. What was Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this? Was it intended to be received with irony, as a farce on some level that illuminated issues of gender, women’s rights, and societal misogyny? Or was it the work of a beginning playwright still trying to find his style and tone and simply trying to be funny in a way that would appeal to a broad audience?

So the plot is this: Baptista has two daughters: Katherine and Bianca. Bianca is sweet and charming; a father’s delight and a favorite of all those around her. Older sister Kate however, is a shrew. A shrew is an old term people used to use for a woman who was argumentative and “foul-tempered.” In other words, a woman who gave her opinion and spoke her mind. This was Katherine. She was well-known as an unpleasant person to be around because of these shrew-ish traits, and - I’m moving into irony mode here in a minute here, so hang tight - poor Baptista doesn’t know what to do.  

He’s gotta get his daughters married off, because that’s how society works in 1500s Italy (and much of the rest of the world). One more quick break: this is also the point where I have a conversation with our children about absorbing stories that take place in eras and settings where expectations and equal rights were different depending on gender, race, ethnicity, and so forth. Do we completely toss out some of those stories; the ones that contain egregiously offensive material? Or do we look for redeeming values and try to experience them with some level of objectivity; if nothing else as a doorway to conversation about what is right and what is not right? And the last: where does irony kick in here? Scholars are still unclear over how this fits into Shakespeare’s lineup. Was he trying to engage in social commentary? Was he trying to portray the men in the story as so horrible; as an example of patriarchy and chauvinism run over the cliff of acceptability, that people would first be entertained and then be horrified?

Back to the story: Baptista’s gotta get his daughters married off. Katherine’s the oldest, so according to convention she’s gotta go first. But no one wants to marry her, because she’s obnoxious and noisy and rude and argues with everyone. But then Petruchio comes along.

Petruchio is a fine and cheery fellow and apparently super smart about human nature. He decides to court Kate and asks Dad for permission to woo her. “Woo” means to court, to seek someone’s affection and win them over. Baptista has some level of integrity and self-awareness, so he tries to warn Petruchio off, but Petruchio insists. They haggle briefly over what the dowry should be - in other words, what money and land Petruchio will receive in exchange for handing over the property. The property, being, of course, Katherine. The gentlemen agree, and the wooing is on.

Petruchio finally meets Katherine, and it goes as expected on her hand. She’s loud and rude and so on. But Petruchio, rather than backing down or arguing, praises her sweet and charming words and commends her gentle nature. It really is a timeless example of supreme psychological warfare. Maddening in the extreme.

Kate finds out she’s getting married the following Sunday, and expresses her preference to have Petruchio hanged instead. But of course she’s a woman, and the men have decided, so the wedding planning begins.

Now it’s Sunday. All the guests are there...but no Petruchio. Huh? Finally he shows up, but dressed like a tramp...and he’s brought none of the jewelry or fine clothes he promised to bring his bride-to-be. He refuses to change his attire, and reminds everyone that Katherine is marrying him and not his clothes. Ha, what a joker!

The wedding begins. The priest does his thing, and eventually asks Petruchio if he accepts Katherine as his wife. Petruchio swears so loud that the priest drops his book and bends over to get it, at which point Petruchio punches him and knocks him down again. But apparently they finish up. Everybody is unsure of Petruchio’s strange behavior. Afterwards he calls for wine and starts to give a big toast, but then interrupts himself to throw his drink in the sexton’s face. The sexton being the guy who looks after the church and sometimes digs graves. But at least there’s a big wedding feast to enjoy.

Or...no. Petruchio decides it’s time to head out before eating. He informs Katherine, her dad, and everyone else that they’re leaving, and throws her on a weak and sickly horse, reminding everyone that he’s her husband and he can do whatever he wants with her.

They take the long way home, making sure to go through the most mud and miserable terrain possible, all the while Petruchio is yelling and grumbling about this and that. Finally they’re home. Her new home. And yay! Supper’s ready! They get ready to sit down for a warm meal after a cold evening’s journey, but…

...Petruchio screams, leaps up, and hurls the food off the table and orders everything removed. He does this, he shrieks, out of love for Katherine, because nothing there is good enough for her. So she misses supper. At least she can sleep after a long cold ride

...except Petruchio discovers that her bed isn’t up to standard. So he throws the covers and pillows around the room and has her sleep in a chair, since the bed isn’t good enough.

He awakes the next morning in time to yell at the servants for not taking proper care of his wife, and joins her at breakfast, where the same thing occurs, and those stupid servants bring the wrong food again. He throws it on the floor and apologizes to his wife. She tries to get servants to sneak her some food, but they have been instructed by their master to do no such thing. So they don’t.

Finally Petruchio brings his wife a piece of meat. No double entendre intended. He tells her how much he loves her, and how he made the meat himself and he hopes it’s befitting her lovely presence. But then he observes that she has not said thank you, and he orders it taken away.

Katherine is so hungry at this point that finally, finally, she manages a reluctant thank you. So she finally has a tiny portion to eat. While she’s doing so, he instructs a tailor and hatmaker to come in and bring her some fancy clothes for the party they’re going to go to at her dad’s. While she’s trying these on, Petruchio has her plate removed before she’s finished eating.

Short version is, they get into an argument over the clothes and hat. She apparently hasn’t learned that her opinion is not welcome or allowed, and dares to disagree with him. He dismisses the tailor and haberdasher and informs Kate they’re heading to her father’s immediately so they can get there before supper.

Short version is, this is where they get into a disagreement over what time of day it is. The facts support Katherine, who insists that it’s the middle of the day, versus Petruchio, who insists it’s morning. But because he is the man and he is her husband, he is right, and she must learn that. This is where story really gets dark.

Now we move to Petruchio changing reality in order to teach her fully and completely that he is her master. He basically says: the time is whatever time I say it is, and if I say the sun is the moon and the moon is the sun, then you will agree with me. Dark.

Finally Kate is subdued enough to relent to her husband’s alternate facts and they head out. There’s another incident with old guy where Petruchio tests her ability to completely turn her back on reality again in order to ensure her submission. Satisfied, he invites the old fellow to join them. This old fellow turns out to be the father of the guy (Vincentio)  who’s going to marry Katherine’s younger sister, Bianca. The wedding is happening that day.

They arrive. Baptista is ecstatic. He got his oldest married off, and now he gets to enjoy the marriage of the daughter he really likes, Bianca.

The husbands and husband-to-be sit around and joke. Mostly, the other men joke about how great their wives are and how they’re so much better than Katherine, because she’s a...shrew. Petruchio doesn’t say a whole lot, but he most definitely has a smug feeling going on inside, and finally he proposes a wager.

The long version is this: whichever wife is the most obedient will win the wager.

Oh wow.

The other two fellows send their servants to summon their wives. Both servants return and inform the men that their wives are otherwise occupied and can’t come. In fact, one of the women had the gall to suggest that if her husband wanted to see her, that he could come to her.

How dare they?! The men grumble.

Then it’s Petruchio’s turn. He sends his servant to fetch.

The servant has barely been gone when voila! Baptista looks up and can’t believe it. His daughter the shrew is coming immediately when her new master, her husband, summoned her.

“What is your will, sir, that you send for me?”
She asks meekly of her husband.

Oh wow.

Where are the other wives?
Petruchio demands.

Oh, they’re talking out in the parlor.
Kate says.

Go fetch.
Petruchio orders.

Katherine doesn’t even reply, because she’s already obeying.

Jaws have dropped. The shrew is tamed. Baptista, proud papa, is overjoyed, and decides he wants to double the dowry because it’s “...as if she were another daughter, for she is changed, as if she had never been.”

Said Petruchio.
Let me show off a bit more.

So he orders her to do some more stuff, like taking her hat off and throwing it on the floor. Freshly-tamed Kate immediately obeys, which makes hubby and daddy and all the men super impressed.

Petruchio then orders his wife to give a tutorial to the other wives on how to be properly submissive and remember the duty they owe to their lords and husbands.  She does so immediately, passionately telling the headstrong women about the importance of wifely submission and the newfound joy she has of obeying her husband’s will.

So Katherine becomes famous in Padua for a different reason. Not, this time, for being loud and opinionated, but for something much more beautiful: for being obedient. Obedient to her husband.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Is this story worth any level of discussion afterwards?

Let’s all go watch a Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary now.

The End.

{ read Macbeth }

{ read next Will Shakespeare tale }