1/ The Taming of the Shrew is an unusual play, in that it has a frame narrative (the Induction)—indeed there’s also a play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Hamlet, but in those cases, the play inside is only a small, secondary part of the plot whereas the play within The Taming of the Shrew is the main text. In fact, the Induction isn’t necessary as such, and he doesn’t return to the Sly plot at the end.
So why does Shakespeare write it? There must be some meaning.
2/ Everyone knows the premise: Bianca is a lovely girl and has 2 (and then 3 suitors) but her father Baptista has decided that she cannot get married till her elder sister Kate (Katherina)—the shrew—is wedded.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, everything is neat: the king loves the princess of France, Berowne loves Rosaline, Longaville loves Maria, and Dumaine loves Katharine.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca is wooed by Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio whilst Petruchio sets out to tame her sister Kate. Shakespeare complicates matters by making the suitors Hortensio pretend to be a music teacher named Litio and Lucentio a Latin teacher called Cambio to woo Bianca, whilst Lucentio’s servant Tranio impersonates him and gets a pedant to impersonate Lucentio’s father Vincentio.
As though that’s not confusing enough, Petruchio has a servant named Grumio.
We can see from the start that the men are assess: Baptista creates a rule to get the shrewish Kate out of the house and doesn’t care who marries her (as we can see in his reaction to Petruchio); the men agree with each other to get Petruchio to court Kate, like schoolboys challenge each other to win over a girl for fun*; Petruchio openly says that he means to marry for money; Baptista tells Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) to bid on his daughter Bianca and agrees to give her to the richer Lucentio, without regard for her feelings.
3/ There’s lots of debate surrounding The Taming of the Shrew, and many people think it’s a misogynistic play about a strong-willed woman broken in a cruel manner—some even think it is proof of Shakespeare’s misogyny.
First of all, the forgetful readers who call Shakespeare a misogynist must be reminded that he also creates sharp-tongued, intelligent and/or strong-willed female characters such as Rosalind (As You Like It), Rosaline and the princess of France (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Emilia (Othello), Adriana (The Comedy of Errors), Cordelia (King Lear), and so on. Luckily there’s no “strong female character” trope in his days so there’s a great range of female characters (and characters in general) in his plays: Shakespeare also depicts traditional women, saintly women, simple-minded women, ambitious women, dangerous and merciless women, etc.
In The Taming of the Screw, as we can see in the final scene, the widow isn’t soft and Bianca isn’t as submissive as she seems either.
Secondly, the tender-hearted readers who think of Kate as just a strong-willed woman seem to forget that she verbally abuses everybody (not in jest), hits Hortensio (as the music teacher Litio) on the head, unprovoked; hits Petruchio the first time they meet; even ties up and hits her own sister Bianca and chases her. Is that acceptable behaviour? Kate is different from Beatrice or Adriana. She’s not just strong-willed and sharp-tongued, but stubborn, unreasonable, and violent.
If we forget about gender, this is a play about a strong will that meets a stronger will. Before Petruchio, nobody wants Kate (even her own father wants to get rid of her). In a way, Petruchio and Kate are a match for each other, like Benedick and Beatrice are a perfect match—Petruchio of course is not Benedick, but neither is Kate Beatrice.
Petruchio says he wants to marry for money, but I don’t think that’s the only reason he marries Kate—there are plenty of other rich women that are easier to deal with, I think he’s in it for the sport. His method is cruel indeed, but in his defence, he tries to mould her into a more suitable partner and one can tell at the end that they’re likely to be happy together, whereas Bianca’s marriage is less certain.
4/ Another question is: is Kate tamed at the end? How should we interpret her final speech?
Some critics think The Taming of the Shrew is a misogynistic play. I don’t think so. Some others think it’s a proto-feminist play, a satire on objectionable male behaviour. I don’t think so either.
I think the play is a study of a strong will meeting a stronger will. There is attraction on both sides: for Petruchio, this is a challenge, a game; for Kate, he’s unlike anyone else, a difficult woman like her may find all other men boring and pathetic, and feel drawn to him.
In the end, does she yield out of tiredness and frustration? Or does she play along, calling the sun the moon and an old man a maid? Does she really submit? Or does she put on a role?
Shakespeare leaves it open enough that it can depend on the interpretation and approach of the director and the actors. The main point though, is that Petruchio’s method does not change Kate’s nature—she’s still sharp and confrontational, as we see in the conversation with the widow at the wedding; it only changes her behaviour, and her behaviour needs changing.
5/ Here is Tony Tanner’s argument:
“When [Petruchio] comes to his wedding in that grotesque tattered motley of hopelessly ill-matched and shoddy garments […], it is as if he is saying to her, in visible, material signs—this is how prepared you are for marriage, given your dire inner dishevelment. When he makes a messy parody of the wedding, with his loud rudeness, blows, and sop-throwing, he is saying—and this is the sort of respect you have for the solemn ceremonies of society. And when he throws the food, and pots, and clothes around, and behaves with incomprehensible contrariness, he is offering a representation, for her benefit, of the kind of domestic chaos which sustainedly ‘shrewish’ behaviour would bring to the household. […] Petruchio is educating and ‘taming’ Kate in, as he sees it, the only way in which she will learn.” (Introduction)
“… it is possible to see Petruchio as curbing, rather than crushing, Kate; making her into a worthy companion instead of an all-over-the-place wild-cat, beating her head against every convention in sight (the possibility that her father has contributed to this by his manifest favouritism towards Bianca is clearly hinted). Seen this way, he is liberating her from a pointless, self-lashing, ‘beast-liness’—the Herculean labour.” (ibid.)
Tony Tanner says there’s no getting around Kate’s final long speech about women’s obedience, but I note some irony there:
“KATE […] Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign—one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe…”
(Act 5 scene 2)
These lines she says to the widow, whom Hortensio marries for money—in other words, the widow’s the one providing “maintenance”. How ironic.
6/ I’ve just seen the ACT production of The Taming of the Shrew from 1976**. It is hysterical.
Petruchio (Marc Singer) is quick, dynamic, full of energy and magnetism, and—shall I say it—so hot. You can see that his energy matches Kate’s, his quick wit equals hers, he can impose his will on her, and they’re attracted to each other from the start.
I probably wouldn’t enjoy another production as much as this one.
*: This is something I saw in several high school movies. Have no idea if it happens in real life or not.
**: Watch it here, with subtitles.