Many of William Shakespeare’s plays were based on the idea of a woman’s role in marriage and her duty to her husband. He drew heavily from this argument, and The Taming of the Shrew is one of his plays that examines this controversial topic. Shakespeare made his female characters appear to be unworthy, shrill, and mean, and they often defied gender expectations. Many of his female characters were seen as bad women (such as in Twelfth Night), but have we perhaps misjudged them due to our prescribed gender expectations?
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is a play that portrays Katherine as a harsh, uncontrollable, and ill-tempered, when in fact she is the opposite. Her character is seen as an intolerable man-hater who needs to be tamed in order to be a “good” woman. Instead, the reader should sympathize with Katherine’s position as an oppressed woman who is unjustifiably labeled a shrew by the men who their own display incorrigible behavior.
In fact, Katherine is merely a woman who has been trapped in the role of the shrew by her insensitive father and sister, and she is simply trying to do the best that she can with what she has. In The Taming of the Shrew, women are held to a different standard than men and are even the victims of men disassociating their undesirable traits onto them, such as in the case of Petruchio and Katherine. I will show how Katherine’s actions are far more admirable and noble than her male counterparts, and that she has been judged harshly and wrongly.
It is ironic that Katherine is labeled as the shrew when her actions and words prove otherwise. Petruchio is attempting to tame Katherine, but in reality, he is one that needs to be tamed. Petruchio is the real shrew in the play, and his actions clearly show this. Petruchio is not only a shrew, but he is a relentless, unsatisfied chauvinist who gets his kicks from ordering people around and even abusing them, including his wife and servants.
Meanwhile, Katherine is unfairly held to an oppressive standard. There are many examples of this throughout the play. One example is in Act One, Scene 1, when Katherine converses with her sister Bianca’s suitors along with Bianca and her father. Katherine is portrayed as intolerable from the start: Gremio and Hortensio inform her that she will never be married if she does not become more docile and agreeable. At the very beginning of the play, Katherine is introduced as mean with a sharp tongue, and these are the same qualities that a typical shrew has, especially in Shakespeare’s time.
In response, Katherine threatens Gremio and Hortensio by beating them with three-legged stool and painting their faces with their blood. Though this sounds harsh, Katherine is simply reacting to the unfair way that she is being treated by the suitors. She is merely being defensive, and rightfully so. Hortensio and Gremio even call her a “devil” in this first scene and ask that the Lord protect them from her. This is all after they have both implied that Katherine is a whore, and she has overheard this. How else should she react when she obviously has been so unfairly judged at first glance?
Bianca is portrayed as more even-tempered than her sister, and this is particularly attractive to Lucentio. This is a good example that women who do not react and have a calmer demeanor are considered to be more attractive and better suited for a husband. This implies that Bianca would make a better wife than Katherine simply because Katherine is not afraid to speak her mind.
The end of Scene 1 from this First Act shows that Gremio and Hortensio have no choice but to look for a man who will marry Katherine. They comment to each other that it will be a difficult task to find a husband for her, for she is better suited for a devil and to be “married to hell.” They decide that they will only find a man to marry Katherine because it will free up Bianca to be married by her father.
The actions of Gremio and Hortensio show that they are selfish in their motives and that they are only agreeing to help Baptista for their own purpose. That purpose is to wind up with the calmer sister – the one who isn’t a shrew. It seems that Gremio and Hortensio are shrews themselves when it comes to women, for their own wants and needs come first. And they clearly see Katherine as a “devil woman” simply because she is not prim, proper, and obedient. They might even feel threatened by Katherine’s demeanor.
All of the men in the play make unfair allegations against Katherine. They accuse her of being boisterous, ill-mannered, stubborn, shrewd, duplicitous, and uncontrollable. The irony is that Petruchio is actually the character who is the most shrewd and bad-tempered. All of the characteristics that Katherine is accused of are all embodied in Petruchio. The first example of this is in Act One, Scene 2 when Petruchio treats his servant Grumio like dirt. He insults Grumio and hits him when he is afraid to take his orders. Grumio says that his master is “mad,” and Petruchio calls him a “villain” who better do what he says, or else. This is the first time we see Petruchio acting like a shrew, and definitely not the last.
Also, in Act One, Scene 2 Petruchio is offered the chance to marry Katherine for the first time, and he is immediately informed that she is a shrew and famous for her “scolding tongue.” Hortensio refers to her as “Katherine the curst.” Gremio doubts Petruchio’s declaration to woo Katherine to be his wife but then says that he may have the stomach to marry Katherine after all. This conversation further exemplifies the fact that Katherine is a shrew, but the men are actually the petty ones. They pick apart the poor woman’s demeanor for their own selfish needs: money and other women.
Petruchio is informed of Katherine’s supposed oppressive ways, and he sees it as a challenge. Petruchio insists that he has been through far worse in his life than dealing with a woman’s sharp tongue. The challenge to tame Katherine the “wild-cat” boosts Petruchio’s macho ego greatly.
When Petruchio goes to meet Katherine for the first time, he also meets her father. Baptista makes certain to warn Petruchio right from the start to be “arm’d for some unhappy words.” Petruchio shows his chauvinistic, shrewd side again when he is waiting to meet Katherine for the first time. He tells himself that he will woo her by telling her the opposite of what he really thinks about her. For instance, if she frowns, he will tell her that she looks “as clear as morning roses newly wash’d with dew.” If she orders him away, he will thank her as if she has given him permission to stay a week. And if Katherine refuses to marry him, he will ask the date of the wedding. This shows that Petruchio is sure of himself and his motives, and he will lie to her face to marry her.
Interestingly, Petruchio also calls Katherine “Kate” upon first meeting her, and continues to call her this throughout the play. Katherine insists that he call her “Katherina” when they meet, but his shrewdness won’t even allow him to call her what she wants to be called throughout their entire relationship.
Petruchio and Katherine’s first meeting is full of insults and back-and-forth banter that is obviously meant to show Katherine’s shrewdness again. But their first encounter actually seems to be flirtatious, much like a romantic date. Their verbal jousting shows that Katherine is actually quite the match for Petruchio with her smart, quick tongue. Petruchio pulls her onto his lap, and they even joke about oral sex. He attempts to woo her by telling her that what he was told about her harsh demeanor was wrong; she is actually gentle and playful and that her harshness is merely an act.
Petruchio finally tells her to stop the chit-chat and informs her that he will marry her whether she likes it or not. In this scene, Petruchio also declares his plan to tame Katherine from a wild cat to a domesticated one, confirming his intolerable, overbearing, selfish, and shrewd ways.
Katherine’s arrival for the wedding involves much bitterness on her part. She expresses that she does not love Petruchio and that she is being forced to marry a crazy man. She knows that his down-to-earth quality is merely a cover for his bad attitude and mocking behavior. Her father again refers to her as a shrew, and she cries in her despair. This does not seem like the actions of a woman who is an appointed evil woman. These are the actions of a desperate, hopeless woman who wants more for herself than to marry a man she does not love and who wants to tame her and change her personality.
The wedding of Katherine and Petruchio also displays Petruchio's chauvinistic behavior and extreme temper. He shows up at the wedding wearing a crazy, mismatched, old outfit. Petruchio behaves like a brute during the wedding, insulting his father-in-law so much that he eventually leaves. Gremio and Tranio discuss Petruchio’s rage in Act Three, Scene 2. It is revealed that Petruchio punched the priest who was performing his marriage ceremony. Katherine stood there helpless while she “trembled and shook.” She was no doubt in fear of this shrewd beast of a man that was about to become her husband. Gremio insists that Katherine is as gentle as a lamb and that Petruchio is actually the devil.
During her trip to Petruchio's house, Katherine gets another glimpse of the abusive and overbearing man she was forced to marry. She quickly finds out that Petruchio treats his servants poorly and abuses them. He constantly hits them for no reason at all. He accuses one of the servants of spilling water, and he hits him in front of Katherine. She is the kind person in the room who begs Petruchio to have mercy on the servant. Katherine is constantly showing her kind and gentle side by opposing his treatment of the servants. Simply put, Petruchio is incorrigible in his disgustingly shrewd ways.
At home, Petruchio’s taming strategies are harsh and unrelenting. He starves Katherine and deprives her of sleep, and he does all of this to control her. Act Four Scene 1 shows Petruchio satisfied with his domineering ways, as she is famished and denied. He promises that he will be unrelenting in his torturous techniques. He believes that this is how he will tame her once and for all. He tells Katherine that he does all of this out love, which is one of the typical responses that a domestic abuser says to defend their actions.
Katherine still manages to retain her independence a bit in Act Four Scene 3. Petruchio refuses to let her have the hat that was ordered because he wants her to have a bigger one. Katherine exclaims that she is “no child, no babe” and that her tongue will speak the anger that she feels in her heart. In this scene, Petruchio treats the tailor badly and explodes in anger once again.
Act Four, Scene 5 is the turning point for Katherine and her “taming.” Petruchio forces her to switch the words “moon” and “sun.” No matter what, she has to abide by this, even though she knows it to be untrue. It is at this point that Katherine gives in to her husband’s ridiculous rhetoric. She has finally given in, and from this point on, she will be the obedient and docile wife that Petruchio wants her to be for him. Katherine does not challenge Petruchio or become defiant, and we can gather that it is at this point that she is finally tamed.
Katherine’s last speech is of crucial importance to her supposed transformation from an independent woman who is not afraid to speak her mind to a woman who says that speaking her mind is ugly and unappealing. The transformation is amazingly quick, and Petruchio declares her “a good woman.”
Katherine’s final speech is chock full of anecdotes from the quintessential obedient wife. She tells her sister and the widow that a woman’s duty is to serve her man, who is her lord. She says that men work hard to take care of their women, and they should be rewarded by love and pleasantries around the clock. She goes on to declare that a woman should “serve, love, and obey” her husband. Katherine implies that women are weak, and they are nothing without the taming of a man.
All of the above examples show that Katherine is indeed not the shrew after all. In actuality, she is a victim of Petruchio's shrewdness. She has to learn how to survive with his harsh and overbearing temper, and she has to learn how to submit to him. All of the allegations that the men in the play make about Katherine – that she is boisterous, ill-mannered, bad-tempered, stubborn, shrewd, duplicitous, and uncontrollable – are in fact false. It is the men in the play who are motivated by self-interests. It is the men in the play who have bad tempers and quick tongues that give frequent lashings. It is the men who hold the women to unfair standards while they expect them to be obedient and quiet.
Katherine had a mind of her own before she married Petruchio, and now she is a victim who has succumbed to the shrew. Petruchio succeeded in transforming her into the woman he claimed to make her become. She has been tamed to serve her man, and she supposedly feels that all women should do the same.
It seems that Katherine was mild-mannered, agreeable, obedient, appeasing, and perhaps too honest for her own good right from the start. If she hadn’t had these qualities in the beginning, it is doubtful that she would have even given Petruchio the time of day, regardless of her father’s wishes and motives. The portrayal of Katherine was unfair and unjust because it only showed Katherine that the chauvinistic men saw, and it failed to show the real Katherine.
One explanation for Katherine’s apparent submission to her husband’s will could be the fact that she is simply acting to get what she desires. Simply put, it is possible that Katherine is merely acting. She knows that she must obey in order to get what she really wants. She wants to retain her feminine power by being a good wife to Petruchio and showing her devotion to everyone in public. However, she will gain social power in society in the role of Petruchio’s wife.
Perhaps Katherine does not wish to be an old maid. The only way to avoid this is to deal with Petruchio in the best way that she can. Whatever her motives are, it does not seem as though she would give up easily. It is doubtful that such a strong-willed woman could submit to a man so easily, even though women during Shakespeare’s time were expected to obey their fathers until they were “owned” by their husbands.
Gender played a great part in the socials roles of Elizabethan times. Marriages were arranged in a business-like fashion, as in Katherine’s and Petruchio’s marriage. Women’s roles involved producing family heirs, and marriage was more or less a business deal. It is doubtful that Katherine could oppose these apparent cemented social roles, so perhaps she decided to stop fighting and join the cause. The difference is that Katherine did it for her own best interests in the long run.