1. The Taming of the Shrew is a challenge to our understanding of gender both in Shakespeare's day and in our own. What are we supposed to make of a play where the heroine is referred to as a "shrew" and her new husband is presented as a "tamer"? As we will see later in the course, Shakespeare has some complicated and playful ideas about gender. Here in The Taming of the Shrew he gives us several angles of vision on sexual relationships which are focused for us partly through the three plots of the play.

2. What has made the play popular for four centuries is certainly the story of the tempestuous relationship between Kate and Petruchio. Different characters have different views of what is happening between the two lovers, and we have many interpretations to choose among. But before we propose interpretations, let's look at the three plots of the play and discover what clues we can. The story of Kate and Petruchio, and Bianca and Lucentio, is framed by an "Induction," two scenes about a practical joke played on one Christopher Sly, "old Sly's son of Burton-heath, by birth a peddler, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bearherd, and now by present profession a tinker" (Ind.2.17-21). Fallen asleep in a country alehouse, Sly is discovered by a Lord and his hunting party, who decide to present him with the fiction that he is actually a nobleman who has been "lunatic" for fifteen years, and is just recovered. Everything Sly thinks he knows is presented to him as a dream.

3. The two "inner" plots, running side by side and intertwining, tell the stories of relationships where much lies hidden from the lovers themselves. Does Kate know why she is unhappy? Does Petruchio know what he's in for? Does Bianca know what she really wants? Does Lucentio know the "real" Bianca? We are prompted to think about these questions by the Sly Induction, which is all about appearances and identity. The Lord is a deceiver, and Sly is happily taken in. (We never see the outcome of this framing plot, although there is an older play called "The Taming of A Shrew" where Sly wakes up in the end, back in his old clothes and his old life.) But for our purposes, Sly settles down with his "wife" to watch the inner plots put on for his benefit by the traveling players:

Sly. Marry, I will let them play it. Is not a comontie a Christmas gambold or a tumbling trick?

Page. No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff.

Sly. What, household stuff?

Page. It is a kind of history.

Sly. Well, we'll see't. Come, madam wife, sit by my side
And let the world slip. We shall ne'er be younger. (Ind. 1.2.137-143)

Sly watches the same play we do, at least for one scene, before he falls asleep. And if we are not asleep too, we can see that his fantasy is not so far removed from the dreams and play-acting of the other characters in the play. As Sly puts it:

Am I a lord and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak.
I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.
Upon my life I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker nor Christopher Sly. (Ind.2.68-73)

Kate, Petruchio, Bianca, and Lucentio all have their dreams, and they are willing to act the parts they think will make their dreams come true.

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. Let's look first at a clip from a stage production of the second scene of the Induction:


The Induction is rarely played, and does not appear in the BBC or Zeffirelli versions. But we can see from this clip how images of the theater (costuming, acting, role-playing) establish the idea that the characters of this play take on roles to adapt to new circumstances. The Lord wants to amuse himself by playing a practical joke on Sly, and Sly is delighted to find himself transformed. Petruchio wants to marry a woman with money, and Kate wants to escape a household where she's miserable. From these initial steps other steps follow: the Lord's page takes on the disguise of Sly's "wife"; Hortensio disguises himself as a music tutor to get close to Bianca; Lucentio becomes a language tutor; Tranio pretends to be Lucentio to negotiate the dowry settlement.

5. As we see these patterns emerge, take a look at this chart:

Shakespearian Comedy

There are three descending columns, each suggesting parts of Shakespeare's comic pattern.The middle one, "Conflict," describes how characters behave, or "act," in their own self-interest. Note for now that we can separate their behaviors by the way they respond to "external" conflicts (the need to get around other people) and "internal" conflicts" (the need to discover who they really are and what they really want).

6. Consider Kate's situation as she first appears:

Baptista. Gentlemen, importune me no farther,
For how I firmly am resolved you know,
That is, not bestow my youngest daughter
Before I have a husband for the elder.
If either of you both love Katharina,
Because I know you well and love you well,
Leave shall you have to court her at your pleasure.

Gremio. To cart her rather: she's too rough for me.
There, there, Hortensio, will you any wife?

Kate. I pray you, sir, is it your will
To make a stale of me amongst these mates? (1.1.48-58)

Kate objects to being treated like a "stale," or prostitute, since her father does seem to be selling her in the street. Clearly her younger sister, Bianca, is the family favorite, and the BBC production shows Kate in great distress in 2.1:

BBC Shrew 2.1

We can only speculate what the history of this family is: when the mother died, when Bianca became her father's darling. But Kate seems strongly motivated to change her living conditions.

7. Not every production takes Kate's distress so seriously. In this clip from a production in Stratford, Ontario, the point seems to be to have fun with the lines:

CBC Shrew 2.1

Bianca teases Kate unmercifully, and may leave an audience more sympathetic towards the "elder" sister. In the film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton swagger their way through a literal battle of the sexes:

Zeff Shr

In the last three video excerpts, we have seen three styles of presentation with some marked differences. Besides differing interpretations of the characters' personalities and motives, the actual video styles make us react differently. The BBC version is a studio production, with lots of quiet close-ups and no musical score or elaborate visual effects. It's meant for a TV audience at home, and is better suited to a thoughtful interpretation. The Stratford, Ontario version is presented to a live audience, whom we can hear and sometimes see. The style of presentation is broader and encourages vocal audience reaction. In the Zeffirelli film, there are more changes to the text and more emphasis on visual effects; this is typical of Shakespeare films. The story of Bianca and Lucentio is shifted to the side, literally, as we see only snippets of scenes when Petruchio opens doors where the scenes are playing, and quickly shuts them. This tactic certainly echoes the audience's primary interest in Kate and Petruchio.

Here are two recreations of Shakespeare's theater. The first is the New Globe Theatre in London, seen here during its inaugural production of Henry V in 1996:


The next is from the film Shakespeare in Love. Notice how close the audience is to the players in both clips.


8. Now we can begin to investigate Petruchio. Richard Burton's version is hardly subtle: he's willing to fight it out with Kate until she gives in, exhausted. True, he is sympathetic as she limps away, accompanied by swelling romantic music, but he is the victor. Yet this is not the only way to see this couple, thankfully, and Shakespeare has written lines which allow actors and directors to find very different sides to the scenes. In the BBC version, John Cleese plays Petruchio as a thoughtful, calculating suitor. He earlier told his friend Hortensio:

But in a few,
Signior Hortensio, thus it stands with me:
Antonio my father is deceased;
And I have thrust myself into this maze,
Happily to wive and thrive as best I may.
Crowns in my purse I have and goods at home
And so am come abroad to see the world.

Hortensio. Petruchio, shall I then come roundly to thee
And wish thee to a shrewd ill-favor'd wife?
Thou'ldst thank me but a little for my counsel—
And yet I'll promise thee she shall be rich,
And very rich—but thou'rt too much my friend,
And I'll not wish thee to her.

Petruchio. Signior Hortensio, 'twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice; and therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio's wife—
As wealth is burden of my wooing dance—
Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates' Xanthippe, or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes, at least,
Affection's edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas.
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua. (1.2.51-75)

He needs a strategy to use on Kate, and here we see John Cleese's reading from the BBC production:

BBC SHREW 2.1.170

This scene presents both Petruchio and Kate as serious and combative persons, but there are interesting hints at an evolving relationship. Petruchio has a playful side (clucking like a chicken) and Kate endures his determined wooing, even remaining silent at his assertion to her father that they will be married.

9. What do they see in each other? Petruchio may have a keen eye on the dowry, but does he also have an insight into Kate's anger? Why does Kate give tacit agreement to the setting of the wedding day? The director of the BBC version, Jonathan Miller, places a large mirror on the wall where we can see Petruchio and Kate reflected, and they can see themselves as well. Is it possible that they can change and grow in understanding as the play goes along? All productions do not agree, however, and this clip from an American Conservatory Theater production seems to suggest that the attraction is mainly hormonal:


10. When Kate shows up for the wedding (and who could get her to the church if she was unwilling?) she is humiliated when Petruchio is late, deliberately so it seems. This scene (3.2) is a tricky one. Notice that Shakespeare does not show the scene inside the church, but gives a narrative account of it to Gremio, who calls Petruchio "a devil, a very fiend"(155):

Tranio. Why, she's a devil, a devil, the devil's dam.

Gremio. Tut, she's a lamb, a dove, a fool to him.
I'll tell you, Sir Lucentio, when the priest
Should ask, if Katharina should be his wife,
"Ay, by goggs-wounes!" quoth he and swore so loud,
That, all amazed, the priest let fall the book,
And as he stoop'd again to take it up,
The mad-brained bridegroom took him such a cuff
That down fell priest and book and book and priest.
"Now take them up," quoth he, "if any list."

Tranio. What said the wench when he rose again?

Gremio. Trembled and shook, for why, he stamp'd and swore,
As if the vicar meant to cozen him.
But after many ceremonies done
He calls for wine. "A health!" quoth he as if
He had been aboard, carousing to his mates
After a storm; quaffed off the muscadel
And threw the sops all in the sexton's face
Having no other reason
But that his beard grew thin and hungerly,
And seemed to ask him sops as he was drinking.
This done, he took the bride about the neck
And kiss'd her lips with such a clamorous smack
That at the parting all the church did echo,
And I, seeing this, came thence for very shame.
And after me, I know, the rout is coming.
Such a mad marriage never was before: (156-182)

If Petruchio is to retain any sympathy from the audience, this scene must remain a story where we do not have to witness the appalling ruin of Kate's bridal day. Our attention is quickly shifted to the comic debacle that follows the ceremony, where the marital battle lines are drawn:

BBC Shrew wedding

11. At this point we may speculate on possible interpretations of the evolving relationship: Is Petruchio the successful tamer of a shrew? Is he a clever psychologist who knows how to free Kate from the bondage of her family? Does Kate learn to go underground and get her way by seeming to give in? Does there have to be a winner and a loser? In the excerpt we just saw, Kate's emphasis on pleasing herself is trumped by Petruchio's outrageous chauvinism:

Kate. Nay, then,
Do what thou canst, I will not go to-day,
No, nor tomorrow, not till I please myself.
The door is open, sir, there lies your way.
You may be jogging whiles your boots are green;
For me, I'll not be gone till I please myself.
'Tis like you'll prove a jolly surly groom,
That take it on you at the first so roundly.

Petruchio. O Kate, content thee; prithee, be not angry.

Kate. I will be angry: what hast thou to do?
Father, be quiet; he shall stay my leisure.

Gremio. Ay, marry, sir, now it begins to work.

Kate. Gentlemen, forward to the bridal dinner.
I see a woman may be made a fool
If she had not a spirit to resist.

Petruchio. They shall go forward, Kate, at thy command.
Obey the bride, you that attend on her.
Go to the feast, revel and domineer,
Carouse full measure to her maidenhead,
Be mad and merry, or go hang yourselves.
But for my bonny Kate, she must with me.
Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret;
I will be master of what is mine own:
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing,
And here she stands. Touch her whoever dare;
I'll bring mine action on the proudest he
That stops my way in Padua. Grumio,
Draw forth thy weapon, we are beset with thieves.
Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man.
Fear not, sweet wench; they shall not touch
thee, Kate.
I'll buckler thee against a million.
Exeunt Petruchio, Kate [and Grumio].

Then we leave the happy couple to their wedding journey. On the face of it, this seems to fit the image of Petruchio as a tamer, not an understanding liberator of the oppressed Kate. But the major test of the characters and of our ideas soon follows, at Petruchio's country house.

12. The BBC production lets us in on a startling view of Petruchio at the end of 4.1, quite the opposite of the assertive tamer:

BBC Shrew 4.1

Petruchio is exhausted and not altogether confident. What is usually the most triumphant victory speech in the play is instead a somewhat desperate wish for domestic peace. Can it be that Petruchio wishes for a truly mutual relationship? He earlier told us that appearances are trivial:

To me she's married, not unto my clothes.
Could I repair what she will wear in me
As I can change these poor accoutrements,
'Twere well for Kate and better for myself. (3.2.117-120)

This same imagery of clothing will be a telling point in the scenes to follow, as this production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park shows:

Delacorte TS

Meryl Streep and Raul Julia give us the actors' insights into their characters, and help establish an interpretation that is probably the most palatable for a modern audience. Kate and Petruchio have learned to play a private game that shuts off the rest of the world, and frees them to be whatever they want to be. On the road to Padua for Bianca's wedding, Petruchio proposes a practical joke to play on an old man, who turns out to be Lucentio's father:

[To Vincentio]
Good morrow, gentle mistress; where away?
Tell me, sweet Kate, and tell me truly too,
Hast thou beheld a fresher gentlewoman?
Such war of white and red within her cheeks!
What stars do spangle heaven with such beauty
As those two eyes become that heavenly face?
Fair lovely maid, once more good day to thee.
Sweet Kate, embrace her for her beauty's sake.

Hortensio. A' will make the man mad, to make a woman of him.

Kate. Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,
Whither away, or where is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child!
Happier the man, whom favorable stars
Allot thee for his lovely bed-fellow!

Petruchio. Why, how now, Kate. I hope thou art not mad.
This is a man, old, wrinkled, faded, wither'd,
And not a maiden, as thou say'st he is.

Kate. Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes
That have been so bedazzled with the sun
That everything I look on seemeth green.
Now I perceive thou art a reverend father;
Pardon, I pray thee, for my mad mistaking.

Petruchio. Do, good old grandsire; and withal make known
Which way thou travellest. If along with us,
We shall be joyful of thy company.

Vincentio. Fair sir, and you my merry mistress,
That with your strange encounter much amazed me...(4.5.27-54)

Kate seems to be having a wonderful time, as this scene from the ACT production suggests:


13. When they appear at the wedding banquet, their game is to astonish the company with their peaceful relationship. Now the true contrast with Biance and Lucentio is revealed, as Lucentio discovers that Bianca is not about to play the docile wife, coming at his command. Kate takes center stage for a long and, I think, ironic speech about wifely obedience. Since we can see that she and Petruchio have reached a mutual amity, her images of male dominance are just part of the joke:

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;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience:
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband,
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord? (5.2.146-160)



Fresh responses to Shakespeare are happy moments. A few years ago I saw a production of The Taming of the Shrew at Yale Rep in New Haven. It was an all male production, echoing the conditions of Shakespeare's stage, although the female roles were played by actors older than Elizabethan boys. The interesting thing about this show is that we were prompted to see that the play suddenly was about men's ideas about women, since men were portraying women. It was great fun and very enlightening. As we left the theater, I remarked that the next logical step was to have an all female cast. Sure enough, the next summer in London, at the new Globe, women acted all the parts, and by all accounts the play was about women's ideas about men.

For our first response paper, find an interpretation of part of the play that you would like to propose. In my remarks above, I asked a number of questions about characters and motives. You can also draw on the performances you have seen, articles in the back of the Signet edition, the Signet Introduction, and websites I have steered you to.

The key to writing a good response (of about five pages) is to be specific. Quote from the play and from critics, and refer to particular moments in the videos. I like to begin the course with this play because it is so open to different interpretations, without changing any lines or leaving out any scenes. So feel free to propose your own ideas, and to disagree with any actors or critics. Just be specific.

In the Signet edition, you'll find some fine critical essays: the Introduction by Robert Heilman, essays by Maynard Mack, Germaine Greer, Alexander Leggatt, Linda Bamber, Karen Newman, Camille Slights. There are also essays on the history of the play's text, sources, and stage history. In our electronic syllabus, there is a fine (and difficult) article by Paul Yachnin. As you refer to any of these critics, quote them and give the page number or web address.

I'll grade your paper and send it back with comments. You can rewrite it and take the rewrite grade. In fact, you can rewrite multiple times. Feel free to contact me if you have trouble getting started.


Back to Dr. Regan's Home Page