The Taming of the Shrew
Katherina — the shrew of the title, also called Kate
Petruchio — a gentleman from Verona
Bianca — Kate's younger sister
Baptista Minola — one of the wealthiest men in Padua; father of the two girls
Lucentio — a young student from Pisa who is in love with Bianca
Tranio — Lucentio's servant
Gremio and Hortensio — Bianca's suitors
Grumio — Petruchio's servant
The Taming of the Shrew is an early comedy, loosely termed “romantic” along with Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Such plays are lighthearted and often slapstick in style, filled with disguises and deception, and end happily. This is in sharp contrast to the later comedies that are much darker and filled with cynicism and a sometimes bitter irony. (The “Romances,” on the other hand, are called such because they use material from old adventure stories and often invoke magic.)
The Taming of the Shrew is clearly a young playwright's work and focuses more squarely on marriage than almost any other of the early comedies. While the other plays end with a marriage, The Taming of the Shrew takes this almost as a starting point, following the early days of married life.
The average sixteenth-century playgoer was interested in discussions about marriage, in part because Henry VIII's separation from the Catholic Church in 1536 was brought about by wrangling over a divorce. (Shakespeare dealt with this subject more directly in his play King Henry VIII. Henry named himself “Defender of the Faith,” a title still held by British monarchs, and formed the Church of England.) When the Pope refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry took matters into his own hands. He declared himself head of the church in England and had his marriage nullified in order to clear the way for his second marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII is often remembered for his six wives. He divorced two and beheaded two; one died after giving birth, and one survived him.
The plot was familiar to Elizabethan audiences, being drawn from popular ballads and folktales such as “A Merry Jest of a Shrewde Curste Wyfe” published in 1550. In the ballad the woman is thrashed to a bloody pulp and then wrapped in the salted skin of an old horse.
This recent history would be very much on the minds of an Elizabethan audience. Great pain, death, and turmoil had resulted from the break with Rome. Unless you were a determined king of England willing to suffer excommunication, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries offered few ways out of an unhappy marriage, so the resolution of marital disputes was a hot topic in the popular literature of the era.
Elizabethan marriages were still being made along medieval lines — they were far more often made for money, land, or power than for love. A woman had few options for survival when set adrift from the rule and support of a man, either her father or her husband, and less often, her brother. The fact that Queen Elizabeth I never married was cause for great concern to Elizabethans because of its potential to undermine the power structure of society.
Of particular worry among men, were “shrews” or “scolds,” that is, cantankerous or gossipy women who resisted or undermined the natural authority of their husbands or fathers. A large number of sermons, plays, and pamphlets of the time address related topics: the taming of shrews by their husbands or the public punishment of scolds (by repeated dunking in a river, for example). Some of this literature is diplomatic, and some is clearly misogynistic. It's difficult to sometimes tell (perhaps deliberately so) what is meant as parody and what is being presented as an ideal. This is also true for The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare's own marriage, at least at first, is thought not to have been the greatest, and he spent many years of it living apart from his family in London, while they stayed on in Stratford.
The main part of The Taming of the Shrew is set in Padua, a city in northern Italy. To Elizabethan England, Italy was a beautiful country of rich food, loose women, and generally materialistic and pleasurable living. It became a favorite setting of Shakespeare and his contemporaries for plays involving deceit, money, beautiful women, cross-dressing, or anything worth taking a little sinful pleasure in — but at a safe distance from England.
This idea of “viewing from a distance” is particularly true of The Taming of the Shrew, because it has an “outer” and an “inner” play. The frame, or outer play, is actually set in the English countryside and consists of only the first two scenes, called the Induction, where a group of English actors prepare to present the inner play, the story of Kate and Petruchio.
The Outer Play
Outside an alehouse somewhere in England, a beggar named Christopher Sly is arguing with the hostess of the alehouse. The hostess leaves to fetch the local authorities, and Sly passes out, drunk.
A passing lord decides to have some fun with the sleeping beggar. The lord decides to see if, with the right surroundings, he can convince a common man that he is really of high birth. So he orders his servants to take Sly back to his house and treat him as if he were a lord.
At the house, the servants place Sly in the lord's bed with fine clothes and jewelry, and the Lord disguises himself as one of the serving men. When Sly awakes, they present him with good wine and food and tell him that he is their master. He protests that he remembers being a poor tinker (a mender of pots). They tell him this memory is the result of a madness he has been in for fifteen years. They put on quite a show, pleading and wailing in feigned distress at his continued illness, but Sly is still skeptical.
When his “wife” is brought in — a male page dressed up as a woman — he is finally convinced. The servants are overjoyed that his “memory” has returned, and they wish to entertain him. As luck would have it, a group of players happen to be in town, and they prepare to put on a play for the enjoyment of Sly and his wife.
The “play within a play” forms the main action of The Taming of the Shrew. The text only returns to Sly briefly after this Induction, and it never concludes his story.
The Play within a Play
Lucentio arrives in Padua with his manservant Tranio to study at the university. Baptista, a wealthy merchant of Padua, has two daughters, Katherina and Bianca. Lucentio falls in love with Bianca, the younger and kinder daughter, and becomes one of several suitors who vie for her hand. Lucentio and Tranio (his servant) switch clothes, and thus disguised, Lucentio offers his services as a tutor for Bianca in order to get closer to her.
Because of her older sister Katherina's shrewish disposition, Bianca's father has declared that no one will marry Bianca until Katherina has a husband. The suitors are beside themselves. Enter Petruchio, in Padua to visit his friend Hortensio (one of Bianca's suitors). Petruchio is attracted to Katherina's large dowry, and Hortensio sees a potential solution to his problem, which will put him in good stead with Baptista.
Despite all the warnings he gets about the fiery Kate, Petruchio claims that he finds her charming and pleasant. The marriage is arranged, and Petruchio immediately sets out to tame Kate — who prefers to be called “Katherine.” He shows up late to his own wedding, constantly contradicts whatever she says, calling the sun the moon, refuses to give her food until she agrees with him, and so on. Finally, an exhausted Kate is “tamed” into docility.
The matches of Kate and Petruchio and Lucentio and Bianca become contrasting versions of marriage. It is interesting to compare the concept of love and partnership in more mature men and women in The Taming of the Shrew with Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
Lucentio wins Bianca's heart and Hortensio happily marries a rich widow in Padua. Petruchio and Kate return for Bianca's wedding. During the wedding feast, Petruchio makes a bet with the other two new husbands that he has the most obedient wife. Knowing her previous behavior the men take the bet, only to discover that Petruchio really has “tamed” his wife. In a complete turnabout, Kate gives Bianca a lecture on how to be a good and loving and obedient wife.
When you watch The Taming of the Shrew, it's important to remember the context of the play. In Elizabethan times marriages were made to secure and increase property far more often than because the potential bride and groom loved each other. People were married without ever having courted. Spouses hoped to learn to love their partner once they were wed. There's no guarantee that love at first sight brings greater happiness in marriage than the slowly developed, consistent love of a couple who learn to live with and for each other.
The fatal, overpowering passions of Romeo and Juliet are not the best basis for a marriage, Shakespeare suggests. Petruchio and Kate end up being well matched. Only a happy-go-lucky, persistent, self-assured man like Petruchio could break through Kate's defenses. Few, including her father, have been able to say no to her, but Petruchio enjoys it.
She is shocked when Petruchio is late for their wedding, and her reaction is not anger at being stood up, but fear she will die a lonely old maid. She wants a relationship of mutual respect. But to get there she must rethink her whole attitude toward men. Petruchio's attempts to stifle and humiliate her are meant only to force her to stop blindly lashing out. She must see him for who he is and what he can give her.
The result is that Kate can enjoy her married life and find an equal partner. She finally reveals near the end of the play that she can love her husband in married life without feeling she has somehow lost her earlier independence that brought her only anger and distress. It is this revelation that she tries to teach her younger sister at the end of the play.
“I'll not budge an inch” (Induction, Scene I).
“And thereby hangs a tale” (Act IV, Scene I).
“Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
“Who wooed in haste, and means to wed at leisure” (Act III, Scene II).