Monday, September 19, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew: The Breaking of Katherine's Spirit

The Breaking of Katherine's Spirit

There are several themes in The Taming of the Shrew that would be interesting to explore. The purpose of Sly and the whole Induction scenes, omitted in all the movie versions I've seen, and their connection to the rest of the play, is one of them. Bianca's character is another. The role of education and the gentle ridicule of it is a third and a fourth is the role of disguises and unclear identities. But I find that I can't see these things clearly until I've confronted the glaring question of the relationship between Katherine and Petruccio. The rest fades – unfortunately because there is much to explore there – behind the incendiary confrontations between the two.

Many have already looked at this, of course, and in the little that I have explored in others' interpretations I am disconcerted, if not worse, to see that it is so often interpreted as a love story, a perfect match. In these cases there are two schools of thought. The first is that Katherine in her submission is being ironic. The other is that she is not. In both cases, she loves him.

In the first case, Katherine's final speech is seen as an indication that she is essentially pretending to give in to Petruccio but has clearly tamed him instead, showing that she will in future be running things while letting him imagine that he is, and that she is a docile wife. This was evidently the case in the 1929 film version with Mary Pickford and her famous wink (which I have not seen), and it is the case in Harold Bloom's claim that Katherine is “advising women how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience” (page 33). While I often enjoy Bloom, agree with him and am inspired by him, this, I find, is a blatant example of the patriarchal power structure in which the powerful (men) pretend condescendingly, knowingly, amusedly, resentfully or violently, that falsely obedient women really have the power over the men. This power play effectively disarms the women by diminishing them into...guess what. Manipulative shrews. This is a universal theme in literature and often a fact in real life relationships. So even if it is wishful thinking among those who don't want to see Katherine as a loser and those who would like to see this as a love match, I find that this interpretation diminishes her while pretending to give her power. It also demeans (out of fear) the very real survival technique of pretending to submit while actually resisting that the oppressed everywhere have always used.

The other interpretation, that she is not being ironic, that she is truly submissive because she loves him, is even worse. The 1967 Zeffirelli film version is a perfect example. Throughout the film we see Elizabeth Taylor's beautiful eyes secretly following Petruccio through holes in the wall and such-like and as Deborah Cartmell points out in her essay in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, Katherine “becomes the ideal 1960s housewife, complete with headscarf, having the time of her life tidying up and feminising a long neglected male domain” (pages 217-218). The film of course ends with Taylor's dewy-eyed gaze at the children playing around the banquet table and her adoring eyes turned on Petruccio at the end of her speech. In other words, the movie is filled with the use of mechanisms that allow men to continue to use violence against their collaborating wives in the name of love.

So. OK. Love. Is this a love story? Yes, say Bloom and his friends. Bloom uses such words as “mutual triumph”, “the happiest married couple in Shakespeare” and “charming scene of married life.” Bloom even insults those of us who don't agree with him by describing us as “tone-deaf or ideologically crazed” if we can't hear the “subtly exquisite music of marriage at its happiest” and “very literal-minded” not to see the “delicious irony of Kate's undersong” (pages 28-35). In fact, he calls those of us who see problems with the love interpretation as a problem ourselves. Fine. If Bloom has a problem with that, that's his problem. If he calls it “literal-minded” to interpret what Shakespeare has actually written instead of seeing the play as a rambunctious romp between two zany but adorable sexpots then I am more than happy to be literal-minded, even ideologically crazed. Because what we have to go on is in fact the text itself. And in that text, I suggest that we will not find a love story but a portrait of a strong woman who is trying to find a place in a society that does not accept strong women, a strong woman who is defeated. I suggest that The Taming of the Shrew is a portrait of a woman whose spirit is broken.

I will show this first by discovering the characters of Katherine and Petruccio as presented in the text, second by exploring the meetings between them and finally by looking at what Katherine actually says in her final speech.

In the movie versions I have seen (The BBC version, Zeffirelli and Shakespeare Retold) Katherine is presented as a screaming, hysterical and violent harridan who throws things and throws tantrums. There is evidence in the text of her violence. Shakespeare's stage directions tell her to strike Bianca, Petruccio and Grumio, and we are told that she breaks a lute over Hortensio's head. She also, for some unspecified reason, ties Bianca's hands. No, these are not signs of a gentle person but these indications are evenly matched by Petruccio's abuse of Grumio and his threat to strike Katherine if she hits him again. Is it possible that Katherine's violence is used in frustration over situations that give her no room for standing up for herself while Petruccio's violence is simple exertion of what he sees as his right as a man of the nobility? This could be explored!

So Shakespeare indicates in both of these characters unadmirable and unlikeable tendencies toward violence.

But a shouting, screaming, hysterical Katherine is not to be found in the text. What we find in Act One, Scene One is an older sister who is outshone by the spoiled and beautiful Bianca and who is forced to watch their father favoring Bianca and rejecting her. This has undoubtedly been going on all of the sisters' lives and Katherine has learned to counter it by verbally sticking up for herself. When we first see them, Baptista has declared that Katherine must marry before Bianca. His friends reject Katherine as “too rough” and Katherine reasonably asks her father if he intends to make a “stale” of her among these men. The Norton edition explains a “stale” as a laughingstock, or a prostitute or a decoy for Bianca. Whichever of these definitions we choose, Katherine is justifiably protesting against being offered by her father as a figure of contempt and little worth. Her father does not even reply and she tartly responds to Gremio's and Hortensio's rejection of her by retorting that even if she did want to marry, she would take care to abuse him (rather than be abused!).

The scene continues with Baptista showing more favor for Bianca and brusquely telling Katherine that he has nothing more to say to her but wishes to talk to Bianca whom he has just told he loves and whom he has praised to the eager wooers. Katherine understandably retorts that she doesn't like being told what to do.

So it is in Act 1.1 where it is established that Katherine isn't afraid to speak up for herself. That is enough, as Shakespeare undoubtedly understood, to get herself called a shrew. No screaming, shouting or hysterics necessary.

Next scene enter Petruccio, beating Grumio, his servant, about the ears over an exchange of nonsense and presenting himself as a fortune hunter out to marry the richest woman he can find. Even at this point Grumio expresses pity for the woman who marries Petruccio.

Petruccio himself is so arrogant and self-centered that he proclaims to be unbothered by Katherine's reported shrewishness and he proceeds in Act 2.1 to bargain with Baptista for Katherine's hand. Before meeting her he plans his strategy of countering her every manner by declaring it to be the opposite. Talk about manipulative!

So here we have the two characters: Katherine, a young woman rejected by her father and suitors alike, constantly being compared unfavorably with her sweet beautiful younger sister and using sharp words to hold her own. And Petruccio, a self-confessed money-hungry schemer.

And so they meet, in the wild and rapid-fire exchange, in which he starts out by belittling her (in the guise of affection) by using the diminutive “Kate” against her express wishes (as Bloom and others do) then proceeds alternatively to taunt her with her reputation as a shrew and woo her with honeyed words. She, however, consistently insults him and rejects his wooing. Bloom claims that “[t]hough you have to read carefully to see it, Petruccio is accurate when he insists that Kate fell in love with him at first sight” (page 29). However, Bloom very carefully does not give a quote that shows this because it simply is not there. There is nothing in this exchange that indicates that Katherine falls in love with Petruccio. Yes, it's possible that she sees in him a potential escape route from a father who neither loves nor respects her, nor even accepts her, and it's possible that she regards Petruccio as no worse than any other man so she might as well marry him since in her society all women had to get married eventually, but in fact she clearly regards Petruccio as a witless lunatic and she in no way consents happily to the marriage. At most she goes along with it in resignation.

Only to be humiliated on her wedding day, in Act 3.2 to be shamed by the man to whom she “must forsooth be forced, to give [her] hand opposed against [her] heart”, first when he doesn't show up on time and then when he shows up “fantastically dressed” in a way that is according to Baptista an “eyesore” and an insult to them all. And when he does show up, Katherine is given no opportunity to speak but is rushed into the church for the wedding.

Which we do not see but which is vividly reported by Gremio whose sympathies now lie with Katherine. Petruccio's outrageous behavior in the church is seen by Eric S. Mallin in Godless Shakespeare as an attack on the figure the Christian god/church, to which Katherine (and everybody else, of course) must bow, in a “forced conversion” of forced obedience onto him, Pettrucio (page 53). This done, he establishes himself as her new master with a shocking kiss. Kisses are clearly Petruccio's means of establishing ownership, since he demands them consistently of Katherine throughout the play.

So they are married, more or less against her will, and now she's trapped.

She continues to try to assert her will, he continues to crush it. He refuses to stay for the wedding dinner. She entreats him, then demands, asserting her right to demand, then tells him to go if he wants to but she's staying. He quickly establishes his order of things by calling himself master and her his goods and chattel, his house, his stuff, his barn, his horse, ox and ass, his anything. (Act 3.3). With violence - “Grumio, draw thy weapon” - he abducts her, as always in the case of abusive, possessive husbands, in the name of love: “Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate.”

In Act 4.1 we hear Grumio's report of their journey in which Petruccio treats both Katherine and Grumio violently because her horse fell; to which Curtis replies accurately that “he's more shrew than she.”

Next we see Petruccio's abuse of his staff and his refusal to let Katherine eat, and in his soliloquy his continued strategy of breaking her will by treating her like a falcon, a wild free bird who can only be tamed by starvation and sleep deprivation, which are well known in our modern world as an effective means of torture. All of which Petruccio sums up as “a way to kill [!] a wife with kindness.” Kindness!

Katherine complains to Grumio, who pretends to sympathize but who follows Petruccio's orders and gives her nothing to eat.

Katherine continues to resist but obtains neither cap nor promised gown.

Petruccio pushes her farther and farther down, all the while castigating her for continuing to cross and contradict him, in fact for telling him he's wrong when he's wrong.

Finally, in resignation, Katherine gives into his lunacy, agreeing with everything his says no matter how ridiculous.

She makes one last attempt in Act 5.1 to get permission to do as she wishes (being married now, she clearly cannot act on her own accord) by asking Petruccio to stay and watch what happens with Bianco, Lucentio and the fathers.

Petruccio's price? A kiss. A public manifestation of what he has established, not as a private symbol of love but as proof of ownership. She is rightly reluctant, but again she is resigned to her entrapment. If she wants anything, she must do as he demands. This is not a charming scene of a happy marriage. It is a clear example of marriage as enforced prostitution – physical payment in return for something that should be hers anyway, the right to go and do as she wishes.

At the banquet then, in the final scene, first Katherine's abasement is cruelly pointed out by the widow and then, finally, the speech.

Before we look at that however, let's recap Katherine's situation. She has grown up and spent some adult years with a father who openly prefers her sister and who is clearly very anxious to get rid of her. The people who know her call her a shrew, a devil, rough, ill-favored and so on. She is then within a few days married off to a scheming, abusive, money-hungry ruffian who immediately forces her away from the only home and people, such as they are, that she has ever known, upon which she has to endure a dangerous and filthy journey with no assistance or comfort from her husband. Arriving at his rural domain she is yelled at, starved, sleep-deprived and denied clothing fitting to her class, in other words lied to, mocked, scolded, pushed into denying what her own eyes see, coerced into a public display of the parody of love that her husband presents to the world.

This is what leads up to her speech. So what does she say?

She speaks through most of it to the two women who have hurt her. Bianca throughout their lives by being the favored daughter, and the widow who has just taunted her in front of the whole company. She's simply telling them what she and they have been told all their lives: wife, obey your husband. She is pointing out to them that they are all in the same boat.

She goes on to say that angry women will not attract a husband, which she knows from bitter experience, ending up as she did, with a husband no woman would wish for.

She follows this with a list of her society's stereotypes – strong men laboring hard physically (which Baptista, Lucentio, Hortensio and Petruccio clearly do not do) while the women, weak, soft and to be protected, stay at home. But in these lines she uses the word “keeper” to describe the husband and “bound to” to describe the wife. Katherine sees marriage as a prison.

She goes on to say that she has battled against this but she has lost, her “lances are but straws”, her “strength as weak”. Though she is not speaking directly to Petruccio she is conceding publicly that she has lost the struggle to him and there is no point in continuing it, “for there is no boot.”

Still she senses that this is not enough. We are not told what Petruccio is doing throughout the speech but skillful actors could be directed to exchange a glance, Katherine's resigned, exhausted, apprehensive and Petruccio's victorious, gloating but still not satisfied. With a haughty lift of his chin he could be seen to be demanding more, in fact Katherine's total submission. Whatever small concession she may still have hope for from him, she sees that there will be none and in defeat she admits that if he so chooses, her husband has the right to use violence and bodily injury against her. Like Shylock, who several plays later will be stripped of everything and humiliated beyond endurance, Katherine is cornered into being content.

The parallel to Shylock is very vivid and could surely be explored in detail. Shylock will be forced to live among the Christians without the pride and wealth of his profession or the comfort of his faith, but Katherine will be forced to share her home and her bed with her “keeper” and cater to his every whim under the pretense of love. There will be no happy marriage for these two. At best it will be a truce but knowing Petruccio as we now do, it is more likely that she will be needled, provoked, coerced and abused for the rest of their lives. And she will kneel. Not for love, but for peace. Because resistance is bootless.

And thus we have the portrait that Shakespeare so astutely created. Like Shylock, Katherine has been placed in a dark superbly nuanced comedy in which everything funny is at their expense. A comedy, which by definition ends in marriage. Haughty, hardly likeable but magnificent in her battle for sovereignty over her self and her life, like Shylock, Katherine is one of Shakespeare's most tragic characters. But Katherine, like Shylock, though hated, reviled and ridiculed by their society and by altogether too many directors and audiences, is deserving of the respect that Shakespeare intended for us to give them. Their spirits were broken but at least they fought back first.

March 2011

August 2011

Works cited:
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.

Cartmell, Deborah. “Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare”. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film. Russell Jackson, editor. 2007.

Howard, Jean. Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, Norton edition (see above.)

Mallin, Erik S. Godless Shakespeare. 2007.

  • 1980, BBC. Directed by Jonathan Miller. Cast: Katherine - Sarah Badel; Petruccio - John Cleese; Bianca – Susan Penhaligon; Baptista – John Franklyn-Roberts. The production ia well done and John Cleese is excellent as the obnoxious Petruccio. It's just too bad Badel's interpretation of Katherine is so wrong.
  • 1967. Directed by Franco Zefferelli. Cast: Katherine – Elizabeth Taylor; Petruccio – Richard Burton; Bianca – Natasha Pyne; Baptista – Michael Hordern. Lavish as Zefferelli tends to be. Taylor and Burton are always fun to watch. But the whole thing is ruined by...well, see above.
  • 2005. "Shakespeare Retold."  Directed by David Richards. Cast: Katherine – Shirley Henderson; Petruccio – Rufus Sewell; Bianca – Jaime Murray; Baptista (sort of) – Twiggy Lawson. Henderson and Sewell are absolutely perfect, the whole cast is excellent, and really if you're going to do a believable modern remake of this play, how else could it be done without being totally depressing. Still I wish someone would try.
  • 1999. "10 Things I Hate About You." Directed by Gil Junger. Cast: Katherine – Julia Stiles; Petruccio – Heath Ledger; Bianca – Larisa Oleynik; Baptista – Larry Miller. Well, it's kind of fun and manages to avoid the whole issue. Best is Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Heath Ledger is always seeable.

Seen on stage: No.


  1. If Katherine's spirit is conquered I wonder what will happen to Petrucio's. Without any resistance from Katherine he might find himself bored with life.

  2. Hopefully he'll die of boredom and leave her in peace! Widows were often better off than wives in their day. Maybe there's hope for Katherine yet.

  3. Thank you for this reading of Taming of the Shrew! This makes sense to me.

    1. Thank you for the comment! Glad you agree.