Inside Petruchio's country abode, Grumio is busy making a fire and complaining about the cold in preparation for his master and mistress' arrival. Curtis, another of Petruchio's servants, has not yet met the new bride and asks if she is as shrewish as reported. Grumio assures him that Petruchio is the greater shrew of the two.
When Petruchio arrives he behaves tyranically, beating his servants for trivial faults. Kate begs her husband not to behave so unjustly. When they sit down to dinner Petruchio claims that the meat is overcooked and storms off to bed with Kate. He reappears and explains his intention to tame the shrew by out-shrewing her: he will mistreat her and deprive her of what she needs, all under the guise of kindness and love. Thus, by insisting that neither her food nor her bed are worthy of her, he will wear out her spirit with lack of nourishment and sleep.
Meanwhile, in Padua, Hortensio is disgusted by the flirtation of Bianca and "Cambio," and shares his disgust with Tranio, who he takes to be noble. At Tranio's suggestion, the two vow to cease pursuing Bianca if she would flirt with a lowly schoolteacher. Hortensio states that he has decided to wed a wealthy widow instead of Bianca, leaving "Cambio" to woo Bianca alone. Biondello rushes in to aid their attempt, claiming that an old Pedant from Mantua approaches. Tranio tricks the Pedant into assuming the guise of Vincentio of Pisa after concocting a story that any Mantuan is to be summarily executed in Padua. The Pedant agrees to the disguise and Tranio fills him in on his courtship of Bianca.
Scene three of the Act finds us back at Petruchio's house, where Kate complains that she is famished. Grumio, like Petruchio, refuses to bring her any food, protesting that none of it is good enough for her. Katharina then loses her temper and beats Grumio. Petruchio enters with a plate of meat and Hortensio by his side. He demands that Katharina thank him for the meat while telling Hortensio to eat it all himself.
Petruchio next tells Katharina that the two of them will shortly return to her father's house, dressed in the best finery. A Haberdasher and Tailor appear, with a cap and gown respectively. Petruchio violently dismisses both items over the protestations of Kate, who likes them. She seems polite and kind compared to Petruchio. Her husband, however, refuses to allow her to dress up, declaring that clothes are of little importance and that he and Kate will arrive at Baptista's "in these honest, mean habiliments." (4.3: 166) He calls for the horses and proclaims he will be at the house by noon. Katharina notes that it is already two o'clock, prompting her husband to berate her for constantly contradicting him.
Scene four takes us to Padua again, where Tranio and the Pedant (disguised as Vincentio), meet with Baptista. "Vincentio" grants his permission for his son and Bianca to be wed and guarantees Bianca a large dower. These claims prove satisfactory for Baptista, who readily agrees to the marriage, but decides against conducting the formal contract and agreement inside his own house, for fear that Gremio and his servants may be listening and might interrupt. Tranio offers his own house, noting that the banquet will not be a grand affair but promising a better one later on in Pisa. Lucentio and Bianca, meanwhile, on Biondello's advice, elope to be married post-haste while Baptista is with Tranio and the Pedant.
In scene five, Kate and Petruchio are on the road to Padua again. Petruchio continues his shrewish behavior, insisting that the sun is the moon and threatening to turn the cart around if Kate doesn't agree. Kate finally begins to play along, agreeing that the sun is the moon and then changing her opinion when Petruchio changes his. This game is interrupted by the appearance of the real Vincentio, Lucentio's father, whom Petruchio refers to as a "gentlewoman" (4.5: 29); he insists that Kate agree, and she does so, calling him a "budding virgin."
A bit shaken by their jesting, Vincentio introduces himself, noting that he is on his way to Padua to visit his son. Petruchio informs the man that they are now family - for Lucentio has married the sister of Katharina. Vincentio is shocked and asks Petruchio if he is joking. Petruchio assures him that he is not and invites Vincentio along. The party leaves, after which Hortensio, alone on the stage, confides that he is encouraged and will now go to the widow he intends to wed.
The fourth act of Shrew is by far the longest of the five acts. In it Shakespeare divides his narrative into two entirely separate strands, separated by a sizeable expanse of geography. Almost cinematically, The Taming of the Shrew "cuts" between city and country, between Petruchio's rural abode and Padua. Only when Kate and Petruchio set off for Padua do the two narrative strands begin to reconnect, which they do in the final Act.
Shakespeare does not simply separate the two plotlines in terms of space, however. He separates them in terms of tone; indeed, at times it may seem that we have on our hands two entirely different plays. That which occurs in Padua is gentle and sweet, full of disguises - Hortensio as Litio, Lucentio as Cambio, Tranio as Lucentio, the Pedant as Vincentio - and playful gamesmanship. The action occurs in the country, on the other hand, is loud and abrasive, full of misery and cold. The humor at Petruchio's house is bawdy and violent. Petruchio himself sets the tone, behaving so outlandishly that Katharina appears a saint in comparison, as when she intervenes on the behalf of the abused servants or the insulted Haberdasher and Tailor.
Consider the abrupt switch from Scene One to Two. Here are Petruchio's famous closing words: "This is a way to kill a wife with kindness;/And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor./He that knows better how to tame a shrew,/Now let him speak. 'Tis charity to show." (4.1: 196-199) The diction says it all: "kill," "curb," "mad," "headstrong," "tame," "shrew." In contrast, scene two drops us into the middle of a quiet conversation between two disguised characters, Tranio and Hortensio, as they walk before Baptista's abode. The opening words provide a pointed contrast to Petruchio's: "Is't possible, friend Litio, that Mistress Bianca/Doth fancy any other but Lucentio?/I tell you, sir, she bears me fair in hand." (4.2: 1-3) Out of excessive politeness, Tranio addresses his companion as first "friend Litio" and then "sir," and refers to the object of his affection as "Mistress Bianca." Hortensio responds by likewise calling Tranio "sir." The two men, though secretly at odds with one another, treat each other with restraint and respect.
This gentle, superficial tone continues in the discourse of Lucentio and Bianca. When they speak we are miles away from physical aggression - or anything physical at all:
LUCENTIO: "Now, mistress, profit you in what you read?"
BIANCA: "What, master, read you? First resolve me that."
LUCENTIO: "I read that I profess, The Art of Love."
BIANCA: "And may you prove, sir, master of your art!"
LUCENTIO: "While you, sweet dear, prove mistress of my heart!" (4.2: 6-10)
Rhythmically, the dialogue is subdued, lilting - quite unlike the choppy and staccato rhythms of Petruchio and Katharina's first conversation. The words themselves are equally gentle. From a brash and bawdy household Shakespeare has ushered us into a discrete and refined world, in which love is conducted through subtle disguises and books.
If for Lucentio and Bianca love is an art, for Petruchio and Katharina it is a sport. The witty repartee between the latter couple is more or less on hold in this act, replaced by Petruchio's overarching plan to tame rather than court. Katharina, in other words, is no longer worthy of being treated as a romantic opponent or companion. She is an animal. Petruchio suggests as much in his harshly sexist speech to his servants, in which he refers to his wife as a "falcon" (4.1: 178) and a "haggard." (4.1: 181) His plan is "to make her come and know her keeper's call." (4.1: 182) And yet the supposedly wild Kate does not seem to live up to her label in these scenes - with the exception of her beating of Grumio. Curtis foreshadows our own impression with his response to Grumio's tale of the fallen horse: "By this reckoning he is more shrew than she." (4.1: 76)
Then who really needs to be tamed? Is it possible that, by the "shrew" in the play's title, Shakespeare means to refer to Petruchio rather than Katharina? By the end of the fourth act, Katharina is treating her husband as if he were a whimpering baby who demands to be constantly humored. With more than a hint of mocking in her words, she tells Petruchio: "Then, God be blessed, it is the blessÃ¨d sun./But sun it is not, when you say it is not,/And the moon changes even as your mind./What you will have it named, even that it is,/And so it shall be for Katharine." (4.5: 18-22) This is the language of a woman wise enough to be in charge, but who subjagates herself to please - or perhaps to control - her husband. Whereas Shakespeare's play is often considered sexist, it is possible that, in keeping with the theme of disguise, the Bard has disguised the "shrew" of his title. It could in fact be Petruchio. While at first glance Petruchio seems to be doing the taming, Kate's willingness to play along with his games is its own form of power. Keep in mind, additionally, that during Shakespeare's day both male and female roles were performed by men; indeed, Shakesperean theater already emphasized the performative nature of gender. Shrew's final Acts seem to take this awareness to an extreme.
Whatever the case, the power-struggle that occurs between Petruchio and Katharina is an extension of their courtship. Yes, they have already married, but the wedding was such a hasty affair that a lasting arrangement has yet to enter the bargain. Thus, these two find themselves in much the same position as Lucentio and Bianca, and Shakespeare is in effect offering two types of courtship - both grounded in play-acting, and both therefore belonging in spirit to his own domain of the theater.