The Taming of the Shrew

Analysis and criticism

Critical history

The relationship with A Shrew

One of the most fundamental critical debates surrounding The Shrew is its relationship with A Shrew. There are five main theories as to the nature of this relationship:

  1. The two plays are unrelated other than the fact that they are both based on another play which is now lost. This is the Ur-Shrew theory (in reference to Ur-Hamlet).[42]
  2. A Shrew is a reconstructed version of The Shrew; i.e. a bad quarto, an attempt by actors to reconstruct the original play from memory.[43]
  3. Shakespeare used the previously existing A Shrew, which he did not write, as a source for The Shrew.[44]
  4. Both versions were legitimately written by Shakespeare himself; i.e. A Shrew is an early draft of The Shrew.[45]
  5. A Shrew is an adaptation of The Shrew by someone other than Shakespeare.[46]

Although the exact relationship between The Shrew and A Shrew remains uncertain, and without complete critical consensus, there is a tentative agreement amongst most contemporary scholars that The Shrew is the original, and A Shrew is in some way derived from it.[47][48][49][50] The main reason for believing The Shrew preceded A Shrew is "those passages in A Shrew [...] that make sense only if one knows The Shrew version from which they must have been derived;"[51] i.e. parts of A Shrew don't make sense without recourse to The Shrew, hence The Shrew must have existed first.

The debate regarding the relationship between the two plays began in 1725, when Alexander Pope incorporated extracts from A Shrew into The Shrew in his edition of Shakespeare's works. In The Shrew, the Christopher Sly framework is only featured twice; at the opening of the play, and at the end of Act 1, Scene 1. However, in A Shrew, the Sly framework reappears a further five times, including a scene which comes after the final scene of the Petruchio/Katherina story. Pope added most of the Sly framework to The Shrew, even though he acknowledged in his preface that he did not believe Shakespeare had written A Shrew.[52] Subsequent editors followed suit, adding some or all of the Sly framework to their versions of The Shrew; Lewis Theobald (1733), Thomas Hanmer (1744), William Warburton (1747), Samuel Johnson and George Steevens (1765) and Edward Capell (1768).[53] In his 1790 edition of The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, however, Edmond Malone removed all A Shrew extracts and returned the text to the 1623 First Folio version.[54] By the end of the eighteenth century, the predominant theory had come to be that A Shrew was a non-Shakespearean source for The Shrew, and hence to include extracts from it was to graft non-authorial material onto the play.[55]

This theory prevailed until 1850, when Samuel Hickson compared the texts of The Shrew and A Shrew, concluding The Shrew was the original, and A Shrew was derived from it. By comparing seven passages which are similar in both plays, he concluded "the original conception is invariably to be found" in The Shrew. His explanation was that A Shrew was written by Christopher Marlowe, with The Shrew as his template. He reached this conclusion primarily because A Shrew features numerous lines almost identical to lines in Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus.[56]

In 1926, building on Hickson's research, Peter Alexander first suggested the bad quarto theory. Alexander agreed with Hickson that A Shrew was derived from The Shrew, but he did not agree that Marlowe wrote A Shrew. Instead he labelled A Shrew a bad quarto. His main argument was that, primarily in the subplot of A Shrew, characters act without motivation, whereas such motivation is present in The Shrew. Alexander believed this represents an example of a "reporter" forgetting details and becoming confused, which also explains why lines from other plays are used from time to time; to cover gaps which the reporter knows have been left. He also argued the subplot in The Shrew was closer to the plot of I Suppositi/Supposes than the subplot in A Shrew, which he felt indicated the subplot in The Shrew must have been based directly on the source, whereas the subplot in A Shrew was a step removed.[57] In their 1928 edition of the play for the New Shakespeare, Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson supported the bad quarto theory,[58] which has remained popular ever since.[59][60]

However, scholars were quick to find problems with Alexander's arguments. For example, in 1930, E.K. Chambers reasserted the source theory. Chambers, who supported Alexander's bad quarto theory regarding The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, argued A Shrew did not fit the pattern of a bad quarto; "I am quite unable to believe that A Shrew had any such origin. Its textual relation to The Shrew does not bear any analogy to that of other 'bad Quartos' to the legitimate texts from which they were memorised. The nomenclature, which at least a memoriser can recall, is entirely different. The verbal parallels are limited to stray phrases, most frequent in the main plot, for which I believe Shakespeare picked them up from A Shrew."[61] He explained the relationship between I Suppositi/Supposes and the subplots by arguing the subplot in The Shrew was based upon both the subplot in A Shrew and the original version of the story in Ariosto/Gascoigne.[62]

In 1938, Leo Kirschbaum made a similar argument. In an article listing over twenty examples of bad quartos, Kirschbaum did not include A Shrew, which he felt was too different from The Shrew to come under the bad quarto banner; "despite protestations to the contrary, The Taming of a Shrew does not stand in relation to The Shrew as The True Tragedie, for example, stands in relation to 3 Henry VI."[63] Writing in 1998, Stephen Roy Miller offers much the same opinion; "the relation of the early quarto to the Folio text is unlike other early quartos because the texts vary much more in plotting and dialogue [...] the differences between the texts are substantial and coherent enough to establish that there was deliberate revision in producing one text out of the other; hence A Shrew is not merely a poor report (or 'bad quarto') of The Shrew."[64] Character names are changed, basic plot points are altered (Kate has two sisters for example, not one), the play is set in Athens instead of Padua, the Sly framework forms a complete narrative, and entire speeches are completely different, all of which suggests to Miller that the author of A Shrew thought they were working on something different from Shakespeare's play, not attempting to transcribe it for resale; "underpinning the notion of a 'Shakespearean bad quarto' is the assumption that the motive of whoever compiled that text was to produce, differentially, a verbal replica of what appeared on stage."[65] Miller believes that Chambers and Kirschbaum successfully illustrate A Shrew does not fulfil this rubric.

Alexander's theory continued to be challenged as the years went on. In 1942, R.A. Houk developed what came to be dubbed the Ur-Shrew theory; both A Shrew and The Shrew were based upon a third play, now lost.[66] In 1943, G.I. Duthie refined Houk's suggestion by arguing A Shrew was a memorial reconstruction of Ur-Shrew, a now lost early draft of The Shrew; "A Shrew is substantially a memorially constructed text and is dependent upon an early Shrew play, now lost. The Shrew is a reworking of this lost play."[67] Hickson, who believed Marlowe to have written A Shrew, had hinted at this theory in 1850; "though I do not believe Shakspeare's play to contain a line of any other writer, I think it extremely probable that we have it only in a revised form, and that, consequently, the play which Marlowe imitated might not necessarily have been that fund of life and humour that we find it now."[68] Hickson is here arguing that Marlowe's A Shrew is not based upon the version of The Shrew found in the First Folio, but on another version of the play. Duthie argues this other version was a Shakespearean early draft of The Shrew; A Shrew constitutes a reported text of a now lost early draft.[69]

Alexander returned to the debate in 1969, re-presenting his bad quarto theory. In particular, he concentrated on the various complications and inconsistencies in the subplot of A Shrew, which had been used by Houk and Duthie as evidence for an Ur-Shrew, to argue that the reporter of A Shrew attempted to recreate the complex subplot from The Shrew but got confused; "the compiler of A Shrew while trying to follow the subplot of The Shrew gave it up as too complicated to reproduce, and fell back on love scenes in which he substituted for the maneuvers of the disguised Lucentio and Hortensio extracts from Tamburlaine and Faustus, with which the lovers woo their ladies."[70] For much of the remainder of the twentieth century, Alexander's views remained predominant.[71][72]

After little further discussion of the issue in the 1970s, the 1980s saw the publication of three scholarly editions of The Shrew, all of which re-addressed the question of the relationship between the two plays; Brian Morris' 1981 edition for the second series of the Arden Shakespeare, H.J. Oliver's 1982 edition for the Oxford Shakespeare and Ann Thompson's 1984 edition for the New Cambridge Shakespeare. Morris summarised the scholarly position in 1981 as one in which no clear-cut answers could be found; "unless new, external evidence comes to light, the relationship between The Shrew and A Shrew can never be decided beyond a peradventure. It will always be a balance of probabilities, shifting as new arguments and opinions are added to the scales. Nevertheless, in the present century, the movement has unquestionably been towards an acceptance of the Bad Quarto theory, and this can now be accepted as at least the current orthodoxy."[73] Morris himself,[47] and Thompson,[50] supported the bad quarto theory, with Oliver tentatively arguing for Duthie's bad quarto/early draft/Ur-Shrew theory.[48]

Perhaps the most extensive examination of the question came in 1998 in Stephen Roy Miller's edition of A Shrew for the New Cambridge Shakespeare: The Early Quartos series. Miller agrees with most modern scholars that A Shrew is derived from The Shrew, but he does not believes it to be a bad quarto. Instead, he argues it is an adaptation by someone other than Shakespeare.[46] Miller believes Alexander's suggestion in 1969 that the reporter became confused is unlikely, and instead suggests an adapter at work; "the most economic explanation of indebtedness is that whoever compiled A Shrew borrowed the lines from Shakespeare's The Shrew, or a version of it, and adapted them."[74] Part of Miller's evidence relates to Gremio, who has no counterpart in A Shrew. In The Shrew, after the wedding, Gremio expresses doubts as to whether or not Petruchio will be able to tame Katherina. In A Shrew, these lines are extended and split between Polidor (the equivalent of Hortensio) and Phylema (Bianca). As Gremio does have a counterpart in I Suppositi, Miller concludes that "to argue the priority of A Shrew in this case would mean arguing that Shakespeare took the negative hints from the speeches of Polidor and Phylema and gave them to a character he resurrected from Supposes. This is a less economical argument than to suggest that the compiler of A Shrew, dismissing Gremio, simply shared his doubts among the characters available."[75] He argues there is even evidence in the play that the compiler knew he was working within a specific literary tradition; "as with his partial change of character names, the compiler seems to wish to produce dialogue much like his models, but not the same. For him, adaptation includes exact quotation, imitation and incorporation of his own additions. This seems to define his personal style, and his aim seems to be to produce his own version, presumably intended that it should be tuned more towards the popular era than The Shrew."[76]

As had Alexander, Houk and Duthie, Miller believes the key to the debate is to be found in the subplot, as it is here where the two plays differ most. He points out that the subplot in The Shrew is based on "the classical style of Latin comedy with an intricate plot involving deception, often kept in motion by a comic servant." The subplot in A Shrew, however, which features an extra sister and addresses the issue of marrying above and below one's class, "has many elements more associated with the romantic style of comedy popular in London in the 1590s."[77] Miller cites plays such as Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and Fair Em as evidence of the popularity of such plays. He points to the fact that in The Shrew, there is only eleven lines of romance between Lucentio and Bianca, but in A Shrew, there is an entire scene between Kate's two sisters and their lovers. This, he argues, is evidence of an adaptation rather than a faulty report;

while it is difficult to know the motivation of the adapter, we can reckon that from his point of view an early staging of The Shrew might have revealed an overly wrought play from a writer trying to establish himself but challenging too far the current ideas of popular comedy. The Shrew is long and complicated. It has three plots, the subplots being in the swift Latin or Italianate style with several disguises. Its language is at first stuffed with difficult Italian quotations, but its dialogue must often sound plain when compared to Marlowe's thunder or Greene's romance, the mouth-filling lines and images that on other afternoons were drawing crowds. An adapter might well have seen his role as that of a 'play doctor' improving The Shrew – while cutting it – by stuffing it with the sort of material currently in demand in popular romantic comedies."[78]

Miller believes the compiler "appears to have wished to make the play shorter, more of a romantic comedy full of wooing and glamorous rhetoric, and to add more obvious, broad comedy."[79]

Hortensio problem

Another problematic aspect of the play concerns the character of Hortensio. Building on the work of W.W. Greg[40] and G.I. Duthie,[69] H.J. Oliver argues the version of the play in the 1623 First Folio was likely copied not from a prompt book or transcript, but from the author's own foul papers, which he believes showed signs of revision by Shakespeare.[80] These revisions relate primarily to the character of Hortensio, and lead Oliver to argue that in an original version of the play, now lost, Hortensio was not a suitor to Bianca, but simply an old friend of Petruchio. When Shakespeare rewrote the play so that Hortensio became a suitor in disguise (Litio), many of his lines were either omitted or given to Tranio (disguised as Lucentio).[81]

Oliver cites several scenes in the play where Hortensio (or his absence) causes problems. For example, in Act 2, Scene 1, Tranio (as Lucentio) and Gremio bid for Bianca, but Hortensio, who everyone is aware is also a suitor, is never mentioned. In Act 3, Scene 1, Lucentio (as Cambio) tells Bianca "we might beguile the old Pantalowne" (l.36), yet says nothing of Hortensio's attempts to woo her, instead implying his only rival is Gremio. In Act 3, Scene 2, Tranio suddenly becomes an old friend of Petruchio, knowing his mannerisms and explaining his tardiness prior to the wedding. However, up to this point, Petruchio's only acquaintance in Padua has been Hortensio. In Act 4, Scene 3, Hortensio tells Vincentio that Lucentio has married Bianca. However, as far as Hortensio should be concerned, Lucentio has denounced Bianca, because in Act 4, Scene 2, Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) agreed with Hortensio that neither of them would pursue Bianca, and as such, his knowledge of the marriage of who he supposes to be Lucentio and Bianca makes no sense. From this, Oliver concludes that an original version of the play existed in which Hortensio was simply a friend of Petruchio's, and had no involvement in the Bianca subplot, but wishing to complicate things, Shakespeare rewrote the play, introducing the Litio disguise, and giving some of Hortensio's discarded lines to Tranio, but not fully correcting everything to fit the presence of a new suitor.[81]

This is important in Duthie's theory of an Ur-Shrew insofar as he argues it is the original version of The Shrew upon which A Shrew is based, not the version which appears in the 1623 First Folio.[82] As Oliver argues, "A Shrew is a report of an earlier, Shakespearian, form of The Shrew in which Hortensio was not disguised as Litio."[83] Oliver suggests that when Pembroke's Men left London in June 1592, they had in their possession a now lost early draft of the play. Upon returning to London, they published A Shrew in 1594, some time after which Shakespeare rewrote his original play into the form seen in the First Folio.[84]

Duthie's arguments were never fully accepted at the time, as critics tended to look on the relationship between the two plays as an either-or situation; A Shrew is either a reported text or an early draft.[85] In more recent scholarship, however, the possibility that a text could be both has been shown to be critically viable. For example, in his 2003 Oxford Shakespeare edition of 2 Henry VI, Roger Warren makes the same argument for The First Part of the Contention.[86] Randall Martin reaches the same conclusion regarding The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke in his 2001 Oxford Shakespeare edition of 3 Henry VI.[87] This lends support to the theory that A Shrew could be both a reported text and an early draft.


The Taming of the Shrew has been the subject of much analytical and critical controversy almost from its inception. More recently, this controversy has tended to relate to a feminist reading of the play in general, and Katherina's final speech in particular, as offensively misogynistic and patriarchal. Dana Aspinall writes "Since its first appearance, some time between 1588 and 1594, Shrew has elicited a panoply of heartily supportive, ethically uneasy, or altogether disgusted responses to its rough-and-tumble treatment of the 'taming' of the 'curst shrew' Katherina, and obviously, of all potentially unruly wives."[88] Phyllis Rackin argues that "seen in the context of current anxieties, desires and beliefs, Shakespeare's play seems to prefigure the most oppressive modern assumptions about women and to validate those assumptions as timeless truths."[89] In this sense, the play seems to be a misogynistic celebration of female submission. However, there are some indications that this is not necessarily the case. Stevie Davies alludes to this when she explains that responses to Shrew have been "dominated by feelings of unease and embarrassment, accompanied by the desire to prove that Shakespeare cannot have meant what he seems to be saying; and that therefore he cannot really be saying it."[90] As such, Shrew has provoked debate about its true meaning and generated confusion as to how a contemporary audience is 'supposed' to react to it, something to which Philippa Kelly refers when she asks "Do we simply add our voices to those of critical disapproval, seeing Shrew as at best an 'early Shakespeare', the socially provocative effort of a dramatist who was learning to flex his muscles? Or as an item of social archaeology that we have long ago abandoned? Or do we 'rescue' it from offensive male smugness? Or make an appeal to the slippery category of 'irony'?[91]

Scholars argue that even in Shakespeare's day the play must have been controversial, due to the changing nature of gender politics. Marjorie Garber, for example, believes Shakespeare created the Induction so the audience wouldn't react badly to the misogyny in the Petruchio/Katherina story; he was, in effect, defending himself against charges of sexism.[92] G.R. Hibbard argues that during the period in which the play was written, arranged marriages were beginning to give way to newer, more romantically informed unions, and thus people's views on women's position in society, and their relationships with men, were in a state of flux. As such, audiences may not have been as predisposed to tolerate the harsh treatment of Katherina as is often thought.[93]

Evidence of at least some initial societal discomfort with The Shrew is, perhaps, to be found in the fact that John Fletcher, Shakespeare's successor as house playwright for the King's Men, wrote The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed as a sequel to Shakespeare's play. Written c.1611,[94] the play tells the story of Petruchio's remarriage after Katherina's death. In a mirror of the original, his new wife attempts (successfully) to tame him – thus the tamer becomes the tamed. Although Fletcher's sequel is often downplayed as merely a farce, some critics acknowledge the more serious implications of such a reaction. Linda Boose, for example, writes, "Fletcher's response may in itself reflect the kind of discomfort that Shrew has characteristically provoked in men and why its many revisions since 1594 have repeatedly contrived ways of softening the edges."[95]

With the rise of the feminist movement in the twentieth century, reactions to the play have tended to become more divergent. For some critics, "Kate's taming was no longer as funny as it had been [...] her domination became, in George Bernard Shaw's words 'altogether disgusting to modern sensibility'."[96] Addressing the relationship between A Shrew and The Shrew from a political perspective, for example, Leah S. Marcus very much believes the play to be what it seems. She argues A Shrew is an earlier version of The Shrew, but acknowledges that most scholars reject the idea that A Shrew was written by Shakespeare. She believes one of the reasons for this is because A Shrew "hedges the play's patriarchal message with numerous qualifiers that do not exist in" The Shrew.[97] She calls A Shrew a more "progressive" text than The Shrew, and argues that scholars tend to dismiss the idea that A Shrew is Shakespearean because "the women are not as satisfactorily tamed as they are in The Shrew."[98] She also points out that if A Shrew is an early draft, it suggests Shakespeare "may have increased rather than decreased the patriarchal violence of his materials," something which, she believes, scholars find difficult to accept.[99]

Others, however, see the play as an example of a pre-feminist condemnation of patriarchal domination and an argument for modern-day 'women's lib'. For example, director Conall Morrison, writing in 2008, argues that

I find it gobsmacking that some people see the play as misogynistic. I believe that it is a moral tale. I believe that it is saying – 'do not be like this' and 'do not do this.' 'These people are objectionable.' By the time you get to the last scene all of the men – including her father are saying – it's amazing how you crushed that person. It's amazing how you lobotomised her. And they're betting on the women as though they are dogs in a race or horses. It's reduced to that. And it's all about money and the level of power. Have you managed to crush Katharina or for Hortensio and Lucentio, will you be able to control Bianca and the widow? Will you similarly be able to control your proto-shrews? It is so self-evidently repellent that I don't believe for a second that Shakespeare is espousing this. And I don't believe for a second that the man who would be interested in Benedict and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet and all these strong lovers would have some misogynist aberration. It's very obviously a satire on this male behaviour and a cautionary tale [...] That's not how he views women and relationships, as demonstrated by the rest of the plays. This is him investigating misogyny, exploring it and animating it and obviously damning it because none of the men come out smelling of roses. When the chips are down they all default to power positions and self-protection and status and the one woman who was a challenge to them, with all with her wit and intellect, they are all gleeful and relieved to see crushed.[100]

Philippa Kelly makes a similar point:

Petruchio's 'taming' of Kate, harsh though it may be, is a far cry from the fiercely repressive measures going on outside the theatre, and presumably endorsed by much of its audience. Some critics argue that in mitigating the violence both of folktales and of actual practices, Shakespeare sets up Petruchio as a ruffian and a bully, but only as a disguise – and a disguise that implicitly criticises the brutal arrogance of conventional male attitudes.[101]

Similarly, Elizabeth Kantor argues the play is a farce, improbably exaggerated so as to make points about human nature:

Whatever the "gender studies" folks may think, Shakespeare isn't trying to "domesticate women"; he's not making any kind of case for how they ought to be treated or what sort of rights they ought to have. He's just noticing what men and women are really like, and creating fascinating and delightful drama out of it. Shakespeare's celebration of the limits that define us – of our natures as men and women – upsets only those folks who find human nature itself upsetting.[102]

On the other hand, Jonathan Miller, director of the 1980 BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation, and several theatrical productions, argues that although the play is not misogynistic, neither is it a pro-feminist treatise:

I think it's an irresponsible and silly thing to make that play into a feminist tract: to use it as a way of proving that women have been dishonoured and hammered flat by male chauvinism. There's another, more complex way of reading it than that: which sees it as being their particular view of how society ought to be organised in order to restore order in a fallen world. Now, we don't happen to think that we are inheritors of the sin of Adam and that orderliness can only be preserved by deputing power to magistrates and sovereigns, fathers and husbands. But the fact that they did think like that is absolutely undeniable, so productions which really do try to deny that, and try to hijack the work to make it address current problems about womens' place in society, become boring, thin and tractarian.[103]


A vital element in the debate regarding the play's misogyny, or lack thereof, is the Induction, and how it relates to the Katherina/Petruchio story. Critics have argued about the meaning of the Induction for many years, and according to H.J. Oliver, "it has become orthodoxy to claim to find in the Induction the same 'theme' as is to be found in both the Bianca and the Katherine-Petruchio plots of the main play, and to take it for granted that identity of theme is a merit and 'justifies' the introduction of Sly."[104] For example, Geoffrey Bullough argues the three plots "are all linked in idea because all contain discussion of the relations of the sexes in marriage."[105] Similarly, Richard Hosley suggests the three plots form a unified whole insofar as they all deal with "assumptions about identity and assumptions about personality."[106] Oliver disagrees with these assessments, however, arguing instead that "the Sly Induction does not so much announce the theme of the enclosed stories as establish their tone."[107]

This point becomes important in terms of determining the seriousness of Katherina's final speech. Marjorie Garber writes of the Induction, "the frame performs the important task of distancing the later action, and of insuring a lightness of tone – significant in light of the real abuse to which Kate is subjected by Petruchio."[92] Similarly, Oliver argues the Induction is used to remove the audience from the world of the enclosed plot – to place the ontological sphere of the Sly story on the same level of reality as the audience, and the ontological sphere of the Katherina/Petruchio story on a different level of reality. This, he argues, is done so as to ensure the audience does not take the play literally, that it sees the Katherina/Petruchio story as a farce;

if in a film the characters go to see a film, the film they see is quite remote: it is at one further move from the 'reality' of the audience in the 'real' cinema. Similarly, if a play on a small scale is put within a play, what happens within the 'enclosed' play is not believed at all [...] the phenomenon of theatrical illusion is itself being laughed at; and the play within the play makes Sly drowsy and probably soon sends him to sleep. Are we to let that play preach morality to us or look in it for social or intellectual substance? The drunken tinker may be believed in as one believes in any realistically presented character; but we cannot 'believe' in something that is not even mildly interesting to him. The play within the play has been presented only after all the preliminaries have encouraged us to take it as a farce [...] the main purpose of the Induction was to set the tone for the play within the play – in particular, to present the story of Kate and her sister as none-too-serious comedy put on to divert a drunken tinker.[108]

If one accepts this theory, the Induction becomes vital to interpretation, as it serves to undermine any questions regarding the seriousness of Katherina's speech.[109] As such, if the Induction is removed from a production of the play (as it very often is), a fundamental part of the inherent structure of the whole has been lost. For example, speaking of Jonathan Miller's BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation of 1980, which omitted the Induction, Stanley Wells wrote "to omit the Christopher Sly episodes is to suppress one of Shakespeare's most volatile lesser characters, to jettison most of the play's best poetry, and to strip it of an entire dramatic dimension."[110]

Regarding the importance of the Induction, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen argue "the Sly framework establishes a self-referential theatricality in which the status of the shrew-play as a play is enforced.[111] In this sense, Graham Holderness argues "the play in its received entirety does not propose any simple or unitary view of sexual politics: it contains a crudely reactionary dogma of masculine supremacy, but it also works on that ideology to force its expression into self-contradiction. The means by which this self-interrogation is accomplished is that complex theatrical device of the Sly-framework [...] without the metadramatic potentialities of the Sly-framework, any production of Shrew is thrown much more passively at the mercy of the director's artistic and political ideology."[112] Similarly, Coppélia Kahn suggests "the transformation of Christopher Sly from drunken lout to noble lord, a transformation only temporary and skin-deep, suggests that Kate's switch from independence may also be deceptive and prepares us for the irony of the dénouement.[113]

If one agrees with these arguments, the Induction assumes a vital role in relation to perceived misogyny, as, if Garber, Oliver et al. are correct, the Induction serves to undercut any charges of misogyny before they can be formulated – the play within the play is a farce, it is not supposed to be taken seriously by the audience, just as it is not taken seriously by Sly. As such, questions of the seriousness of what happens within it are rendered irrelevant.[109]


Language itself is a major theme in the play, especially in the taming process, where mastery of language becomes paramount. Katherina is initially described as a shrew because of her harsh language to those around her; "from the outset of the play, Katherine's threat to male authority is posed through language: it is perceived by others as such and is linked to a claim larger than shrewishness – witchcraft – through the constant allusions to Katherine's kinship with the devil."[114] For example, after Katherina rebukes Hortensio and Gremio in Act 1, Scene 1, Hortensio replies with "From all such devils, good Lord deliver us!" (l.66). Even Katherina's own father refers to her as "thou hilding of a devilish spirit" (2.1.26). Petruchio, however, attempts to tame her – and thus her language – with rhetoric that specifically undermines her tempestuous nature;

Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain She sings as sweetly as a nightingale. Say that she frown, I'll say that she looks as clear As morning roses newly washed with dew. Say she be mute and will not speak a word, Then I'll commend her volubility And say she uttereth piercing eloquence. If she do bid me pack, I'll give her thanks, As though she bid me stay by her a week. If she deny to wed, I'll crave the day When I shall ask the banns, and when be marrièd.


Here Petruchio is specifically attacking the very function of Katherina's language, vowing that no matter what she says, he will purposely misinterpret it, thus undermining the basis of the linguistic sign, and disrupting the relationship between signifier and signified. In this sense, Margaret Jane Kidnie argues this scene demonstrates the "slipperiness of language."[115]

Apart from undermining her language, Petruchio also uses language to objectify her. For example, in Act 3, Scene 2, Petruchio explains to all present that Katherina is now literally his property:

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.


In discussing Petruchio's objectification of Katherina, Tita French Baumlin focuses on his puns on her name. By referring to her as a "cake" and a "cat" (2.1.185–195), he objectifies her in a more subtle manner than saying she belongs to him.[116] A further aspect of Petruchio's taming rhetoric is the repeated comparison of Katherina to animals. In particular, he is prone to comparing her to a hawk (2.1.8 and 4.1.177–183), often employing an overarching hunting metaphor; "My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,/And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged" (4.1.177–178). Katherina, however, appropriates this method herself, leading to a trading of insults rife with animal imagery in Act 2, Scene 1 (ll.207–232), where she compares Petruchio to a turtle and a crab.

Language itself has thus become a battleground. However, it is Petruchio who seemingly emerges as the victor. In his house, after Petruchio has dismissed the haberdasher, Katherina exclaims

Why sir, I trust I may have leave to speak, And speak I will. I am no child, no babe; Your betters have endured me say my mind, And if you cannot, best you stop your ears. My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, Or else my heart concealing it will break, And rather than it shall, I will be free Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.


Katherina is here declaring her independence of language; no matter what Petruchio may do, she will always be free to speak her mind. However, only one-hundred lines later, the following exchange occurs;

PETRUCHIO Let's see, I think 'tis now some seven o'clock. And well we may come there by dinner-time. KATHERINA I dare assure you, sir, 'tis almost two, And 'twill be supper-time ere you come there. PETRUCHIO It shall be seven ere I go to horse. Look what I speak, or do, or think to do, You are still crossing it. Sirs, let't alone, I will not go today; and ere I do, It shall be what o'clock I say it is.


Kidnie says of this scene, "the language game has suddenly changed and the stakes have been raised. Whereas before he seemed to mishear or misunderstand her words, Petruchio now overtly tests his wife's subjection by demanding that she concede to his views even when they are demonstrably unreasonable. The lesson is that Petruchio has the absolute authority to rename their world."[117] Katherina is free to say whatever she wishes, as long she agrees with Petruchio. His apparent victory in the 'language game' is seen in Act 4, Scene 5, when Katherina is made to switch the words "moon" and "sun", and she concedes that she will agree with whatever Petruchio says, no matter how absurd:

And be it the moon, or sun, or what you please; And if you please to call it a rush-candle, Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me ... 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 so for Katherine.

(ll.12–15; ll.19–22)

Of this scene, Kidnie argues "what he 'says' must take priority over what Katherina 'knows'."[118] From this point, Katherina's language changes from her earlier vernacular; instead of defying Petruchio and his words, she has apparently succumbed to his rhetoric and accepted that she will use his language instead of her own – both Katherina and her language have, seemingly, been tamed.

The important role of language, however, is not confined to the taming plot. For example, in a psychoanalytic reading of the play, Joel Fineman suggests there is a distinction made between male and female language, further subcategorising the latter into good and bad, epitomised by Bianca and Katherina respectively.[119] Language is also important in relation to the Induction. Here, Sly speaks in prose until he begins to accept his new role as lord, at which point he switches to blank verse and adopts the royal we.[120] Language is also important in relation to Tranio and Lucentio, who appear on stage speaking a highly artificial style of blank verse full of classical and mythological allusions and elaborate metaphors and similes, thus immediately setting them aside from the more straightforward language of the Induction, and alerting the audience to the fact that they are now in an entirely different milieu.[121]


Female submissiveness

In productions of the play, it is often the interpretation of Katherina's final speech (the longest speech in the play) that defines the tone of the entire production, such is the importance of this speech and what it says, or seems to say, about female submission:

Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow, And dart not scornful glances from those eyes To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor. It blots thy beauty, as frosts do bite the meads, Confounds thy fame, as whirlwinds shake fair buds, And in no sense is meet or amiable. A woman moved is like a fountain troubled, Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty, And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it. 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 labour both by sea and land, To watch the night in storms, the day in cold, Whilst thou liest 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? I am ashamed that women are so simple To offer war where they should kneel for peace; Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth, Unapt to toll and trouble in the world, But that our soft conditions, and our hearts, Should well agree with our external parts? Come, come, you froward and unable worms! My mind hath been as big as one of yours, My heart as great, my reason haply more, To bandy word for word and frown for frown; But now I see our lances are but straws, Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare, That seeming to be most which we indeed least are. Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot, And place your hands below your husband's foot; In token of which duty, if he please, My hand is ready, may it do him ease.


Traditionally, many critics have taken the speech literally. Writing in 1943, for example, G.I. Duthie argued "what Shakespeare emphasises here is the foolishness of trying to destroy order."[122] In a modern western society, however, which holds relatively egalitarian views on gender,[96] such an interpretation presents a moral dilemma; how can a society which has sought to eradicate female subjection champion a play which, apparently, celebrates such subjection?[88][89][90][91]

Critically, four main theories have emerged in response to Katherina's speech;

  1. It is sincere; Petruchio has successfully tamed her.[122][123]
  2. It is sincere, but not because Petruchio has tamed her. Instead, she has fallen in love with him and accepted her role as his wife.[124][125]
  3. It is ironic; she is being sarcastic, pretending to have been tamed when in reality she has completely duped Petruchio into thinking he has tamed her.[126][127]
  4. It should not be read seriously or ironically; it is part of the farcical nature of the play-within-the-play.[128][129]

A critic who interpreted the final speech as sincere was George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in 1897, "no man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman's own mouth."[130] If one accepts the interpretation of scholars like Shaw and Duthie, the final scene must be interpreted literally; Katherina has been successfully tamed, and the speech is the outward manifestation of that process. It thus indicates Katherina has come to accept her newly submissive role to such an extent that she advocates that role for others. In this sense, the speech rationalises, in both a political and sociological sense, the submission of wives to husbands.[122]

On the other hand, some who interpret the speech as sincere do not necessarily believe that Katherina has been tamed, but has instead come to genuinely love Petruchio. Actress Meryl Streep, for example, who played Katherina in 1978 at the Shakespeare in the Park festival, says of the speech, "really what matters is that they have an incredible passion and love; it's not something that Katherina admits to right away, but it does provide the source of her change."[131] Similarly, John C. Bean sees the speech as the final stage in the process of Katherina's change of heart towards Petruchio; "if we can appreciate the liberal element in Kate's last speech – the speech that strikes modern sensibilities as advocating male tyranny – we can perhaps see that Kate is tamed not in the automatic manner of behavioural psychology but in the spontaneous manner of the later romantic comedies where characters loose themselves and emerge, as if from a dream, liberated into the bonds of love."[124]

Perhaps the most common interpretation in the modern era is that the speech is ironic; Katherina has not been tamed at all, she has merely duped Petruchio into thinking she has. Two especially well known examples of this interpretation are seen in the two major feature film adaptations of the play; Sam Taylor's 1929 version and Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 version. In Taylor's film, Katherina, played by Mary Pickford, winks at Bianca during the speech, indicating she does not mean a word of what she is saying.[132] In Zeffirelli's film, Katherina, played by Elizabeth Taylor, delivers the speech sincerely, but upon finishing, she leaves the room without Petruchio, much to his embarrassment, as he is mocked by all present.[133] Phyllis Rackin is an example of a scholar who reads the speech ironically, especially in how it deals with gender. She points out that several lines in the speech focus on the woman's body, but in the Elizabethan theatre, the role would have been played by a young boy, thus rendering any evocation of the female form as ironic. Reading the play as a satire of gender roles, she sees the speech as the culmination of this process.[126] Along similar lines, Philippa Kelly says "the body of the boy actor in Shakespeare's time would have created a sexual indeterminacy that would have undermined the patriarchal narrative, so that the taming is only apparently so. And in declaring women's passivity so extensively and performing it centre-stage, Kate might be seen to take on a kind of agency that rebukes the feminine codes of silence and obedience which she so expressly advocates."[127] Similarly, Coppélia Kahn argues the speech is really about how little Katherina has been tamed; "she steals the scene from her husband, who has held the stage throughout the play, and reveals that he has failed to tame her in the sense he set out to. He has gained her outward compliance in the form of a public display, while her spirit remains mischievously free."[134]

The fourth school of thought is that the play is a farce, and hence the speech should not be read seriously or ironically. Robert B. Heilman, for example, argues "the whole wager scene falls essentially within the realm of farce: the responses are largely mechanical, as is their symmetry. Kate's final long speech on the obligations and fitting style of wives we can think of as a more or less automatic statement – that is, the kind appropriate to farce – of a generally held doctrine."[135] He further makes his case by positing "there are two arguments against [an ironic interpretation]. One is that a careful reading of the lines will show that most of them have to be taken literally; only the last seven or eight lines can be read with ironic overtones [...] The second is that some forty lines of straight irony would be too much to be borne; it would be inconsistent with the straightforwardness of most of the play, and it would really turn Kate back into a hidden shrew whose new technique was sarcastic indirection, sidemouthing at the audience, while her not very intelligent husband, bamboozled, cheered her on."[136] Another way in which to read the speech (and the play) as farcical is to focus on the Induction. H.J. Oliver, for example, emphasising the importance of the Induction, writes "the play within the play has been presented only after all the preliminaries have encouraged us to take it as a farce. We have been warned."[137] Of Katherina's speech, he argues "this lecture by Kate on the wife's duty to submit is the only fitting climax to the farce – and for that very reason it cannot logically be taken seriously, orthodox though the views expressed may be [...] attempting to take the last scene as a continuation of the realistic portrayal of character leads some modern producers to have it played as a kind of private joke between Petruchio and Kate – or even have Petruchio imply that by now he is thoroughly ashamed of himself. It does not, cannot, work. The play has changed key: it has modulated back from something like realistic social comedy to the other, 'broader' kind of entertainment that was foretold by the Induction."[129]

Gender politics

One thing critics do seem to agree upon, however they may interpret Katherina's final speech, is that the issue of gender politics is an important theme in The Taming of the Shrew. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, George Bernard Shaw famously called the play "one vile insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last."[138] A more contemporary critic who sees the play's depiction of gender in a negative light is Emily Detmer. She points out that in the late 16th and early 17th century, laws curtailing husbands' use of violence in disciplining their wives were becoming more commonplace; "the same culture that still "felt good" about dunking scolds, whipping whores, or burning witches was becoming increasingly sensitive about husbands beating their wives."[139] Detmer argues that Petruchio's treatment of Katherina reflects developments in society as a whole insofar as he must attempt to tame her without resorting to violence; "the vigor of public discourse on wife-beating exemplifies a culture at work reformulating permissible and impermissible means for husbands to maintain control over the politics of the family, without, however, questioning that goal. This new boundary was built on notions of class and civil behaviour. Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew acts as a comedic roadmap for reconfiguring these emergent modes of "skillful" and civilised dominance for gentlemen, that is, for subordinating a wife without resorting to the "common" man's brute strength."[140] Petruchio's answer is to psychologically tame Katherina, a method not frowned upon by society; "the play signals a shift towards a "modern" way of managing the subordination of wives by legitimatising domination as long as it is not physical."[141] Detmer argues "Shakespeare's "shrew" is tamed in a manner that would have made the wife-beating reformers proud; Petruchio's taming "policy" dramatises how abstention from physical violence works better. The play encourages its audience not only to pay close attention to Petruchio's method but also to judge and enjoy the method's permissibility because of the absence of blows and the harmonious outcome."[142]

However, Detmer is critical of scholars who defend Shakespeare for depicting male dominance in a less brutal fashion than many of his contemporaries. For example, although not specifically mentioned by Detmer, Michael West writes "the play's attitude was characteristically Elizabethan and was expressed more humanly by Shakespeare than by some of his sources."[143] Detmer goes on to read the play in light of modern psychological theories regarding women's responses to domestic violence, and argues that Katherina develops Stockholm syndrome;

a model of domestic violence that includes tactics other than physical violence gives readers a way in which to understand Kate's romanticised surrender at the end of the play as something other than consensual, as, in fact, a typical response to abuse [...] Like a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, she denies her own feelings in order to bond with her abuser. Her surrender and obedience signify her emotional bondage as a survival strategy; she aims to please because her life depends upon it. Knowing how the Stockholm syndrome works can help us to see that whatever "subjectivity" might be achieved is created out of domination and a coercive bonding."[144]

In a Marxist reading of the play, Natasha Korda argues that although Petruchio is not characterised as a violent man, he still embodies sixteenth century notions regarding the subjugation and objectification of women. Shrew taming stories existed prior to Shakespeare's play, and in such stories, "the object of the tale was simply to put the shrew to work, to restore her (frequently through some gruesome form of punishment) to her proper productive place within the household economy."[145] Petruchio does not do this, but Korda argues he still works to curtail the activities of the woman; "Kate [is] not a reluctant producer, but rather an avid and sophisticated consumer of market goods [...] Petruchio's taming strategy is accordingly aimed not at his wife's productive capacity – not once does he ask Kate to brew, bake, wash, card, or spin – but at her consumption. He seeks to educate her in her role as a consumer."[146] She believes that even though Petruchio does not use force to tame Katherina, his actions are still an endorsement of patriarchy; he makes her his property and tames her into accepting a patriarchal economic worldview. Vital in this reading is Katherina's final speech, which Korda argues "inaugurates a new gendered division of labour, according to which husbands "labour both by sea and land" while their wives luxuriate at home [...] In erasing the status of housework as work, separate-sphere ideology renders the housewife perpetually indebted to her husband [...] The Taming of the Shrew marks the emergence of the ideological separation of feminine and masculine spheres of labour."[147]

In a different reading of how gender politics are handled in the play, David Beauregard reads the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio in traditional Aristotelian terms. Petruchio, as the architect of virtue (Politics, 1.13), brings Kate into harmony with her nature by developing her "new-built virtue and obedience," (5.2.118), and she, in turn, brings to Petruchio in her person all the Aristotelian components of happiness – wealth and good fortune, virtue, friendship and love, the promise of domestic peace and quiet (Nicomachean Ethics, 1.7–8). The virtue of obedience at the center of Kate's final speech is not what Aristotle describes as the despotic rule of master over slave, but rather the statesman's rule over a free and equal person (Politics, 1.3, 12–13). Recognising the evil of despotic domination, the play holds up in inverse form Kate's shrewishness, the feminine form of the will to dominance, as an evil that obstructs natural fulfillment and destroys marital happiness.[148]


Another major theme noted by numerous scholars is cruelty. Alexander Leggatt, for example, argues

the taming of Katherina is not just a lesson, but a game – a test of skill and a source of pleasure. The roughness is, at bottom, part of the fun: such is the peculiar psychology of sport that one is willing to endure aching muscles and risk the occasional broken limb for the sake of the challenge. The sports most often recalled throughout the play are blood sports, hunting and hawking, thus invoking in the audience the state of mind in which cruelty and violence are acceptable, even exciting, because their scope is limited by tacit agreement and they are made the occasion for a display of skill.[149]

Ann Thompson makes a similar point regarding attempts to soften Petruchio's cruelty when she argues "the fact that in the folktale versions the shrew-taming story always comes to its climax when the husbands wager on their wives' obedience must have been partly responsible for the large number of references to sporting, gaming and gambling throughout the play. These metaphors can help to make Petruchio's cruelty acceptable by making it seem limited and conventionalised."[150] Marvin Bennet Krims argues "the play leans heavily on representations of cruelty for its comedic effect."[151] He believes cruelty permeates the entire play, including the Induction, arguing the Sly frame, with the Lord's spiteful practical joke, prepares the audience for a play willing to treat cruelty as a comedic matter.[152] He suggests that cruelty is a more important theme than gender, arguing "the aggression represented in Taming can be read as having less to do with gender and more to do with hate, with the text thereby becoming a comic representation of the general problem of human cruelty and victimisation."[153]

Director Michael Bogdanov, who directed the play in 1978, on the other hand, believes the main theme of the play is the condemnation of cruelty;

Shakespeare shows women totally abused – like animals – bartered to the highest bidder. He shows women used as commodities, not allowed to choose for themselves. In The Taming of the Shrew you get that extraordinary scene between Baptista, Grumio, and Tranio, where they are vying with each other to see who can offer most for Bianca, who is described as 'the prize.' It is a toss of the coin to see which way she will go: to the old man with a certain amount of money, or to the young man, who is boasting that he's got so many ships. She could end up with the old impotent fool, or the young 'eligible' man: what sort of life is that to look forward to? There is no question of it, [Shakespeare's] sympathy is with the women, and his purpose, to expose the cruelty of a society that allows these things to happen.[154]


The considerable motivational power of money is another major theme. For example, when speaking of whether or not someone may ever want to marry Katherina, Hortensio says "Though it pass your patience and mine to endure her loud alarums, why man, there be good fellows in the world, and a man could light on them, would take her with all faults and money enough" (1.1.125–128). Later, Petruchio confirms that Hortensio was right in this assertion;

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.


Grumio is even more explicit a few lines later; "Why give him gold enough and marry him to a puppet or an aglet-baby, or an old trot with ne're a tooth in her head, though she have as many diseases as two and fifty horses. Why, nothing comes amiss, so money comes withal" (1.2.77–80). Furthermore, Petruchio is urged on in his wooing of Katherina by Gremio, Tranio (as Lucentio) and Hortensio, all of whom vow to pay him if he wins her, on top of Baptista's sizeable dowry ("After my death, the one half of my lands, and in possession, twenty thousand crowns"). Later, Petruchio corrects Baptista when he speculates that love is all-important;

BAPTISTA When the special thing is well obtained, That is, her love; for that is all in all. PETRUCHIO Why that is nothing.


Similarly, Gremio and Tranio literally bid for Bianca. As Baptista says, "'Tis deeds must win the prize, and he of both/That can assure my daughter greatest dower/Shall have my Bianca's love" (2.1.344–346).

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