On BookTube (the book section of YouTube), a group of us are participating in a read-along of all of Shakespeare’s plays. We will be reading one play a week. This week’s play is The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t enjoy Shakespeare when I studied his major plays in high school, but after watching a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Richard III, I’ve decided to give Shakespeare another go. I’m excited to participate in this read-along, but it’s easier for me to organize my thoughts in a blog post than in a video. So here are some of my thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew. There will be spoilers, but I don’t think this should really matter since Shakespeare’s audience already knew the stories.
Thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew
The great Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber has published a massive commentary of all of the Bard’s plays called Shakespeare After All. I have been reading the appropriate sections of Garber’s book to gain a better understanding of each of the plays. Garber’s commentary on The Taming of the Shrew focuses on the role of disguise in the play. Highborn people disguise themselves as lowborn people, and men disguise themselves as women (both the actors and the characters).
Christopher Sly is a drunk tinker whose made to believe that he is a lord. Lucentio and his servant Tranio exchange places so that Lucentio can woo Bianca, the modest daughter of a wealthy gentleman. A pedant pretends to be pseudo-Tranio’s father Vincentio. Although Petruchio never physically disguises himself, he disguises his true intention in marrying Katherina. He claims to love Katherina, but he’s only interested in proving to his friends that he can tame the shrew. Garber shows the parallel between Sly and Katherina. Both are the butt of a joke, and both are told to believe the opposite of what they believe to be true. However, Garber insists that unlike Sly, Katherina changes into a different person by the end of the play. We never learn about Sly’s fate. Kate, on the other hand, becomes the submissive wife that Petruchio wanted all along.
Garber’s commentary not only highlights the major theme of disguise in The Taming of the Shrew, it also argues rightly that disguise was a device employed in many medieval plays. It was also common for a play to feature another play as a subplot. The Kate story is a performance put on by Sly’s captors.
However, I think that Sly and Kate are even more similar than Garber allows. True, there’s no evidence of sarcasm in Kate’s final speech to Petruchio and his friends. She has sincerely come to believe that women are the weaker sex and should therefore be submissive to their husbands. But Kate’s relationship to Petruchio is far from ideal. Petruchio is not a good husband. He is abusive. He starves his wife and psychologically manipulates her. Kate ultimately falls in love with her abuser, but she isn’t ever free to say no. Like Sly, Kate is the slave of another. While I agree with Garber that Kate is sincere in her speech, the final scene is highly ironic. I think that even Shakespeare’s misogynistic audience would consider the relationship problematic. Petruchio is not the model husband.
Her final performance is for him [Petruchio], and seems to represent not an abandonment of her earlier independence, but a revised understanding of what freedom means, in sexuality and in marriage.
But even if Kate has come to believe that she is independent, anyone can see that she isn’t. Kate has no choice but to obey her husband. If she disobeys Petruchio, she is abused. Therefore, Kate’s final speech, while sincere, is also a testament of what an abuser can do to his victim. An abuser can convince his victim that his oppression is true freedom. Sly too comes to believe that he is a lord, but his freedom is an illusion. He has come to believe that he’s an actual lord, but the people who are fooling Sly are truly the ones in power. At the end of the play, Petruchio wins his bet. He was never concerned about Kate’s well-being or his marriage. It was all a game. Even if Kate’s final speech is supposed to be marriage wisdom, on the lips of Kate, the speech is ridiculous. Kate has been brain-washed into believing that she should be obedient to her husband. This is not wisdom that she freely came to. How long will this last? The dialogue between Hortensio and Lucentio at the end of the play suggest that Kate’s taming may not be complete:
HORTENSIO: Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew.
LUCENTIO: ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.
But Garber rightly points out that the ambiguous ending lends itself to numerous, even contradictory interpretations. Indeed, modern productions of the play try to downplay the apparent sexism in the final speech by having Kate wink at the audience. Garber argues (and I agree) that the speech is supposed to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is only one way to read the play or that a modern production shouldn’t re-interpret the ending. We will never know Shakespeare’s true intentions.
Indeed, it is one of Shakespeare’s brilliant gifts as a dramatist to provide, in almost every case, a credible contrary argument, onstage, to what might seem to be a prevailing viewpoint. The “philosophy” of Shakespeare’s plays is offered, always, contrapuntally, with opposing ideas placed in explicit juxtaposition.
It’s possible that I disagree somewhat with Garber’s assessment of Kate’s speech because I want The Taming of the Shrew to be more than a comedy praising misogyny. I want Shakespeare to at least acknowledge that the relationship is abusive. Kate claims that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ Thy head, thy sovereign; one that/cares for thee” but where do we see Petruchio caring for Kate?
If you have read the play, let me know what you think. How do you interpret the end of the play?