Shakespeare often raises dilemmas in his plays, which he then expresses through two contrasting characters. For example, in “Henry IV Part One”, Prince Hal’s loyalties are torn between his pious, God-fearing father on one side and his hard-drinking, high-living old friend Falstaff on the other. In the end he chooses his father’s path, and the high-minded Henry V is born.
“The Taming of the Shrew” presents a similar dichotomy in the shape of Minola Baptista’s two daughters. On one side is the obliging and studious Bianca. On the other, the angry contrarian Katherine. The play is essentially a tale of two sisters and the very different relationships they strike with the men they marry.
In a sense, this play combines two stories without much in common, except that their central characters are sisters, and these sisters are contrasting. The story referenced in the title, in which the angry Katherine is subdued by marriage, is the simpler of the two. Petruchio sets out to tame the woman he married for her wealth, and by a series of questionable stratagems, he succeeds.
Bianca’s narrative is more complex. Three suitors adopt a range of disguises to gain access to the irresistible younger sister, which only brings the need for further disguise in its wake. Inevitably these unravel when Lucentio’s father meets the man pretending to be him, but by then the principals have fallen in love with one another anyway, and it’s too late to worry.
Changes in gender roles over the four hundred years since this play was written sharpen the focus on the narrative that follows Katherine, and animate the debate about how seriously we should take her “taming”. Plenty of critics have wondered whether Shakespeare is being sincere here. Or is he being ironical? Does he really mean to say that it is acceptable to bully a woman (or a man, for that matter) into acquiescence and submission?
Others would say that this kind of question is a touch simplistic. A novelist writing about a racist society (for example) will need to reflect this racism in racist characters without being accused of being racist. Nonetheless one wonders whether what binds these two narratives together is the desire on the playwright’s part to dilute the heavy messaging of Katherine’s story with the lightness of Bianca’s.
Scene by Scene
A drunk tinker falls asleep outside an inn, and is involuntarily co-opted as victim of a practical joke.
He is to be convinced when he awakes that he’s the lord of the house recovering from long illness.
He is reluctantly persuaded, introduced to “his wife”, and told a comedy is about to be performed.
Act One Scene One
Lucentio has left Florence and his father Vincentio, and come to Padua with Tranio in order to study.
Baptista Minola appears with his daughter Bianca, her suitors Gremio and Hortensio – and Katherine.
They cannot marry Bianca until Katherine is wed, and there’s no enthusiasm for that on either side.
By contrast with Katherine, Bianca with her “music, instruments and poetry” seems an ideal woman.
Her father would like a tutor for Bianca, and Lucentio – also now falling in love with her – volunteers.
Tranio will in turn pretend to be Lucentio, and immediately he begins to dress for the part of master.
Lucentio deceives another servant Biondello as to why Tranio is now wearing the master’s clothes.
Meanwhile, back in the theatre, Christopher Sly announces he is well satisfied with the play so far.
Act One Scene Two
Petruchio has arrived in Padua from Verona to visit his friend Hortensio following his father’s death.
He came to “see the world” and “Haply to wive” – and Hortensio knows a suitably wealthy woman.
But he admits she has her faults, being “froward” (difficult), and he concedes “I would not wed her”.
It seems his father knew hers, and as Petruchio is keen to meet her, Hortensio will accompany him.
He’ll go disguised as a music teacher, so as to gain access to the beautiful sister, whom he desires.
Gremio and Lucentio arrive, the latter disguised as Cambio, also a teacher “for the fair Bianca”.
Petruchio is undaunted by Katherine’s reputation as “an irksome brawling scold” and “wild-cat”.
Lucentio arrives, ready to begin his work as music teacher to Bianca, appointed in 1.1 by her father.
Tranio, as Lucentio, suggests that, though rivals in love, they should “eat and drink as friends”.
Act Two Scene One
Bianca, keen to please, offers to back down in romantic matters, but her good will is not returned.
Baptista Minola berates her, but Katherine reveals her bitterness towards both him and Bianca.
Petruchio announces his desire to court Katherine – and Hortensio’s willingness to tutor Bianca.
Tranio introduces himself as Lucentio, freeing up the real Lucentio to support Hortensio’s tuition.
Baptista Minola promises the impatient Petruchio “twenty thousand crowns” to marry Katherine.
Hortensio returns nursing a bruised head after an encounter with Katherine – to Petruchio’s delight.
Petruchio resolves to praise Katherine at every opportunity, and maintain a positive frame of mind.
But Katherine proves “froward” and contrary, arguing with him on every point, then hitting him.
But Petruchio replies he finds her “passing gentle”, “pleasant” and “sweet as springtime flowers”.
He tells her he has agreed a dowry with her father, and he sees himself “born to tame you, Kate”.
Katherine regards him as a “mad-cap ruffian” but he announces their wedding for Sunday.
Her father calls for Petruchio and Katherine to link hands (“kiss me, Kate”), but she says nothing.
With Katherine spoken for, Gremio and Lucentio are free to compete for Bianca’s hand in marriage.
Lucentio emerges victorious, so if his (or “his”) father can guarantee his wealth, he will have Bianca.
Act Three Scene One
Lucentio the literature teacher and Hortensio the music tutor are rebuked for arguing by Bianca.
Lucentio romances her secretly (“Lucentio … comes a-wooing”) while seeming to study Latin.
Meanwhile Hortensio attempts to romance her but (“Tut, I like it not!”) with much less success.
Hortensio realises that Lucentio is attracted to Bianca, and decides, if so, he will “be quit” of her.
Act Three Scene Two
As the marriage between Petruchio and Katherine approaches, it emerges Petruchio is absent.
A servant announces that Petruchio is on his way, his clothes rough and his horse diseased.
Pressed for an explanation Petruchio angrily replies that “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes”.
Meanwhile Tranio and Lucentio discuss the need to find a wealthy father for the marriage to Bianca.
Gremio arrives to describe chaotic scenes at the wedding, with Petruchio punching the priest.
Next the groom threw wine over the sexton, and grabbed his bride by the throat to kiss her.
When the wedding party arrives, Petruchio announces he is leaving along with his reluctant bride.
He claims he is “master of what is mine own” – and as this includes Katherine, they make their exit.
Baptista Minola appoints Lucentio to take the place of Petruchio, and Bianca that of Katherine.
Act Four Scene One
Grumio rides ahead of Petruchio and Katherine in order to ready the marital home for their arrival.
He recalls how Katherine fell under her horse, yet Petruchio beat him “because her horse stumbled”.
Katherine was covered in mud but she “waded through the dirt” to rescue Grumio from his master.
Petruchio arrives and treats his staff with violent aggression, leaving Katherine to advise “Patience”.
But his anger intensifies when he finds the meat burnt, and he throws it back at the servants.
As the married couple leave for “thy bridal chamber”, the servants gossip about his angry mood.
In a soliloquy, Petruchio reveals that he will deprive Katherine of meat and sleep “till she stoop”.
Act Four Scene Two
Hortensio observes Lucentio teaching “The Art of Love” to Bianca, and overhears their conversation.
Realising that Bianca is not for him he abandons his quest for her hand and reveals his disguise.
He pledges to marry “a wealthy widow” imminently, and in future to value kindness over beauty.
An old man – a “Pedant” – is recruited to play the part of Lucentio’s father and confirm his riches.
In imitating Vincentio, the Pedant will avoid the dangers inherent in being a Mantuan in Padua.
Act Four Scene Three
Katherine, “starv’d for meat [and] giddy for lack of sleep” begs Grumio to “get me some repast”.
Grumio discusses various foods with her but refuses to bring them, as if making her appetite worse.
Petruchio appears with a haberdasher, but dismisses his hat, much to Katherine’s disappointment.
She admits she feels oppressed and angry, and insists on keeping the hat despite his dismissal.
Next the tailor’s gown is inspected and dismissed, despite Katherine’s praise of it as “pleasing”.
The tailor protests the gown is exactly as ordered, but though he will be paid, the gown is rejected.
Petruchio tells Katherine that they are to visit her father, though their “garments” will be “poor”.
But when she rightly questions his ability to tell the time accurately, suddenly the visit is postponed.
Act Four Scene Four
Biondello reports that he has told Minola that Lucentio’s father Vincentio has arrived in Padua.
Vincentio tells Minola his son loves Bianca, and Minola consents to the match if the dower is right.
Minol agrees the arrangements to formalise the financial aspects of the marriage that evening.
Biondello informs Lucentio of the arrangements and suggests the marriage take place that evening.
Act Four Scene Five
Journeying to Padua with Hortensio, Petruchio insists the sun is the moon and Katherine acquiesces.
Meeting Vincentio, Petruchio insists that the old man is a young woman, and Katherine agrees.
They fall in together, and discover that Vincentio is the father of the man marrying Katherine’s sister.
Hortensio closes the scene by acknowledging that Petruchio has achieved his goal with Katherine.
Act Five Scene One
Biondello encourages Lucentio and Bianca to make haste to the church to complete the marriage.
Vincentio arrives at Lucentio’s house, to be met by the Pedant claiming to be Lucentio’s father.
Biondello denies Vincentio’s claims and Tranio maintains the deception until Gremio intervenes.
Lucentio arrives from his wedding to Bianca to confirm that this “Vincentio” is indeed his father.
Tranio is blameless, Lucentio adds, since he was only doing what “myself enforc’d him to”.
But both Vincentio and Minola are angry at the deception, and both depart in high dudgeon.
Petruchio insists that Katherine kiss him publicly, and after initially demurring, she consents.
Act Five Scene Two
Lucentio welcomes the guests to his wedding feast, including Hortensio and his wife the Widow.
The Widow emerges as a contrary and sharp-witted wife, quickly engaged in arguments with others.
The three wives depart (as Bianca says, “I mean to shift my bush”) leaving the men to discuss them.
Minola believes Katherine is “the veriest shrew of all” but Petruchio suggests a test for this idea.
They bet on whether, when their wife is summoned, she comes more willingly than the other two.
Lucentio summons Bianca first but she soon responds that “she is busy and she cannot come”.
Next Hortensio summons the Widow, but is told she will not come: “she bids you come to her”.
Finally Petruchio sends Grumio to Katherine: “Say I command her come to me”. And she appears.
Petruchio, proud of Katherine’s “virtue and obedience”, tells her to remove her hat and destroy it.
Next he instructs her to tell the other two wives “What duty they do owe their lords and husbands”.
Katherine replies by asserting that “They husband is thy lord”, yet he asks only for “obedience”.
She continues that to be “froward, peevish, sullen, sour” is tantamount to “graceless” treachery.
Women, she says, are “weak” and should be open to “place your hands below your husband’s boot”.
Petruchio invites Katherine to join him in bed, while Hortensio and Lucentio marvel at the change.
The opening scene – the “Induction” – casts a quite unsuitable candidate in the position of aristocrat. But despite his elevation, his instincts remain untouched: for a drink he requires “a pot of small ale” (“I ne’er drank sack [wine] in my life”, he remarks), and when he is introduced to his wife, he immediately demands the room be cleared so that he can enjoy her intimately. So beneath any veneer of quality lurk the same human instincts as are shared by the rest of us. Shakespeare seems to be registering a scepticism that any lord or master has an innate right to their position in society. It’s all contingent, he seems to imply.
The Induction suggests that what follows is a play within a play. This technique is employed by Shakespeare in plays as diverse as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (“Pyramus and Thisbe”) and “Hamlet” (“The Mousetrap”), and for very different purposes. Here the reader may choose to look for similarities and resonances between the Induction and the play proper, bearing in mind that many scholars believe that a closing reference to Christopher Sly may have gone missing over the years since the play was first performed.
The opening scene set in Padua, in which Lucentio plans to gain access to the delectable Bianca by disguising himself as a music and poetry teacher, evokes a number of themes from the Induction or Prologue: among other parallels, the significance of clothing as a badge of rank and the uses of disguise. These and other themes have a theatrical air to them: by donning a new set of clothes, we become someone else entirely. In the following scene, the theme of disguise is amplified, since, under cover of Petruchio’s interest in Katherine, Lucentio will pretend to be the music teacher Cambio and Hortensio will pretend to be Licio. Meanwhile, Tranio is disguised as Lucentio.
Petruchio’s motives in the scenes that follow can seem ambiguous, so for clarity it is best to refer back to his explanation for leaving Verona: his father has died, he is not short of money (“Crowns in my purse I have”), he wants to get married, but ideally he will do so “wealthily” and “happily” here in Padua. In the end he is offered 20,000 crowns by Minola, around 5,000 pounds sterling.
By the end of Act One, our impression of Katherine, though negative, is more or less entirely formed by what others say of her, rather than by first-hand evidence. In fact in the entire opening act, she has only four speeches, all in 1.1, totalling a dozen lines. Thereafter she is traduced by the young men in 1.2: “an irksome brawling scold” and a “wild-cat” among other encomia.
This is a play with fathers but no mothers. There is no mention of the mother of Bianca and Katherine here, though their father plays a prominent role in events. Similarly, anxieties around Petruchio’s family background centre on his father rather than his mother, who is notable, as so often with Shakespeare’s matriarchs, by her apparent non-existence.
As a general rule, mothers in Shakespeare are in short supply. Caliban’s relationship with his late mother Sycorax is a foot-note in “The Tempest”, and Hamlet’s dysfunctional relations with Gertrude – now married off and loved up – are a key feature of his tragedy. But whereas fathers and daughters are pervasive in Shakespeare, mothers and sons are thin on the ground.
Like Minola, Shakespeare had two daughters. In later life, the older of the two seems to have been a source of strength, the younger something of a worry. Whether he invested much time during the twenty-five years he lived in London wondering about their lives in Stratford, three days travel away, cannot be known. But on the evidence of plays like this one, thoughts of fathers and daughters in the abstract were a constant feature of his mental universe.
If “The Taming of the Shrew” is genuinely Shakespeare’s first play – naturally there is some dispute about the order in which the plays were written – then Petruchio’s soliloquy in 2.1 (“I’ll attend her here ….”) is Shakespeare’s first soliloquy: the first of many such. He uses it to prepare his tactics for courting the tempestuous young woman. So the audience knows what to expect when the young couple meet. Later soliloquies will be used more ambitiously as Shakespeare explores the interior dilemmas of characters as richly complex as Macbeth and Hamlet.
The auction conducted in 2.1 by Gremio and Tranio (on Lucentio’s behalf) for Bianca’s hand in marriage strikes the modern audience as embarrassingly materialistic. Yet this kind of bargaining is not unusual in Shakespeare, and it reflects his society: in “King Lear” for example, the Duke of Burgundy drops out of the running for Cordelia’s hand when Lear withdraws his favour from her and deprives her of her birth-right; in a very different play, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, much is made of Anne Page’s financial prospects, having been left “seven hundred pound” by her grandfather: “I know the young gentlewoman” remarks one of her suitors, “she has good gifts”. This is not a reference to any personal qualities she may have, as Revd Evans makes clear: “Indeed”, he replies, “Seven hundred pounds … is goot [sic] gifts”.
Petruchio’s behaviour hitherto has been a model of courtesy and decorum. But his performance at the wedding (3.2) suggests that, in his marriage to Katherine, he intends to illustrate for her the shortcomings of her somewhat anti-social methods. In doing so, all accepted ways of doing things are turned on their head – his inappropriate costume, the violence of his assault on the priest and his abandonment of the wedding feast are all calculated attacks on treasured social conventions. Katherine’s reluctance to join him in leaving the wedding feast is quite understandable and her surrender to his will at this point is a sign of things to come.
In 1.2 Katherine was compared to a “wild-cat”. In 4.1, Petruchio compares her to a “hawk” – one he intends to naturalise and train. His strategy is to deprive her of what she needs most – food, sleep and psychological comfort – since “thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour”. To the modern mind it is difficult to accept that this soliloquy sees Katherine as anything much better than a wild animal that needs to be broken.
The appearance of the tailor in 4.3 and the wrangling over the gown prepared for Katherine remind the audience of the importance of clothes in the play. From Christopher Sly, dressed (like Macbeth) in “borrowed robes”, to Katherine’s desire for a dress she is not to wear, clothing has been intrinsic to the play. The previous scene (4.2) closes with Tranio telling the Pedant to “Go with me to clothe you as becomes you” (i.e. as Lucentio’s wealthy father, Vincentio), and this scene ends with Petruchio’s homily on appearance and reality: “is the jay more precious than the lark”, he asks, “Because his painted skin contents the eye?” In Shakespeare’s England, the answer to this question would seem to be “Yes”, if only because the laws of Sumptuary dictated what the various ranks and classes in society might wear. At this moment in the play, Petruchio – evidently a staunch defender of gender hierarchies – is happy to challenge the social pyramid with a speech more radical than it looks.
Act Five Scene Two has much to say about the sub-plot, and its concern for the play’s main narrative is relegated to the last dozen lines. But they are not to be overlooked, since they serve as a kind of climax to much that has gone before. Petruchio asks Katherine for a kiss, and she resists at first but then accedes to his request. In doing so she has become as demure as her sister Bianca and as acquiescent to the demands of others. How far this is a desirable outcome may be another matter but if the essence of literature is transformation, then the play’s main plot has reached its destination. The shrew has been tamed. The critic Harold Bloom, incidentally, senses in this scene “exquisite music of marriage at its happiest”.
Katherine’s final speech in 5.2 is capable of a range of interpretations. It may well be that it is sincerely meant, and that the play has reached its climax with the transformation of the shrew. She is now the perfect model of a subservient woman, proud to be her husband’s servant. Or it may be that the speech is meant ironically: in one recent production of the play, Katherine winks archly at her sister while delivering the lines that the audience of three males wants to hear. Or it may be that the critic Emma Smith is right when she suggests that Petruchio proposed the game, and his victory, depending as it did on Katherine’s compliance, was a set-up. There are no doubt other explanations, but agreement can be reached on one point: that this is among the most controversial speeches in Shakespeare’s canon, but at least interpretation, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.
At first she is famed in Padua for her fiery temper, a reputation she justifies by hitting Hortensio and Petruchio with musical instruments. But perhaps she has her justification in her father’s evident bias towards her sister. In the end, he is happy to pay an enormous sum of money to see her married off. Thereafter she gradually transforms into the perfect wife and companion, learning the rules of compromise and becoming a proselytizer for seeing the other point of view. The critic Harold Bloom believes her marriage is the happiest in Shakespeare after the Macbeths.
At first he is a picture of friendly compliance. Arriving in Padua from Mantua, he has spread his wings to see the world and to find a wife that will supplement his already considerable riches. Matched with Katherine he seems ready to meet the challenge. As it transpires his strategy is to behave as badly to her as she has to him, in the hope of transforming her uncompromising spirit. At the wedding and thereafter, and at home in Mantua, his mistreatment of her gradually wears her down until she feels able to deliver a passionate encomium to married life in the closing scene.
Shakespeare has a habit of presenting blameless wall-flowers in his plays, and Bianca seems at first to be incapable of any gesture that might offend. But her act of defiance in the closing scene, when she hears that her new husband has lost a hundred crowns betting on her compliance (“more fool you for laying on my duty”) suggests that she may now be beginning to channel the contrarian spirit of her sister.
Give the name of the drunken tinker who falls asleep at the start of the play.
Who has Petruchio come to Padua to visit?
How much will Minola pay Petruchio to marry Katherine?
How did Petruchio react when Katherine fell under her horse?
Which text does Lucentio teach Bianca?
Who does Hortensio marry after failing to win Bianca’s hand?
Which two tradesmen does Petruchio bring to meet Katherine?
Who do Katherine and Petruchio meet on the journey to Padua?
Whose suggestion is it that the three women should compete for obedience?
Where in Katherine’s opinion should a wife be ready to place her hand?
Twenty thousand crowns
He beats Grumio
“The Art of Love”
A wealthy widow
A haberdasher and a tailor
The real Vincentio
Beneath her husband’s boot
Around two decades after Shakespeare wrote “The Taming of the Shrew”, his successor as playwright for The King’s Men, John Webster, was inspired to write a sequel. “The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed”, written in 1611, serves as something of a rejoinder to the original, in particular in its gender politics. *
In Webster’s play, Katherine has died and Petruchio remarried, but this marriage proves less successful than his first, as his second wife proves more resistant to his influence. Having threatened to leave the country (a proposal welcomed by his new partner), he eventually settles for pretending to be dead, and is brought before his wife in a coffin, an emblem of her victory and the moment to bury the hatchet.
Shakespeare himself seems not to have objected to Webster’s response to his original. Indeed, official approval may have extended to the very summit of society since in 1633 the two plays were performed in harness for the entertainment of Charles I and his wife. They were performed together by the RSC as recently as 2003.
*I am indebted to Stanley Wells, “Shakespeare and Co” (London: Penguin, 2007), for the detail in this note.