The Taming of the Shrew

Ah, yes. A classic. And, finally, I am back to posting about Shakespeare. :)

So, I finally have a chance to sit down and think about this play after reading it once more. It isn't my favorite play because it seems to begin so interestingly and end so abruptly. I have read The Taming of the Shrew many times, but, to make it more interesting this time around, I decided to approach it with a question in mind: Why, oh why, is Kate a shrew?

I know that people have discussed this at length. But, remember: I am not in a Shakespeare class and I don't have any professional training in this area (other than a few classes that I have taken YEARS ago) so I am just going with my own thoughts. This question came to me as I watched the Taylor/Burton version on DVD.

As one person put it (and not in these exact words), Elizabeth Taylor comes off as being more than slightly unhinged in the production. And, indeed, many people just play the part that way.

But I never bought that Kate was just a shrew for no reason at all. I wondered more and more about this as I indulged my Taylor/Burton obsession over the summer. In that production, there is so much emphasis on materialism and money, and I started to think about the role of those things in the play. Many people have commented on how the Taylor/Burton production highlights the public fascination of the tremendous fights between the Burtons and their lavish lifestyle. As I watched it, though, it seemed that there could be another meaning behind materialism/money in the play in general.

So, I reread the play recently, and here is what I think: I think that Katharina has very definite reasons for being a "Shrew". Kate, to put it bluntly, is angry. She is angry that she has always been considered an item for trade--and a trade in which she likely (she believes) will not profit.

Her first words are harsh, and they are spoken to her father. He is trying to get rid of her by marrying her off before her younger sister. To this, she responds, "I pray you, sir, is it your will/To make a stale of me amongst these mates?" (1.1.57-58) Her words and her absolute knowledge of what is happening indicate to me that she has known for a very long time the position her father sees her in. He has probably always been very open about what purpose his daughters should serve and she knows that she is at the mercy of a man's bargaining. (Note that the same happens in the Sly plot.)

This message is confirmed, in my opinion, by Act 2, Scene 1. Now, in the Taylor/Burton version, this is the first scene in which we see Taylor as Kate. She is chasing Bianca around, seemingly without reason, and beating her. It just makes Kate look mean and spoiled and, yes, shrewish. But the play's language indicates something different. Building on the brief words mentioned from Act 1, Kate really reveals her issues clearly in her outburst against Bianca in Act 2. Her anger at Bianca has a purpose, I think, in this scene: she wants Bianca to wake up and understand what is really going on--that their father is using them and willing to barter them off to the highest bidder.

Bianca opens the scene by saying that if Kate will just untie her hands, she will give all of her possessions to Kate. Kate tells Bianca that she "fancies riches" (2.1.16). By keeping Bianca's hands tied and talking about riches/material goods constantly, Kate seems to be equating marriage based on a material exchange with imprisonment. Perhaps, by binding Bianca, Kate is trying to force her to see the danger of such an arrangement.

Baptista comes into the scene and says, "Why, how now, dame? Whence grows this insolence?" (2.1.24) He, obviously, doesn't get it. Kate's reply is that Bianca's "silence flouts me, and I'll be revenged" (2.1.29). In my opinion, this response confirms to me that Kate has a purpose in her actions: she wants a response from Bianca. She wants Bianca to realize the truth of their situation!

When Baptista sends Bianca inside, away from Kate, Kate says to Baptista: "Nay, now I see/She is your treasure" (2.1.32) Now, this is not a moment of jealously. I see Kate, instead, saying this disgustedly. She knows that Bianca--even golden child Bianca--is nothing to him. The same type of statement is made in King Lear. King Lear also sees his girls and their "love" as equated with treasure (and says so through his actions)--yet he is seeing their position in the wrong way...and it causes his downfall. We don't get anything so horrible here, but I think that Kate is just so angry that her father cannot love her as a human of worth and value not related to money.

Petruchio's willingness (and need) to use business language allows him to succeed with Baptista, but he knows such language will never work with Katharina...who he insists on calling "Kate." This moment is significant, of course, because he is dominating her through language--not through money or physical force. Baptista continues to "play a merchant's part," but Petruchio knows that he will only win out over Kate by taking away all material goods and talk of money (2.1.329). He makes clear that he will own her, perhaps in seriousness or perhaps in jest, when he says: "I will be master of what is mine own:/She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,/My household stuff, my field, my barn,/My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,/And here she stands, touch her whoever dare" (3.2.225-229). Well, yes. She is all of those things because it is the money she brings that will keep all of those things. But, the words are meant to imply ownership on a whole new level...and it is this that leads to how Kate plays the lines at the end of the play (oh, you know them...the whole placing of the wife's hand under the husband's foot thing).

There is a big debate about those final lines, of course. Is Kate really serious? Is she being sarcastic? Has she been tamed to a "household Kate" by Petruchio? In my opinion, yes--as much as can be expected. I totally buy Elizabeth Taylor's sincere reading of those lines. (Of course, the taming in that version had to do with taming a spoiled brat rather than a logically angry woman.) I don't think there is much sarcasm in them, especially in light of how I am reading her "shrewness." Petruchio, as much as I don't like him, has done one thing right. Even though he needs her money Petruchio is not throwing it in her face all of the time. Instead, he only wants her in the role of wife. I don't think that she minds it. She expects him to be like her father (a man incapable of seeing her as a daughter but only seeing her as a good to be traded). When Petruchio appears as just any other husband expecting wifely obedience (as much as I hate that theme, it must be acknowledged), I think Kate really is okay with it all.

Now, as a side note (and I can't remember if I have mentioned this on the blog before), I am using the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of this play (and a few others). I like these editions because they include interviews and notes about stage productions (including photos). However, interestingly, I disagree with most of the commentary included. For example, Fiona Shaw states that Kate falls for Petruchio because he "genuinely wants her." As she says, "It may only be for her money or services...but at least she will be valued for something" (137). I don't agree with the idea that Kate is excited about being valued for her "money or services"...that is exactly what she has been running from during the play.

A comment that I agree with a bit more is this one by Gregory Doran. He says:

"Kate isn't a stereotype, she's an accurate portrait of a woman of low self-esteem, forced to think of herself in the mercantile world of the play as a devalued chattel, until she meets a man with similar problems in his life and they recognize a like spirit." (148)

I agree with everything he says EXCEPT the part about Kate having "low self-esteem." I think he must be reading lines like the "treasure" line as Kate expressing jealously. But, as I said, I don't think that at all. I do think that his acknowledgment of Kate and Petruchio coming to a real understanding is dead accurate. Kate is a woman of intelligence, but she is frustrated and angry. It is only through seeing herself differently in a relationship with a man that she can actually change. It is a profound thing...but not always portrayed in a profound way.

In any case, this is the reading that I have of The Taming of the Shrew. I am mostly satisfied with it, but I still don't like the play. It feels so incomplete to me and I don't think Shakespeare had much to do with the writing of it or had help or just based it off of well-known sources so familiar that he wasn't as careful as he would be in later plays (some of this I read in the intro...and that makes complete sense to me).


Cathy Copeland said…
Thanks for the interesting review. Have you ever read/seen "The Tamer Tamed"? It's a Renaissance play (produced in 1610ish, maybe), where Kate has died and Petruchio gets a new wife, but Petruchio's new wife changes the roles completely and has him dependent on her money and her agreement to marry him...which forces him to, somehow, be under her thumb even after marriage.

It's fantastic, but I have always read the final scene of "Taming of the Shrew" as, if not sarcastic, at least cognizant of what the audience would have wanted. I'm not sure if that makes sense. But one of the things I enjoyed studying about Shakespeare was how he deliberately pandered to the audience without compromising his beliefs. He could "double-talk" in the cleverest way possible, and, wow, do I admire his ability to pander to the audience, agree with royalty, and still present cogent words that can be debated to this day. What a guy! :)
Susie said…
Cathy, No, I haven't seen that one, but it sounds great! I definitely am not a Shakespearean scholar, but I love reading the plays! I am making it my goal to go through all of them over time. I am sure I am completely misunderstanding a lot, but at least I am reading them, I guess!

BTW: I really enjoy reading your blog!

I hope everything is going well for you guys! Have a wonderful holiday!

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