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The Taming of the Shrew

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English Literature

You may have seen Leonardo DiCaprio go on about a 'dream within a dream' in the movie Inception (2010), but what about a play within a play? Does such a thing even exist? Yes, yes it does! William Shakespeare employed the narrative layering of play within a play in his drama, The Taming of the Shrew (1590-92), which is about a bully of a husband, or perhaps a waylaid wife. But, who is really the bad spouse in the story? Let's explore the text to find out.

The Taming of the Shrew: Overview

William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in the English literary canon for a good reason: the themes in his works are universal and timeless. The questions concerning moral dilemmas that his characters face are applicable even today. This is also true for his play, The Taming of the Shrew, which explores the roles that men and women are expected to play in their relationships with each other and in society. Love, manipulation, self-expression and control within relationships shape the discussions in The Taming of the Shrew. Interestingly, it is the attitude of the readers that determines whether the 'shrew' in the relationship needs to be 'tamed' or not and whether this has to come at the cost of diminishing her spirit and intellect.

Shrew - during the Elizabethan age, the term 'shrew' was reserved for women who did not fit into the role assigned to them by society. An Elizabethan woman was expected to be gentle, well-mannered, soft-spoken and obedient, and the term 'shrew' referred to a woman who did not have these qualities. The 'taming' of a 'shrew,' therefore, was a subject of folklore and fictional stories at the time.

The Taming of the Shrew: Summary

The play begins with an 'induction' in which a tinker, Christopher Sly, is inebriated and thrown out of a tavern. He falls asleep on the pavement and is spotted by a lord and his huntsmen. The lord decides to play a practical joke on Sly and takes him to his quarters. Changing Sly into the clothes of a nobleman and laying him in the lord's quarters, the employees of the lord attempt to convince Sly that he is indeed a rich nobleman who mistakenly believes he's poor. This includes the lord's page, who cross-dresses as Sly's wife and informs him that a group of actors will perform a comedy to help with Sly's confused state of mind.

Shakespeare's plays often feature characters cross-dressing and causing chaos and confusion. These include As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice.

The play is centred on two sisters, the sweet-natured and soft-spoken Bianca, and her elder, domineering, and loud sister, Katherine. Because of her mild personality, Bianca has numerous suitors, including Hortensio, Gremio, and the son of a wealthy merchant, Lucentio. Given Katherine's troublesome nature, the sisters' father, Baptista declares that Bianca can only get married if Katherine marries first. While Lucentio and his servant, Tranio, plot to disguise Lucentio as a teacher to gain access to and spend time with Bianca, Hortensio meets with another wealthy merchant named Petruchio who is in search of a wealthy wife.

Hortensio tells Petruchio of Katherine while explaining that, though she is wealthy and beautiful, she is temperamental. Petruchio, who only cares that his future bride is wealthy, sees this as a challenge, and, after meeting with Baptista, agrees on a wedding date to marry Katherine. There is some chemistry between Petruchio and Katherine as both are sharp and quick-witted. However, Petruchio wears Katherine down by ignoring her protests, refusing to serve her food due to his complaints that the meals served by the servants are not perfect enough for his bride, and not letting her sleep as he keeps complaining through the night.

Eventually, a worn-down Katherine is 'tamed' and learns to agree with her husband and obey him. Bianca and Lucentio elope and, eventually, at their wedding banquet, Lucentio, Hortensio (who marries a wealthy widow from the country) and Petruchio place a bet as to who has the most 'obedient' wife, with Petruchio winning the bet as they summon their wives and only Katherine answers the summons.

The Taming of the Shrew: Structure

The Taming of the Shrew has a complex structure. It begins with an introductory segment or 'induction' containing two scenes, setting the premise in which the 'play within a play' is performed. It is the play within the play that forms the complex plot that takes up the main body of the text.

The play consists of the 'induction' and a total of 5 acts, with the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine forming the main plot and the relationship between Lucentio and Bianca forming the subplot. Apart from the narrative device of the play within a play, Shakespeare also employs imagery and engages with games, sports, and entertainment to highlight certain features of the characters. For example, Katherine's 'taming' at the hands of her husband is compared to how he 'handles' falcons. The use of exaggerated satire and irony to enhance farce is also a stylistic element prominent in the play.

The Taming of the Shrew: Characters

The play features the following key characters:

Baptista Minola

Baptista is the father of Bianca and Katherine. Katherine accuses him of favouritism towards Bianca and is disgusted by his materialistic view towards marriage and his daughters' marital prospects. Baptista issues the condition that Bianca must remain single till Katherine is married.

Bartholomew

Bartholomew is the page of the lord who plays a practical joke on Christopher Sly. Bartholomew is the one who cross-dresses and pretends to be Sly's wife.

Bianca

Bianca is the younger of the two sisters in the play. She is sweet-natured and gentle. However, when Lucentio summons her at the end of the play, she refuses to answer his summons, giving the impression that she played the obedient woman till she was married.

Christopher Sly

The play within the play that comprises of the action that takes place with Bianca and Katherine is put on for the pleasure and entertainment of Christopher Sly, who is made to believe that he is a mad and forgetful nobleman. Sly makes a comment at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 and then does not reappear in the text.

Gremio

Although elderly, Gremio is one of Bianca's suitors.

Grumio

Grumio is the servant of Petruchio, and serves the role of a provider of comic relief in the play, especially when he misunderstands or pretends to misunderstand Petruchio's orders.

Hortensio

A suitor of Bianca, Hortensio pretends to be a music teacher named 'Litio' to gain access to Bianca. He ends up marrying a wealthy widow from the country after learning how to 'tame' a woman from Petruchio.

Katherine

Katherine is the titular 'shrew' of the play. She is ill-tempered and seen as 'unmanageable' by the men in the play. Despite coming across as loud, Katherine is intelligent and witty. She has a strong personality and a great capacity for compassion which is shown as she worries about the servants that Petruchio berates for being late and serving the couple with inadequate food. Her relationship with Petruchio is complex and develops over the course of the play where she learns to accept his will and also participates in his practical joke of calling Vincentio a young lady. In her final speech, Katherine explains that wives are weak and owe a debt to their husbands for lovingly taking care of them and keeping them safe. Whether this speech is delivered ironically is up to the reader's interpretation. Numerous adaptations of the play have had this speech adapted as satire, particularly to highlight the blatant sexism and misogyny it represents.

Misogyny refers to contempt or a deep hatred for women. It is a sexist ideology that often results in violence, abuse and suppression of women.

Lord

The lord is a mischievous figure who plays a practical joke on Christopher Sly and convinces him that he is a nobleman.

Lucentio

Lucentio is a student in Padua and the son of a wealthy merchant. He falls in love and elopes with Bianca.

Petruchio

The complexity of Petruchio's character matches that of Katherine. Some interpretations of the play highlight that Petruchio becomes an unreasonable man with a violent temper merely to show Katherine the ridiculousness of her shrewd temperament, to shake her out of her violent disposition, and to help her display her compassionate side. It is possible that Katherine's final speech about the weakness of wives and their quest for obedience is satirical, and that this irony is detected by Petruchio who may then be amused by it. However, as with the adaptations of Katherine's character, there are also diverse opinions surrounding Petruchio's character. While some believe his motivations and treatment of Katherine are born out of love and that he has finally found his match, others argue that Petruchio desires to establish himself as the dominant authority in the marital relationship, and therefore tries to 'tame' her.

The Taming of the Shrew: Themes

Marriage, gender roles and love

Katherine is identified as the troublemaker in the play because of her shrew-like behaviour. However, from the perspective of the modern-day Katherine's behaviour may strike as perfectly reasonable rather than problematic, for she is disgusted by the materialism of marriage and also by the blatant favouritism of her father towards the more malleable and obedient Bianca.

During the Elizabethan Age, when this play was written, the roles of men and women were rigidly defined. Women were expected to be docile and compliant, as opposed to the loud character of Katherine. Through the lens of 'comedy', Petruchio's mission to have Katherine submit to his dominance may be seen as innocent fun, however, it is often identified as representing misogyny and sexism instead.

One can certainly identify the complexities concerning marriage and love in this play. Shrews depicted in Elizabethan plays did not feature many redeeming qualities. This is not the case with The Taming of the Shrew, where the motivations behind Katherine's shrew-like demeanour are hinted at. Furthermore, breaking through her tough exterior reveals a sharp, intelligent and compassionate woman, who is capable of winning the reader over. Once Katherine finds herself in the role of a 'wife,' however, there is a marked change in her personality that occurs alongside the transformation in her marital relationship.

While some may argue that Petruchio subjects Katherine to torture by starving her and not letting her sleep, one may also view Petruchio as 'playing a shrew' to show Katherine how ridiculous her own behaviour is. At no point may one say that Petruchio and Katherine have an 'equal' footing in their marital partnership because of Katherine's closing speech. However, both characters are equally complex, intelligent, and sharp-witted, particularly in their interactions with one another.

The theme of love is arguably treated with ridicule in The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio, Baptista, and Bianca's suitors see marriage as a trade-off that can be made profitable for the various parties involved. There is no mention of love where marriage is concerned, which hints at the play's derisive treatment of love.

The only instance in which love is featured is the subplot centred on Bianca and Lucentio. While Bianca comes across as compliant and sweet-natured, she shrewdly spots which of her suitors loves her and eventually elopes with him. Furthermore, in another instance of irony, when Lucentio summons his wife towards the end as part of the bet, Bianca, now in the role of 'wife,' defies his wishes and does not answer the summons.

Reality vs. Appearance

The theme of appearances and how these transform in the 'private sphere' is important in the play. Christopher Sly is made to appear as a nobleman as part of a practical joke played on him with Bartholomew dressing up as his wife to convince him that this is the 'reality.' Katherine, too, appears shrew-like and ill-tempered, but is capable of being kind and empathises with the servants who are subjected to Petruchio's violent temper.

Although Katherine refuses to marry Petruchio once the couple's nuptials are agreed upon between Petruchio and Baptista, she is upset when Petruchio does not show up in time for the wedding and exits weeping. This hints at her intrigue regarding Petruchio, who matches her witty remarks and sharp tongue. It is possible that, while Katherine puts on a show of obedience towards her husband in public, she asserts her place as Petruchio's equal in private.

In the subplot, Lucentio also puts on an appearance of being a school teacher to deceive Baptista and the suitors to meet with Bianca. Conversely, Bianca may be seen as putting on the appearance of being mild and sweet, while transforming into a defiant wife as soon as she is married to Lucentio.

Food For Thought:

  • Think about gender roles in the Elizabethan period and in contemporary society. How do these compare?
  • Would a marriage, such as those presented in The Taming of a Shrew, last today?
  • Petruchio's attempts to 'tame' Katherine are a topic of much debate. What techniques does he use to get her to submit to him? Do you find these acceptable? How do these determine their marital relationship?
  • This play was written during the reign of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. As someone who never married, how would Queen Elizabeth I react to the gender roles as presented in the play?
  • Have you seen the movie 10 Things I Hate About You? (1999) It is identified as an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. How do you think the movie and its plot and characters compare to that of the play?

Suggested Reads for further insight into the play:1. The Taming of the Shrew, Good Husbandry, and Enclosure by Linda Boose (1994)2. The Taming of the Shrew: Texts and Contexts by Frances E. Dolan (1996)3. Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama by Karen Newman (1991)

The Taming of the Shrew: Conclusion

Whether the play is misogynistic or whether it makes fun of misogynists is up for debate, but one can certainly say that Katherine is one of Shakespeare's strongest heroines. In Elizabethan plays, female dominance may play a central theme because of the figure of the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, who did not submit to any male authority during her reign. It is also possible that Elizabeth I had a troubled view of marriage and marital relationships due to how her father, Henry VIII, treated his many wives. Nevertheless, fuelled by the various interpretations of the themes and relationships between characters of the play, the play and its treatment of women is still debated today, nearly over 400 years after the play was written.

The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592) - Key takeaways

  • The Taming of a Shrew is a controversial play written by William Shakespeare.
  • It is a comedy that features the 'shrew,' Katherine, who is 'tamed' by her husband Petruchio.
  • The main themes of the play are marriage, gender roles and love, and reality vs. appearance.
  • The gender roles in the play are the root of much debate and controversy.

The Taming of the Shrew

The play is about the attempts of Petruchio, a wealthy merchant, to 'tame' his shrew-like wife, Katherine.

William Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew

Differing attitudes to traditional gender roles and the belief that the wife is expected to be obedient and subservient to her husband form the central conflict in The Taming of the Shrew. 

Petruchio 'tamed' Katherine to possibly assert his dominance over her and to show her the ridiculousness of her shrew-like behaviour.

The message of Taming of the Shrew is a complicated one. Critics have argued whether the play is cautionary regarding the gendered role of women in marriages, or whether its a satire on the same topic. Because of the varied interpretations of the play over the centuries, there is no 'agreed upon' message behind the play.

Final The Taming of the Shrew Quiz

Question

Who wrote the play The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

William Shakespeare

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Question

Who is the 'shrew' in The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Katherine

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Question

Which of the following is a feature of The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Cross dressing characters

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Question

Which character obeys her husband at the end of the play?

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Answer

Katherine

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Question

What takes place in the induction if The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

A practical joke

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Question

Which of the following techniques did Petruchio NOT use to 'tame' his wife?

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Answer

Beating his wife

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Question

Which of the following is NOT true of Katherine?

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Answer

She is sadistic.

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Question

Who are the two main characters of the subplot in The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Bianca and Lucentio

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a theme of The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Jealousy

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Question

Out of the following, who is NOT a suitor of Bianca?

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Answer

Vincentio

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