William Shakespeare wrote the play The Taming of the Shrew in the 1590’s. In these times it was popular in Elizabethan England to ridicule Catholics. The Italian setting allows the playwright to snipe at Italian Catholics for comic effect. It is a comical play in contrast to a number of Shakespeare’s other works, which are classed as historical or tragedy. It is a story within a story. The background plot is about a drunken man who is made to believe he is a lord after being thrown out of the pub one night.
The second and main story is about the shrew, Katherina. The label of a shrew is given to Katherina because she is constantly nagging and moaning at people in Padua. This connects her with a Shrew because these mammals make a sexual whining noise during the mating season. This is one of the many sexual innuendos we are given throughout the play, making it comical for both an Elizabethan and modern audience.
Katherina and Petruchio are newly married, which many characters find shocking as no-one appears to like Katherina. Now Katherina is married her ‘perfect’ young sister Bianca is free to marry; the agreement with their father was that Katherina had to marry first. ‘Bianca’ means white in Italian, which has connotations of innocence and purity. Since the day of their marriage Petruchio has been acting in a strange fashion. Arriving at the wedding extremely late, on a donkey, dressed in rags was not the ideal way to charm his woman. Then he whisks a tired, hungry Katherina off to his home in Verona (miles from Padua) straight after the ceremony.
While on route, Grumio has began to tell the other servants back at the house what Katherina is really like. Grumio tells Curtis of Katherina’s violent ways ‘Whose hand- she being now at hand- them shalt soon feel.’ This suggests that Grumio and the other servants are going to be struck by Katherina’s wicked hands. The play is quite physical in nature, and violence is often used for comical purposes. Grumio warns the servants of her being in a rotten mood due to her falling from her horse getting very muddy and Petruchio not really showing a care in the world.
So Petruchio and Katherina have returned home to Verona, with the servants expecting an unpleasant mistress to return with their master. The servants seem to be wrong, as the Petruchio they used to have a laugh and a joke with had changed, and this fierce woman was fine, in fact the fierce person was Petruchio. As soon as he walked through the door he was moaning; ‘Where be these knaves?’ A starving Katherina is finally sat at the table ready to eat after her long tiring journey.
The food is plated and brought to the table, appearing to be a lovely piece of mutton from Catherine’s point of view. However, from Petruchio’s ’twas burnt and dried away’. It was fine but for some reason Petruchio is acting strangely and not allowing Katherina to eat. As the servant clears the meat, Petruchio trips him again making more work for the servants. He is killing ‘her in her own humour’ (as noted by Peter). Basically Petruchio is doing to others what Katherina used to do to, allowing her to experience the consequences of such actions. He’s giving her a taste of her own medicine.
Shakespeare uses juxtaposition here, with Petruchio being kind and considerate to Katherina while he is repeatedly being horrible to the servants. In the process of Petruchio being cruel to the servants, he is also depriving Katherina of vital wants and needs like sleep and food. The way Petruchio acts is unusual and Katherina doesn’t seem to like it. She tries to protect the servants – ‘patience I pray you’ – begging Petruchio to take it easy on his servants. Now Petruchio has gained power over ‘the shrew’, allowing her to appear kind but making her ‘pray’ for his good will.
During the next section of the play we are given an insight into Petruchio’s strange ways during a soliloquy. Petruchio reveals to us that he is trying to ‘man his haggard’, by trying to tame his wild hawk (Katherina). He refers to ‘His falcon is now passing sharp and empty’, which again links his wife to animals. In the Elizabethan chain of being, animals were below the level of humans. He is sort of suggesting she is at the bottom of the natural order acting like an animal and needs to be taught how to become a proper human at the top end of the scale. Petruchio is trying to confuse Katherina and in doing so is making her obey patriarchal society, where she needs to obey Petruchio at all times. Also as a soliloquy is just between Petruchio and the audience, it creates dramatic irony.
The servants have no idea that Petruchio is trying to do this to tame Katherina. They simply think that their master has changed. One reason I can think for Petruchio not revealing his plan to the servants, is so it looks more realistic. He doesn’t want all the servants to be playing along and make it look like a setup. The fact the servants do not know Petruchio’s plans adds to the comic effect of the scene.
The newly married couples are reunited for a big feast for Lucentio and Bianca’s celebration. Katherina, is still being thought of as a shrew from her previous time in Padua, and the other wives continue joking about Katherina’s shrewish behaviour: ‘Your husband being troubled with a shrew’. The widow displays an aggressive nature, daring to argue with the male characters by passing judgement on them. Bianca also reveals a rude and abusive side to her character again questioning the men like the widow. This is a contrast to her supposedly being pure. ‘I mean to shift my bush’. Her language has sexual connotations.
The women are tested to see their obedience to their husbands and for once Katherina has come out as the most obedient, the most ‘tamed’. She came straight to her master unlike the other two mistresses. ‘Love, fair looks true obedience’. Katherina has just proved to the other couples that she is now playing the correct role of a wife. Loving and willing to adhere to her husband’s every need. As if Katherina hasn’t proved herself enough, she goes and rubs salt into the other women’s wounded pride ‘my mind hath been as big as one of yours’.
This acknowledges she has previously acted as a misguided shrew but has since changed her act. I believe Petruchio has tamed Katherina. Initially I didn’t believe he had managed and thought she was just putting on an act in front of her new household, but when she acknowledges her behaviour (in her final speech) I believe she has changed. All the effort Petruchio’s put in throughout the play had paid off and he finally tamed the shrew.