The debate on gender relations in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was according to Smith (289) divided in two opposing camps. Firstly there were the revisionists, who “…read the play as Kate’s taming, [who] see her role as reflective or constructive of early modern patriarchal hierarchies […]”. Secondly Smith characterizes the antirevisionists: “[…] those who read Kate’s final speech ironically, as an act or game” (289). In this last view Katherina has not been tamed, and thus the uncomfortable actions on Petruccio’s part are avoided (Smith 289).
In the 1990s another perspective came to resurface with Judith Butler’s Performativity Theory. Performativity Theory explores the ways how repeated (linguistic) acts, or citations, inherited from social institutions help shape our reality (Felluga; Smith 290). This has its implications: by acting differently within these institutions, one exercises one’s agency for change (Smith 290). This framework opens up the possibility of construction of gender and relationships, which has the effect that the relationship between Petruccio and Katherinacan be viewed through the lens of change and evolution.
Smith uses performance studies to argue that Petruccio and Katherina negotiate – among other things – gender hierarchies, love, and sexuality (Smith 290). Smith uses several examples from the text to argue this: the wooing scene, the betrothal scene, and Kate’s final speech. Smith analyses the dynamics of the performances between the two and uses this analysis to come to the conclusion that “[…] marriage was never simply patriarchal or companionate, but an unwieldy combination of the two” (316). According to Smith the domination or the mutuality enacted in The Taming needs not to be ignored, but to be recognized as performances which shed light on the institution of marriage as instable because of its performative character (316).
Shapiro focuses on using female impersonation as a framework and argues that “the text itself […] generated deconstructive power of its own.” By stressing that the female roles were played by male actors (Shapiro 144) and that Bartholomew impersonates Sly’s Wife (151) Shapiro argues that female impersonation enhaned a ‘metatheatrical frame’ (165). This metatheatrical frame can serve the Folio text in providing “a perspective for reading Kate’s evident submission as […] a doubly theatrical replication of a socially generated role.” (Shapiro 166).
Smith as well as Shapiro draw attention to the construction of Petruccio and Katherina’s roles and their relationship. Both critics acknowledge the movement in the relationship of Petruccio and Katherina, but do not focus on it. This essay will attempt to fill that void and investigate the relationship between Petruccio and Katherina as a construction gradually evolving by means of different citations of heterosexual gender norms. It will do so by isolating interactions between Petruccio and Katherina, analysing the change in heterosexual gender norm citations from interaction to interaction.
In the first private moment between the two, Petruccio woos Katherina (2.1.185-194). Petruccio has just said in a soliloquy that he will flatter Katherina regardless of her behaviour (2.1.168-181). The one-sided wooing turns into a conversation loaded with double entendres from both sides (195-217), which persist from Petruccio’s side even after Katherina has struck him (2.1.225). Katherina insults Petruccio (2.1.227-238), after which Petruccio again flatters her (2.1.239-258). Katherina is interested in Petruccio’s rhetoric (2.1.259-263) and the private moment between them ends in Petruccio revealing Baptista’s consent to their marriage (2.1.265-272).
How do these two cite gender norms in this scene? To start with Katherina: she is not playing ‘hard to get’, she is hard to get; her interest in Petruccio might be measured by the fact that she only asks Petruccio two questions (2.1.224, 2.1.259), albeit only the last question can be read non-ironically. Katherina also often insults Petruccio, and her double entendres are less sexually loaded and fewer in number than Petruccio’s. Katherina thus performs the role of ‘independent woman’. Petruccio flatters Katherina regardless of her insults to and rejection of him which is characteristic of the role of a ‘man on the hunt’, a role that sometimes needs to be acted with persistence and gentleness in choice of words. Another reason for accrediting Petruccio with this role is the fact that he takes the initiative with regards to the sexual puns (2.1.198). Petruccio stays flattering throughout this part of the scene but declares more seriously that Katherina will be his wife (2.1.265-272).
Katherina and Petruccio’s first private is mostly about the dynamic between Petruccio seemingly trying to ‘hunt’ Katherina and about her rejection of him. However, even though she rejects him verbally, she acknowledges him by responding to him. Petruccio is testing Katherina (2.1.169) and Katherina is testing Petruccio (2.1.218). Jesting each other is a classic heterosexual norm when there is at least some attraction on both sides.
It is only after Petruccio makes known to Katherina that Baptista has already agreed to their marriage that Petruccio openly speaks of taming (2.1.273-275) and that there is a change in the relationship. The interaction goes from testing the waters to Petruccio making clear Baptista has consented to their marriage and that she will behave in a way that Petruccio thinks fit for her. It is here that the wooing evolves into ‘taming’: Petruccio openly leaves the role of wooer behind and takes up a position of dominance.
It is in 3.2 that Petruccio and Katherina again talk to each other. Before they talk, Petruccio has arrived to the marriage too late and in unorthodox clothing. He announces that he must leave before the wedding banquet (3.2.181-182). Katherina entreats Petruccio to stay (3.2.193-196) but Petruccio persists (3.2.196-198). Katherina declares she will not go with him (3.2.200-205) and that she finds Petruccio an arrogant groom who takes charge at the beginning of their marriage (3.2.206-207). Petruccio tries to calm her anger (3.2.208), but it is Katherina who persists here (3.2.209-210) and who wants the wedding banquet to commence in the spirit of resistance and not being made a fool of (3.2.212-214). Petruccio has the final word (3.2.215-232), stating that she must away with him because she is his (3.2.222-226). He warns the others not to interfere (3.2.226-228) and makes an exaggerated appeal to defend Katherina from violence (3.2.228-232). Katherina, Petruccio and Grumio leave together.
As stated before, Petruccio is not wooing Katherina anymore. He is trying to tame Katherina now, by means of shaming her by arriving late at the wedding in clothing unfit for a marriage ceremony (Smith 305). He is glad Katherina entreats him to stay (3.2.196) but holds his ground, even after Katherina makes an appeal to his love for her (3.2.197). It is after he ignores this appeal that Katherina resists their leaving early at first and wants to partake in the banquet. Petruccio states that the guests should go to the wedding banquet as she has commanded (3.2.215-219), but that she must come with him. After Petruccio’s monologue Katherina does not respond anymore and they leave together.
Katherina’s anger is worth analysing. She becomes angry and resistant after Petruccio ignores her entreaty and appeal to love. This is an understandable reaction, and might even be interpreted as a heterosexual gender norm citation.
The fact that she stops resisting after three times raises questions. This ultimate lack of resistance on Katherina’s side might be of three reasons. The first can be Katherina’s social position – they are already married and she is his wife now, which is a position that only allows for a limited amount of resistance. The second reason is Petruccio’s acknowledgement of her social power as a bride (3.2.216-219), a statement which elevates her social position in relation to the guests and reminds her of her social position as stated in the first reason. The third reason can be found in Petruccio openly stating that she is his and that he ‘will be master of what is [his] own’ (3.2.220-226), implying that resistance is futile. These reasons – especially the third one – leave the reader questioning Katherina’s internal motivation in leaving with Petruccio without a further word.
Smith (306) argues: “To take Petruccio’s behaviour at the wedding as if it acts out his domination of Kate is to ignore its status as a performance twice removed which is simultaneously reported and judged laughably unacceptable [by the audience on stage and off-stage]”. A retort to Smith’s argument might be based on what Petruccio claims earlier in the play: “If she and I be pleased, what’s that to you? ‘Tis bargained twixt us twain…”. Smith here takes the audience’s reaction into account, not Katherina’s. That Petruccio shames himself and Katherina towards his spectators does not take away from the fact that Katherina ultimately complies in leaving with him. The fact that Katherina resists but does not have the final word illustrates their relationship at the moment of leaving: Petruccio appears to be partly successful in his process of ‘taming’ Katherina.
The next taming scene, which occurs in 4.1, centres on Petruccio withholding Katherina dinner. Petruccio has just acted reprimandingly towards his servants and commanded that dinner should be served (4.1.106-121). While Petruccio acts jollily towards Katherina, he acts less favourably to his servants. Petruccio sends the dinner back (4.1.143-147) on the grounds that it was burned. Katherina states that the meat was well (4.1.151) but Petruccio persists (4.1.152-154), suggest they’ll fast together for the night (4.1.155, 159), and takes Katherina to the bridal chamber (4.1.160). After an intermezzo with the servants, Petruccio performs a soliloquy making his taming strategy known to the audience (4.1.169-192) – he has withheld Katherina dinner and sleep in order that she submits to his authority (4.1.172).
Petruccio is the centre of the action in this scene. He dominates his servants before Katherina, but acts pleasurably towards Katherina verbally. It is notable that Katherina has fewer lines in this scene than in the interaction discussed in 3.2. The lines that she has are benign (4.1.138) and about decreasing Petruccio’s (feigned) anger (4.1.150). Even though Petruccio’s wording is amicable, he is – as we learn from the soliloquy – ‘performing’ his role of dominance towards Katherina (4.1.189-192) with the intention of taming her.
Unethical as this Petruccio’s tactics be, what does it do to their relationship? The state of the relationship seems to be a continuation of the previous interaction. Petruccio performs a behaviour with the repeated intention to tame and thus his social role of tamer is reinforced. Katherina seems unaware that she is being tamed here, which adds a dimension of ‘being in the know’ and ‘not being in the know’. The effect of the states of not having eaten, not having slept and ‘not being in the know’ on Katherina and her relationship with Petruccio will be made clear in the first part of 4.3, the next scene Katherina and Petruccio are both present.
4.3 opens with Katherina talking to Grumio about her woes in the relationship and her hunger (4.3.2-14). It is here where Katherina opens up about what she thinks. She states, among other things: “The more [her] wrong, the more [Petruccio’s] spite appears” (4.3.2) and “[…] He does it under the name of perfect love […]” (4.3.12). Petruccio enters the scene a bit later, together with Hortensio. They have meat with them for Katherina, but Petruccio will only give it to her if she thanks him (4.3.38-47). Katherina does so (4.3.448), but Petruccio tells Hortensio privately that he should eat all the meat (4.3.51-52) before telling Katherina to eat something.
“At the verbal level, [Petruccio] is treating [Katherina] as if she were an ideal gentlewoman, while at the physical level he is trying to terrify her with displays of violence and break her spirit by weakening her body. Petruchio’s tactics up to this point are unsuccessful […].” (159)
While agreeing on the first part of Shapiro’s argument, a retort on the second part is in place. Petruccio’s tactics are not wholly unsuccessful – they do affect Katherina on the emotional level (4.3.2-12). Her budging and thanking him for the meat upon his request (4.3.46-28) is proof of this. She is becoming more obedient.
The moment on the road where Katherina agrees with Petruccio’s inaccurate descriptions of the time of day (4.6.12-23) and Vicentio’s sex (4.6.28-50) are examples of this obediency. Smith claims that Katherina mocks wifely obedience here (308-309). Shapiro nuances this by stating “[…] Kate appears to conform to Petruccio’s desires, but it is not clear whether her obedience in the ‘sun-moon’ parring, and in calling Vicentio a young woman represent an inner change on her part, a tactical submission, or a willingness to join her husband […]” (160). It is at this point where incertainty on the relationship between Katherina and Petruccio creeps in, since we are not informed by means of Katherina’s private thoughts. Regarding Katherina’s behaviour as citations of mockery or tactical submission allows for an ironic reading of her final speech, while thinking of her behaviour as an inner change or willingness strengthens the argument for a non-ironic reading. On Petruccio’s stance we can be clear – he does not like to be contradicted (4.6.6-10).
In the final scene Katherina comes after Petruccio has sent for her (5.2.100), as Petruccio has predicted. She returns a few lines later and gives her notorious lecture to the other women on the subject of wifely duty and obedience (5.2.136-179). She offers to place her hand under Petruccio’s foot as a token of duty (5.2.177-179), after which Petruccio takes her to bed.
There might be a hint whether to read the final speech ironically or seriously. The hint is disguised in Katherina’s behaviour prior to her final speech – the fact that she comes after Petruccio has sent for her. While sheasks for the reason of Petruccio summoning her (5.2.100), she does come upon his request – unlike the Widow and Bianca. Baptista states that “She is changed as she had never been” (5.2.115) – a statement which is hard to not take for granted considering that Baptista is Katherina’s father and thus must know her well. When using this perspective, one might regard the relationship of domination-submission as having reached a high point.
When taking a different perspective, one could state that Kate’s speech is ironic – or at least gives her a position of power. Argumentation for irony is based on the contents of the speech, which are exaggerated (Smith 314). In this view, Katherina has not been tamed. Shapiro argues that one could read Kate’s lecture in multiple ways (163), but also stresses that “[…] the Folio places conditions on wives’ obedience and bases it not on their inherent inferiority but on their sense of obligation and gratitude, and on their desire for domestic harmony […]” (164). In this view, Katherina has been tamed but now holds power as the wife of a man.
To conclude, much of the revisionist-antirevisionist debate on whether Katherina has really been tamed in the end has focused on the final speech; this essay brought forth Baptista’s comment on her change as a piece of context which can be used as an argument that she has changed – a piece of evidence that has often been overlooked in the past. From a performative perspective the relationship between Katherina and Petruccio moves through several stages. The first stage is that of wooing. The second stage is of taming and diminishing resistance. The third stage is that of Katherina’s wifely obedience. Both Katherina and Petruccio use different gender performances throughout the play – some different from the last, some repeating. The differing performances drive the plot forward and provide dynamics while the repeating performances strengthen either characters position in relation to the other. The gender citations of both characters in the play are full of movement: Petruccio begins by adopting the ‘hunting’ role, moves into the ‘taming’ role and concludes by having either succeeded or not, depending on the interpretation of the final scene. Katherina starts by rejecting Petruccio. After she knows they will be married she becomes resistant to submission, with this resistance decreasing as the play furthens. The combination of these performances in each stage make for dynamic reading, regardless of one’s view on gender hierarchies.
Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew”. The Norton Shakespeare, International Student Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 3rd ed. London/New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. 355-414.
Shapiro, Michael. “Framing the Taming: Metatheatrical Awareness of Female Impersonation in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’.” The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993). 143-166. 1 Nov. 2020
Smith, Amy L. “Performing Marriage with a Difference: Wooing, Wedding, and Bedding in “The Taming of the Shrew.”” Comparative Drama 36.3/4 (2002-03): 289-320. Web. 1Nov. 2020.