The Taming of the Shrew is a very light-hearted comedy written by William Shakespeare. It depicts the social attitudes to the institution of marriage as was in existence during the Elizabethan days. The theme of the play can be approached from several angles, but at the surface level, it is about the game of choosing a wife and then coming to terms with her. It also draws a contrast between courtly love and practical love, or ideal love and the love which can bring harmony in family life. If it is viewed from a broader sense, the play becomes a study of how success and failures occur in man-woman relationships. One noticeable weakness of the play is its excessive dependence on disguises. However, they are meticulously planned by the playwright to give the essential comic touch. This paper takes a look at the marriages in the play to highlight which one is the most successful.
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Though there are three marriages in the play, only two of them, between Petruchio and Katharina, and Lucentio and Bianca, are taken up here for scrutiny. They serve as a contrast, to study what can exactly provide lasting happiness in family life. In other words, these two marriages can be taken as an example for the psychological study of the man-woman relationship. By taking both the courtly love and the practical love for comparison and contrast, Shakespeare can go to the very bottom of all marital problems, which spring from selfishness and pride. The urge to dominate the other or the attempt to make the other submissive is what is at the root of the problems between a husband and a wife. This is what is surely implied in the word “taming”. Shakespeare does not take any side; he simply depicts what goes on in his society. The spectators are left to have their conclusions. However, what is pragmatic is revealed by the dramatist n the play. This must be the reason for creating a character like Petruchio. He is very cruel to his wife: “She eat no meat today” he says, but his intention is clear: “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness” (1V, 1). He sends clear signals that the love which grows through understanding alone can survive.
Petruchio is a boastful and selfish man. He uses the institution of marriage as a means to become rich: “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (1, 11). He becomes lucky enough to succeed in this as there is a girl in the marriage market named Katharina, a shrew, waiting to be sold. She has a sister who gets many suitors, but her father, Baptista of Padua, is adamant that Bianca can marry only after the wedding of her elder sister Katharina. He decides “not to bestow my youngest daughter/ Before I have a husband for the elder” (1, 1). It is at this time Petruchio comes on the scene with the offer to marry her, provided he gets rich dowry for it. Katharina is very notorious in Padua as an ill-tempered woman. She insults one and all with her sharp tongue. The reason for her bad temperament could be attributed to her father’s excessive love towards Bianca, or it may be due to her fear that she may not get any suitor as her sister gets. However, she is intelligent and keeps a sense of womanly independence. Therefore, the marriage between Katharina and Petruchio creates tremendous enthusiasm among the people.
As a contrast to the two, Katharina and Petruchio, stand Lucentio and Bianca. Lucentio falls in love with this girl at the very first sight itself. To approach her father he disguises himself as a teacher, and thus gains permission to teach poetry to Bianca. Their love is quite refreshing and pure, like the courtly love which was much praised by the poets. It can be called true love in the Shakespearean parlor. Lucentio is very submissive, very romantic, and very poetic too. As he is making his plans and disguise, another suitor named Hortensio also disguises himself as a music teacher and tries to woo Bianca. As these musical and poetical wooing attempts to progress, the playwright takes the spectators for a first-hand view of the hard realities which the married life of Petruchio and Katharina exhibit.
Petruchio is determined to see that Katharina becomes an obedient wife. He decides to use his powers as a husband and as a man. “Thus I have politically begun my reign/ And ‘tis my hope to end successfully”, says he (1V, 1). He makes certain plans to tame Katharina, and he executes it very skillfully. He tortures her physically and mentally. Her pathetic condition is:
But I, — who never knew how to entreat,
Nor never needed that I should entreat, —
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done in as little as
Am starved for meat, giddy for lack of sleep; (1V, 11)
Petruchio is bent upon taming this shrew. As she undergoes drastic changes in her attitudes under the harsh training of her arrogant husband, the play becomes greatly entertaining. No disguises and false promises can be seen on the stage at this time. The couple enacts their realistic life, though it swings to its bitter extreme sometimes. Katharina undertakes a thorough examination of her place as a woman in this man-dominated society. He weighs her roles as an independent woman and the role as a wife. She becomes wise and practical. As Petruchio says she now “show more sign of her obedience, / Her new-built virtue and obedience (V, 11). She realizes that the ultimate aim is happiness. It can be earned only by submitting herself to her husband wholeheartedly. Wisdom prevails and finally, she surrenders.
Petruchio’s intentions and actions have generated interesting questions about the man-woman relationship. It calls for a careful psychological study. Is he interested in happiness in married life is the basic question. Or is he simply trying to bully his wife is what is worrying the critics and scholars? Shakespeare is cleverly evading any direct answer to these doubts. The end of the play is with an optimistic note. However, those who have closely watched Petruchio cannot predict a happy behavior from him in the future. There is also the other side to the situation created by him. Kate is an intelligent woman. Choices before her are limited. Society does not permit a lady to remain unmarried. At the same time, she cannot expect suitors as she is already notorious as a shrew in her neighborhood. Therefore, her strategy may be to play cool and then tame her husband gradually to her whim whams. Everything is possible as the creator is Shakespeare.
The entire play exhibits women in poor light. Hence the modern tendency to attack Petruchio cannot be criticized. While reading The Taming of the Shrew one must learn to be patient. Katherina is an intelligent woman. She knows that the public is the real problem in her life because without convincing the people that she is an obedient wife she cannot survive as a woman. Society permits only limited expression. Every eye is on her to see how she behaves after her marriage. Probably, her farsightedness tells her to remain obedient for a while and to play the role of an ideal wife. Once she establishes this gentle quality in the eyes of the public, the public attention then will be on the husband to see how he treats her. Though Petruchio is ultimately able to tame the shrew, he achieves it only after completely exposing his beastly nature. Therefore, it will become imperative for him to take the role of an ideal husband.
Man’s selfishness and his craze for domination get a satirical treatment in the play. Pointing to the sun above Petruchio wants his wife to admit that it is the moon: “I say it is the moon that shines so bright.” Kate replies, “I know it is the sun that shines so bright” (1V, V). Ultimately, he makes her agree that “It shall be moon, or star, or what I list” (1V, 1). He also wants her to agree that the old man in front of them is a beautiful young woman. Whether he is right or wrong there cannot be any opposition to what a husband wills or desires. The attitudes of man during the Elizabethan days thus come for sharp criticism in the play. Some critics argue that his play is mainly about cruelty and its impact on women. During the days of Shakespeare beating one’s wife was very common to make her subservient. In the hands of Shakespeare, this received a comic treatment. It can be seen that Petruchio did not beat his wife. His way of taming is to be taken as a form of training rather than as very cruel harassment. But the fact that it also enabled him to bring absolute happiness to the couple cannot go unnoticed.
The other pair, Lucentio, and Bianca, too finally wed. Lucentio wins her by outshining his rival suitor, Hortensio. The means he adopts can never be appreciated. He gets a disguised father to talk to Bianca’s father. “I get no reason but supposed Lucentio/ Must get a father, called- supposed Vicentio” (11, 1). Lucentio represents fanciful and romantic love. What is important is that this soft love with all its warm emotions evaporates the moment it gets its fulfillment. Bianca’s soft love is only quite temporal. She will likely turn defiant and make a very unpleasant life in her married life. The domineering, sharp-tongued Kate becomes a humble wife, and the humble lover, Bianca, becomes domineering. The unpredictability of the female character is made evident in the play by Shakespeare. That is what emerges at the end of the play. When the wives are called upon to admit their submissive relationship, only Katharina comes forward to declare openly her true place in marital life. She had already admitted her place and surrendered in words like “be it moon, or sun, or what you please” (1V, V). Now she admits that the husband is “thy lord, thy king, thy governor”, and she tells her female friends to “place our hands below your husband’s foot” (V, 11).
The last scene is the most important one in many respects. It is here that one can get the views and attitudes of Petruchio towards women. He commands his wife, “Katherine, I charge thee, tell these headstrong women / What duty they owe their lords and husbands. (V, 11). The widow protests, but Katherine comes forward. Towards one’s husband, Kate says, no scornful eyes, never to wound, but give only “love, fair looks, and obedience”. If the wife fails in this, Kate calls her “a foul, contending rebel”. It is difficult to believe that Kate who was once a shrew can say “I am ashamed that women are so simple/ to offer war where they should kneel for peace, (V, 11). The greatest surprise is when she says:
Why are our bodies soft and weak, and smooth.
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts? (V, 11).
The feminist critics may find it hard to digest Katharina’s discovery of the place of womanhood. She fought a lonely battle. The world then termed her a shrew. The way she underwent all the domestic “taming” given by her money-mongering husband is there for everyone to see. She learned that the phallic force is superior, and by nature woman is weak. Therefore, the only remedy is to surrender sensibly. She is not for conflicts, though in her early life she had too much of it.
In the film version of the play, great changes have been made in dialogues and also in the scenes. Acted by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Tailor, the film has drawn great attraction. Bianca and Lucentio get only a minor role in the story, as the attention is on Petruchio and Kate. The love-hate relationship between Kate and Petruchio gets greater focus because it involves several conflicts and reconciliations. The curiosity is to see how a woman rebels or surrenders. Another noteworthy point is that in the film Kate leaves her husband alone after her daring speech. This is interpreted as that Kate refuses to change. It must have pleased modern women. Shakespeare has left the Lord, Christopher Fry untouched at the end of the play. What happens to him is a riddle. If he goes back to his past, it must be greater fun.
The Taming of the Shrew is a wonderful comedy, which is packed with wisdom. Poets had treated many shrews before Shakespeare, but the first attempt to tame one is surely his. This kind of story was common in folklore. It is well known that Shakespeare is a writer who avoids giving dominant places to a woman in his plays. Though the central characters are the husbands or the fathers in The Taming of the Shrew, it is women who catch the attention of the spectators. Katherina will remain a controversial figure. However, she gives both sides of womanhood fair play. It is for the spectators to choose, to become dominating or submissive. The ego clashes are plain in the play, along with the consequences. The most sensitive comment coming from Kate is that women are created soft. The fact is that no one dares to blame Shakespeare, not even the hardcore feminists.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Web.
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