Go to Top

Katherina ‘the Shrew’ and Falstaff ‘the Cuckold’

The Taming of the Shrew - Index

Approaching Shakespeare’s plays with C21 assumptions about  cultural norms is fraught with risk. One interesting area is how communities deal with misfits.  Katherina (the Shrew and female) in The Taming of the Shrew,  and Falstaff (the Cuckold and male) in The Merry Wives of Windsor  are qute similar misfits in their respective societies (Windsor and  Padua).


Why are they similar?  Both live in bourgeois societies, not the usual setting of Shakespeare plays, more usually dealing with royalty and aristocracy. So the starting point for this essay is to explore how the bourgeois society of Shakespeare’s day treats misfits.


Let’s start with Katherina. Is she a misfit? Is there any truth in the idea that she is a shrew. Let’s look at the early scenes in which she appears:


In Act One Scene One, Katherina has four speeches: in the first, she accuses her father of treating her like a prostitute (stale) when  he suggests to two of his friends that they might court her; she threatens to hit Hortensio with a three-legged stool, paint his face, and treat him like a fool; next, she suggests her sister is a spoilt brat, who might burst into tears at any moment; and finally, she complains to her father that she wants to go home (like Bianca).  Now it’s difficult being publicly humiliated by being offered for courtship in public; no doubt her father and his friends are pretty silly and difficult to tolerate, but her responses are hardly the way to win friends and influence.


Act Two Scene One, starts with Katherina chasing her sister on stage. She has bound Bianca’s hands, and is complaining about Bianca’s pretty clothes, which Bianca offers to take off. But Katherina seems more interested in finding out which suitor Bianca prefers. (Is Katherina interested in suirors?) She hits Bianca because ‘Her silence flouts me, and I’ll be revenged’.  Katherina flourishes in conflict with her sister.


Later in the same scene, Petruccio comes a-courting. Katherina adopts the same aggressive, but now witty, stance towards him : “You were a movable”; “Asses are made to bear, and so are you”; etc. Petruccio gives as good as he gets, and the jokes turn sexual.  Katherina seems to enjoy the inter-play, but goes on to test him by hitting him.  Petruccio promises to hit her back if she hits again. Katherina stays for more banter, eventually admitting that he speaks well “Where did you study all this goodly speech”. It seems clear that, despite her protestations, she likes Petruccio, and doesn’t try too hard to prevent him becoming engaged to her.


How to make sense of these scenes? If I was directing this play, I would want Katherina to be played as a very intelligent woman, bored by her silly father, his even sillier friends, and her conventional pretty sister. Her normal mode of behaviour has become aggressive towards everyone. Marriage is a possible escape from the family environment. When Petruccio arrives as suitor, she responds to his witty aggressive courtship with the same. She is ‘a shrew’ who would like to escape her claustrophobic silly environment and Petruccio potentially offers that escape. Her family and their friends would be glad to see her go.


On to Falstaff. Is he a misfit? First we need to be clear that we’re talking about Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, not the Falstaff of Henry IV Part 1 and 11. The Introduction to  The Merry Wives (see The Merry Wives of Windsor – Introduction ) covers the whole play but much of the following about Falstaff, comes from that essay:


We start with the community- the small town of Windsor, where the Merry Wives live.  The characters in the play are mostly middle-class folk (tradesmen, doctor, churchman / teacher, publican) and their servants, living in a small English town in the sixteenth-century. The play explores the politics of those small towns and in particular how they resolve conflicts.


It is a cosmopolitan town with characters from the English regions; from Wales; from France; and from Germany. Their accents and their own idiosyncratic versions of English clash delightfully. Even Latin, and Elizabethan grammar school education, is covered in A4S1, with Sir Hugh’s testing of William’s Latin.


It is a small town. There is not much choice in which tradesman one used. Everyone needs to get on with everyone else to get the goods and services they depend on, and to supply the town with the services they offer.


The economic situation was much tougher then.  Each family was more dependent on the other families in the community and each member of the family more tightly embedded within it.


Into this small-town community comes Falstaff and his cronies from the great city of London. Do they show any sensitivity to the social world they are entering? We get a clear answer in A1S1. Falstaff responds to Shallow’s complaints of him as follows: “I will answer it straight: I have done all this. That is now answered.”  Bardolf (“You Banbery Cheese!”), Pistol (“How now, Mephostophilus?”), and Nym (“Slice, I say! Pauca, pauca, slice, that’s my humour”) are equally insensitive to the small-town conventions.


They all come from the city, and in the city there is more freedom – provided you have money. If you don’t like one bar, you can choose another; around every corner there is a different tradesman offering goods for sale – you are free to choose where you trade. You are not so well known and so are freer to do what you choose.  You earn money from your work, and spend it as you wish. You are an individual.



Falstaff is perhaps the freest character in Shakespeare – though he constantly worries about money. No one is his master.   Falstaff has many of the attributes of a Fool, except that his wit is usually directed at himself. Shakespearean fools are free spirits, but not in their bodies – they have a master or mistress.  Perhaps the freest of them is Feste – and he spends a lot of time raising money.



In The Merry Wives of Windsor,  Falstaff, sometime after he’s been banished  from his old friend, the new king Henry V; his hopes of preferment gone; disappointed and lacking money as usual; is driven to try and extract money from the Merry Wives of Windsor by courting them. He fails. He and his freedom  are no match for the Merry Wives and the community of Windsor. The community of Windsor  shame him; they laugh at him, and invite him to their homes to share a posset and some more laughter. A humiliation for Falstaff, but not death or tragedy.



So how does this humiliation happen? To solve his financial difficulties, Falstaff attempts to seduce the Merry Wives, in the hopes of relieving them of some of their money. They are appalled by his aged advances, and they decide to be revenged on him. They trick him into thinking they are interested, but their meetings lead to him being thrown into the Thames as dirty washing, and getting beaten black and blue as the Old Woman of Brentford.


The husbands of the Merry Wives find out about Falstaff’s plans to seduce their wives. Page trusts his wife and is not concerned. Ford is not so sure. He indulges his suspicions; tricks Falstaff into taking him into his confidence; his suspicions turn to jealousy and he tries to catch his wife with Sir John. Page, Dr Caius, and Sir Hugh Evans , try to persuade him his suspicious are ill-founded, but he ends up making a fool of himself with his jealousy, and pays them for his foolishness by offering his fellow-citizens dinner.


Finally, the wives tell their husbands of the game they are playing with Falstaff, and the community agrees to try and play one more trick on Falstaff. Mrs Ford agrees to meet Falstaff at Herne’s Oak at midnight, provided he comes dressed with the horns of a stag. She meets him there, but so do most of the community, dressed as fairies. They pinch Falstaff, the couples reveal themselves, and that they are aware of his game; shame him, laugh at him, and invite him home with the community to share a posset and some more laughter no doubt.


So Sir John, the free man from the city, known for his wit and ability to extract money anywhere, is outwitted by The Merry Wives and the community and they humiliate him. Perhaps individualism is not so strong as community, at least in Windsor.


But is Katherina humiliated?  At the very sstart of the play, both Gremio and Hortensio both publicly reject her as a possible mate, but the real humiliation, as Katherina says, comes in Act Three Scene Two:, when Petruccio is more than a little late for their wedding:


No shame but mine, I must forsooth be forced
To give my hand opposed against my heart
Unto a mad-brain rudesby, full of spleen,
Who woo’d in haste, and means to wed at leisure:
I told you I, he was a frantic fool,
Hiding his bitter jests in blunt behaviour,
And to be noted for a merry man;
He’ll woo a thousand, point the day of marriage,
Make friends, invite, and proclaim the banns,
Yet never means to wed where he hath woo’d:
Now must the world point at poor Katherine,
And say, lo, there is mad Petruccio’s wife
If it would please him come and marry her.
Petruccio’s behaviour at the wedding is more than eccentric, though fitting with the traditional treatment of ‘shrews’. He turns up late; his clothes are tattered; his horse is worse. He behaves badly at the wedding, and won’t even stay for the wedding feast – carting his new wife off to his home against her will, and much to the amusement of her father and his friends.
So Katherina and Falstaff are both humiliated by the community for their bad behaviour.
But Katherina’s story goes further. Back at the marital home, in Act Four Scene One, Petruccio has a plan for her:
My Falcon now is sharp, and passing empty,
And ’til she stoop, she must not be full gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my Haggard,
To make her come, and know her Keeper’s call:
That is, to watch her, as we watch these Kites,
That bate, and beat, and will not be obedient:
She eat no meat today, nor none shall eat.
Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not:
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I’ll find about the making of the bed,
And here I’ll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the Coverlet, another way the sheets:
Ay, and amid this hurly I intend,
That all is done in reverend care of her,
And in conclusion, she shall watch all night,
And if she chance to nod, I’ll rail and brawl,
And with the clamour keep her still awake:
This is a way to kill a Wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour:
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak, ’tis charity to show.
To modern ears this sounds like a terrible way to treat another human being, let alone a wife. But to early Modern English ears it would sound differently. The imagery in the speech above comes from falconry, and falconry in the sixteenth century had a different place in the life of the country.
Falconry was one of the major sports of the day, so important that the hawks or falcons that one was allowed to train depended on your social status. Shakespeare demonstrates in the speech above that he knew a lot about training falcons / hawks, and his audience would have understood his references.

We know a lot about this training process, due to a book published in 1619, Bert’s Treatise of Hawks and Hunting. More recently (1936), T. H. White (author of The Sword in the Stone, and The Once and Future King)  wrote a book (The Goshawk – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Goshawk-new-foreword-Helen-Macdonald/dp/1474601669/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1530782712&sr=1-1&keywords=the+goshawk+the+white ) about his attempt to train a Goshawk, based on the methods outlined in Bert’s Treatise – a book I thorooughly recommend.


White says the following in The Goshawk: “It was startling to read Shakespeare after a course of falconry. The Taming of the Shrew was pure hawk-mastery and must have been a play of enormous vividness to a generation which understood the falcon.”


Perhaps the most important point in The Goshawk about the training of a hawk is that it cannot be done by cruelty, but only by gentleness, and that it creates a strong, loving bond between bird and man.  The training process starts with two key objectives: deprive the bird (and man) of sleep for three days; and get the bird to accept food from the hand of the man:
“We had waited patiently for seventy-two hours for this moment, the moment at which the hawk, coerced by no cruelty of mine but only by the desire to sleep, could first say with confidence ‘I am so sleepy that I will trust this glove as a perch to sleep on, even though you stroke me, even though you have no wings and a beak of pliable gristle’.
Helga Ramsey-Kurz makes a similar point when she says in “Rising above the Bait: Kate’s transformation from bear to falcon“:
“The bond between Katherine and Petruchio most resembles the bond between falconer and falcon, a relationship repeatedly referred to in The Taming of the Shrew. This relationship is as invisible and enigmatic to the outsider as that between Katherine and Petruchio. It hinges on the preservation of the tamed animal’s wildness and the regular restoration of the captivated creature to freedom. This is underestimated in modern interpretations of The Taming of the Shrew commenting on Petruchio’s explicit comparison of Katherine with a haggard (4.1.180) and of himself with a falconer manning a newly caught falcon. Emphasizing Petruchio’s brutality, such interpretations routinely ignore that the manning methods applied in falconry were devised in the interest of the bird, to reduce the stress of captivity, protect the raptor from self-injury, and, most importantly, to preserve its predatory instincts.”
If you have no time to read The Goshawk, or Helga Ramsey-Kurtz’s article , perhaps you have time to watch a Storyville documentary (82 minutes) called Eagle Huntress which shows a 13 year old Mongolian girl using similar techniques (particularly around feeding) to train a Golden Eagle fledgling.

Still from Eagle Huntress

The point is that both Petruccio and Katherina are deprived of sleep and food. If human beings are similar to hawks and falcons, that experience will build a strong bond one might call love between them.
I hope this gives some food for thought. If you want to explore more, why not have a look at the play. You’ll find the index to our edition at: https://players-shakespeare.com/mffe-version-5-the-taming-of-the-shrew-index/. Or you can find out more of how we would shape a production at The Education of Katherina and Bianca.
Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.