The last time we saw Katherina in Katherina the Shrew and Falstaff the Cuckold, she was starving, exhausted from lack of sleep, and “in a bate”. Although this may have changed her relationship with Petruccio, it is not the end of the play. We still have to see Katherina mistake the sun for the moon, and an old man for a maid, and perhaps most difficult of all, her transformation at Bianca’s wedding feast in her final monologue when she tells all the women at the wedding:
Thy husband is thy Lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign.
What on earth is going on in this play? Perhaps we need to step back and see if we can see what the main themes of the play are. The Taming of the Shrew starts with Lucentio arriving in Padua, a great medieval university town, and a major centre study of humanism, to embark on a course of study. Later in the same scene, Baptista Minola, father of Katherina the shrew, and Bianca calls for schoolmasters for Bianca:
And for I know she taketh most delight
In Music, Instruments, and Poetry,
Schoolmasters will I keep within my house,
Fit to instruct her youth.
The theme of education continues throughout the play. Education was of great interest to the Tudors. Henry VII ncreased the effort put into education, and humanistic education in particular, based primarily on the study of Latin and Rhetoric,to provide lawyers, diplomats and administrators to support the growing economy and international trade. That education had been primarily of boys in the grammar schools, but Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s chancellor, was one of the first to educate his daughters, and in particular his daughter Margaret. She became the first non-Royal woman to publish a translation into English, a book is called “A Devout Treatise upon the Pater Noster, made first in Latin by the most famous doctor Master Erasmus Roterodamus, and turned into English by a young, virtuous and well-learned gentlewoman of xix years of age, (in 1524). And of course, Elizabeth I was another highly-educated Tudor, whose skills with rhetoric were to prove key to persuading parliament and English citizens to follow her direction.
Shakespeare was educated in the grammar school in Stratford, following the 12 hour day learning primarily Latin and rhetoric, so it is not surprising that he shows interest in education. The Taming of the Shrew contrasts the education of Bianca (by so-called schoolmasters) and Katherina by Petruccio.
Bianca’s education provides a comic sub-plot to the play. Her suitors pretend to be school-masters and Lucentio uses his position as a Latin teacher, to woo and win her.
Katherina’s education by Petruccio is rather different. In the early parts of the play she shows herself, by her treatment of her father, his friends, and her sister (see Katherina the Shrew and Falstaff the Cuckold,) to be unable to adapt to what is undoubtedly a male-dominated world. Her approach of tackling her difficulties with her family and friends head-on, dis-empowers her. Petruccio shows her different strategies for dealing with those difficulties, which, by the end of the play, she has adopted.
But there is another major theme to explore. Katherina’s taming is a play within a play. Her play is put on for a drunken beggar who has been woken up and persuaded that he is a Lord whom the players want to entertain with Katherina’s story. Many of the scenes in the play show characters ‘playing’ to an audience within the play:
- In A1S1, Tranio and Lucentio watch ‘some show to welcome us to Town.’ played by Baptista and his two daughters and some friends.
- In A2S1 Petruccio says that Katherina is ‘playing’ the shrew in front of Baptista and the others, but really she loves him and wants to marry him.
- In A3S1 Lucentio and Bianca ‘play’ at Latin lessons in front of Hertensio whilst really courting eachother.
- In A5S1 the Pedant plays at being Lucentio’s father in front of Vincentio, Lucentio’s actual father.
And these ‘playing’ scenes occur throughout the play. It would be tedious to list them all, but playing is a theme in the play within the play. And much of Petruccio’s education or ‘taming’ of Katherina, teaches her to ‘play’.
It is not surprising that Shakespeare should include ‘playing’ as a theme within this play. He had used his grammar school education to become a playwright!
So The Taming of the Shrew seems to be a play about education and playing. How does this help us understand the play after Katherina’s taming using the techniques of a falconer (starving her (and Petruccio) and keeping her (and Petruccio) awake? There are three main scenes we need to explore:
- A4S1 & A4S3: Petruccio treats his servants and tradesman badly
- A4S5: Petruccio demands that Katherina sees the sun as the moon, and an old man as a maid, and then that she sees ‘the error of her ways’
- A5S2: The widow is rude to Katherina and Katherina gives her speech on women’s obedience to their husbands, and wins the wager.
A4S1 & A4S3: Petruccio treats his servants and tradesman badly
Act Four Scene One starts with the return of Petruccio and his new wife Katherina, to Petruccio’s home. Katherina has fallen off her horse into the mud and, Petruccio, rather than save her, has beaten Grumio his servant for letting her fall until Katherina gets up and comes over to stop Petruccio beating Grumio.
The weather is frosty and the house is cold. Grumio has come on ahead to get fires lit; make sure supper is ready; the house made tidy; and the servants dressed in their best clothes.
Petruccio and Katherina arrive and Petruccio is bad-tempered with all his servants wishing that they had made a better welcome to his new wife Katherina. His bad temper is not very different from Katherina’s bad temper in Act One Scene One. Katherina is cold and tired and hungry.
The servants bring in a meal, but Petruccio finds fault with it – it’s burnt and not the sort of meat he can eat, and he sends it away. Katherina would be happy to eat it, but Petruccio will have none of it and takes her to her bridal bed. As Peter (one of the servants says) “He kills her in her own humour.” Petruccio is treating like a falcon: ” She eat no meat today, nor none shall eat. / Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not.”… “This is the way to kill a Wife with Kindness, / And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
The hunger continues in Act Four Scene Three. Katherina pleads with Grumio for food, and he teases her with the thought of different dishes, but gives her nothing. Petruccio enteres with food – and Horatio. Katherina does not thank him well enough so he gives all the meat to Horatio to eat.
A haberdasher and a tailor arrive to provide a cap and gown for Katherina to wear to her sister Bianca’s wedding. They show the clothes and Katherina likes them, but Petruccio does not think they’re good enough for her and won’t have them.
Katherina is now tireder, and hungrier, and disappointed about the clothes, and thinks that Petruccio behaves badly with the servants and the tradeesmen. They will leave for Padua and Bianca’s wedding the next day.
But what does all this upset and kerfuffle mean? Perhaps Katherina gives us a clue when she says:
Why sir I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe,
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free,
Even to the uttermost as I please in words.
But despite this speech, Katherina’s tongue does not tell the anger of her heart. Perhaps she is beginning to learn that it does not always pay to speak straight from the heart.
A4S5: Petruccio demands that Katherina sees the sun as the moon, and an old man as a maid, and then that she sees ‘the error of her ways’
In Act Four Scene Five, Katherina and Petruccio are on the road to Padua and Bianca’s wedding. Katherina is very keen to visit her father’s home.
On the way Petruccio continues his strange behaviour. First of all he calls the sun the moon. Katherina corrects him, but Hortensio gives her a clue: “Say as he says, or we shall never go.”
Katherina is keen to get to her father’s so she is happy to call it the moon, the sun, or a rush Candle, whatever he wishes, as long as they keep going.
Then an old man appears who Petruccio calls a “gentle mistress”. Katherina has caught on and answers in kind:
Whither away, or where is thy abode?
Happy the Parents of so fair a child;
Happier the man whom favourable stars
Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow.
and then corrects herself when Peruccio points out it is an old man.
There’s more to this than Katherina just agreeing with whatever Petruccio says. There’s a clue in the images used, and their relationship to theatre. The moon is frequently referred to in Shakespeare’s plays. For example, in Act Five Scene One of The Merchant of Venice:
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls
And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.
Plays were played at The Globe during the day, so the moon Lorenzo talks of is actually the sun. And so Petruccio’s moon can be a sun. Similarly, female roles were played by males, so young maidens were played by males. So when we play, and play is a major theme of The Taming of the Shrew, things are often not what they seem.
So perhaps Katherina is learning to ‘play’, with Petruccio as her director. And perhaps ‘playing’ is a better strategy for dealing with the difficulties she faces in a world where men are more powerful
A5S2: Katherina gives her speech on women’s obedience to their husbands, and wins the wager.
Bianca’s wedding feast takes place in Act Five Scene Two. Bianca is married to Lucentio; Horatio is married to a convenient widow; and Petruccio and Katherina are of course still married. The three men have a wager on whose wife will be most obedient, which Katherina and Petruccio win. Katherina gives a famous speech on the obedience women owe their husbands:
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy Lord, thy King, thy Governor.
It blots thy beauty, as frosts do bite the Meads,
Confounds thy fame, as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved, is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill seeming, thick, bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip, or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy Lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign: One that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance. Commits his body
To painful labour, both by sea and land:
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands,
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the Prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband:
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending Rebel,
And graceless Traitor to her loving Lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple,
To offer war, where they should kneel for peace:
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
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?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms,
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word, and frown for frown;
But now I see our Lances are but straws:
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most, which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.
How should Katherina play this speech? Well of course that depends on the production, but if we follow the ideas in this essay and Katherina the Shrew and Falstaff the Cuckold, it should be played ‘ironically’ or perhaps better, ‘playfully’. By this time, the hunger and sleeplessness which Petruccio and Katherina have shared has led to them bonding. Katherina has also learnt the value of playing and delivers the speech ironically. Her change of behaviour also leads Petruccio and Katherina to winning a substantial wager, which improves her and Petruccio’s economic situation significantly.
This approach to The Taming of the Shrew differs from most modern interpretations. If you’re curious to explore it further, you can find the script of the play, and related articles at: