At the end of every great romance is an outstanding marriage, right? Well, to quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Although The Taming of the Shrew may not seem as deserving of the title “great romance” as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is nonetheless a text predominantly concerned with romantic entanglements and their ultimate consequence, i.e. marriage. The need to examine love is such that the play’s initial protagonist, Christopher Sly, is briefly treated in two brusque inductions before being shuttled aside to make way for the real action, the play-within-a-play starring the outspoken Katherine Minola, her demure sister Bianca, and their suitors. However, the romances that unfold are unsettling in their duplicity and lack of mutual understanding, resulting in marriages that seem no more than bonds of financial support and social obligation.
As a reader with twenty-first century sensibilities, I approached the play expecting the eponymous “taming” to be rendered through love, reaffirming the semi-clichéd belief that love conquers all odds, including Katherine’s sharp tongue. Yet, Petruccio’s treatment of Katherine both before and after their marriage indicates that, in this world, love is more akin to dominance and manipulation than the mutual respect and affection expected today. Katherine and Petruccio begin their “courtship” evenly matched, trading insult for insult in a flurry of puns and clever turns of phrase. When Katherine tells him he is no better than a stool, Petruccio responds cheekily, “Thou has hit it. Come, sit on me” (II.I.196). Katherine retorts just as impishly, “Asses are made to bear, and so are you” (II.I. 197). This plucky dialogue implies that the two may have some common ground (i.e their love of debating) on which to build an affectionate relationship. However, all hopes for affection are snuffed by Petruccio’s increasingly outrageous behavior. Despite her attempts to speak up, Katherine is bulldozed into submission such as when Petruccio demands they leave before the wedding feast.
Matters become worse when Petruccio implements his plan to literally tame her like a hawk. This is a disturbing way to treat your new wife, but what is more disturbing is the pride he takes in it, announcing, “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,/…/He that knows better how to tame a shrew,/Now let him speak” (VI.I.188-191). His comments are clearly ironic as he is depriving Katherine of familiar company (i.e. her family), food, and sleep in order “curb her mad and headstrong humour” (VI.I.189), essentially stifling the life out of her. However, it is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the audience should read the statement as comic or sadistic. Either way, Katherine’s dwindling dialogue and pluck deflate the comic air around the situation. By Act 4 Scene 3, she is reduced to beating Grumio out of hunger and frustration, completely robbed of her verbal ability to move people. In a play where language holds the key to your identity (see for example the altercation between Tranio and Vincentio in V.I.60-1), such a loss is crucial and devastating. Without it, she is no better than the hawk her husband has metaphorically aligned her with, and like the hawk, she must rely purely on physical force to get her way. This loss is reinforced later, when Katherine remarks to Petruccio almost nostalgically, “Your betters have endured me say my mind / And if you cannot, best you stop you ears” (IV.III.75-76). He pretends she has not said anything. Unable to win and tired of being mistreated, Katherine capitulates, agreeing to accept whatever her husband says, even nonsense like calling the sun is the moon and vice versa. Her defeat is tinged with desperation and exasperation. She sighs “And if you please to call it a rush-candle / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me” (IV.VI.14-15). Having won the battle, Petruccio spends the remainder of the play showing off his newly trained wife by commanding her to school the other wives in modesty and obedience.
Katherine is never able to speak to Petruccio as she does in their initial meeting although she does manage to regain some her fire in her lecture. However, the eloquent speech lacks the cheekiness that characterized her earlier dialogue. There are no sexual puns woven in or naughty suggestions that might signal to readers that Katherine is just giving Petruccio the run around. Instead, Katherine borrows the language of filially, comparing marriage to the bond between lord and subject, and touting obedience as the only sufficient return to the financial and physical protection offered by one’s husband. Nowhere in her speech does she suggest that passionate and affectionate love, or even mutual respect, need be involved.
A similar power struggle is portrayed in the marriage of Bianca and Lucentio, despite the fact that they married by their own volition rather than being compelled to the match as Katherine was. With the vows behind them, Bianca reveals a sassy side, refusing to come out when Lucentio calls for her and tartly calling him a fool for wagering money on her. In turn, Lucentio’s braggadocio while discussing his wife with the other men hints that he is not as sensitive or loving as he pretended to be during courtship. Rather, like Petruccio, he sees his wife a prize rather than a person. Clearly, these two will be unable to provide readers with a healthier marriage than that of Kate and Petruccio.
However, one wonders, after rushing readers so hurriedly into the romance of the play-within-a-play, why Shakespeare would deliver such a dispiriting end. Surely, the author of so many great love sonnets could imagine something more satisfying than a marriage of obedience. In a chapter on marriage in his book Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt suggests that even during Shakespeare’s lifetime the end of The Taming of the Shrew would not necessarily have been the ideal end hoped for by contemporary audiences. Greenblatt conjectures that perhaps the portrayal may have grown out of the bard’s own unhappy marriage experience. It could also be a social critique of the chauvinistic spirit that tended to dominate marriage at the time. Perhaps it is a mixture of both. Whatever his inspiration, Shakespeare reveals the importance of honest communication between men and women if they hope to ever achieve a perfect union.