The main theme of The Taming of the Shrew, that of control, domination, or manipulation of others, revolves primarily around the actions of Petruccio and Katherine. These themes permeate the entire plot and often characters in a lower social class conflict over their own relative issues of dependence/domination. For example, Grumio opens 4.1. with a few grievances on having to run ahead to get a fire prepared for the newly married couple. He says, “Fie…on all mad masters…Was ever man so weary?…Now were not I a little pot and soon hot, my very lips might freeze to my teeth” (4.1.1-5). Grumio finds solace in the fact that (apparently) due to his size, his inclination towards “choler” is more easily aggravated. In this scene, frustration over his forced subservience to Petruccio is both the thing that angers him, but also the thing that keeps him warm in his attempt to make a fire for himself as well as the couple. Nevertheless, he recognizes that “winter tames man, woman, and beast, for it hath tamed my old master, and my new mistress, and myself” (4.1.19-20). In a way, Grumio’s harsh treatment of Curtis for simply being curious about what happened on their journey to the house is a direct reaction to being treated as a worthless beast by Petruccio. Shakespeare seems to suggest through this chain of command that one act of dominance (Petruccio over Katherine) can permeate a larger amount of characters than is immediately prevalent.
The origin of this need for control is the personal agenda of Petruccio, however his original motivations for taming Katherine are just as ambiguous as when he first came to town. His intentions were to “wive and thrive…as wealth is burden of my wooing dance” (1.2.53-65). Is this still his intention or has it been covered by the challenge of simply controlling every aspect of Katherine’s actions, both her motivations and her reactions?
His focus shifts from mastering himself (his own motivations) to mastering even the motivations of Katherine. One possible part of “taming” Katherine is to shift her own perspective from that of a rich, curst, violent, demeaning woman to one grateful for simply the chance to eat or be warm or have Petruccio to protect and love her. Petruccio accomplishes this in not the prettiest of ways, however, half his motivation comes from the prospect of financial security that marrying Katherine ensures. After all, Katherine realizes at the beginning of 4.3, “I, who never knew how to entreat, nor never needed that I should entreat” (4.3.7-8). She never had to entreat anyone for anything because it was all given to her and part of what motivates Petruccio is the prospect of her gratitude for even the measly amount of care that he has given her so far. “To make her come and know her keeper’s call” (4.1.174). He finally does feed her and is sure to comment, “I am sure, sweet Kate, this kindness merits thanks. What, not a word? Nay then, thou lov’st it not, and all my pains is sorted to no proof. Here take away this dish” (4.3.41-44). At which point she agrees to show some thanks, however unearned, and the meal continues.
This is not to say that Petruccio’s harsh treatment of Katherine is about anything but dominance and control. After all in the society about which Shakespeare is writing Petruccio would have the inclination towards complete dominance over the females that surround him. That is the ultimate objective, but what he is motivated by is left open to exploration. His unrelenting competitiveness is overtly shown even protecting the validity of his declarations of said competitiveness. Petruccio says, “This is the way to kill a wife with kindness…He that knows better how to tame a shrew, now let him speak. ‘Tis charity to show” (4.1.188-191). He seems genuinely at a loss for words as far as finding a better way to show dominance in a relationship, treating Katherine as he would an animal he were training. He is willing to put even his actions up for debate with whoever dares to challenge him.
Katherine’s final speech has the tone of complete defeat and sadness as she pleads with the other women not to rebel because the game they’re playing is so obviously rigged. Their efforts towards control over their husbands will never be fully realized due to their social status of being literal property to their husbands. She says, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee…And craves no other tribute at thy hands but love, fair looks, and true obedience” (5.2.150-157). The speech is grounded in a newfound perspective in which she’s forced to accept the unfair realities of her situation, which has been part of Petruccio’s motivation all along. He perhaps recognized from the beginning that although she is very shrewd, he has the ability to be even shrewder with the extra advantage of his status as a male. He perhaps recognized that her life as his property, however harsh the process of getting there is, would be better than one of bitterness towards the world.