“All the World’s a Stage:” Theatricality and Gender Performance in The Taming of the Shrew

Katherine’s lengthy speech at the end of Taming of the Shrew is arguably the most perplexing aspect of the play, in my opinion. On the surface, it appears as though the shrew has indeed been “tamed;” Kate delivers over 40 lines worth of dialogue here, appearing to concede to traditional patriarchal views—a complete transformation from the opinionated woman we met at the play’s inception. Katherine’s temperament at the end of the play is certainly a departure from the hot-headed behavior with which we have come to associate her.

Perhaps some of the most notable aspects of Katherine’s transformation at the end of the play—namely, the speech she delivers—are the apparent changes in her attitude towards men. Particularly, in the final scene of Act Five when Petruccio tells Kate that she is to believe that the sun is the moon, Kate agrees unquestioningly. Kate’s reaction to Petruccio’s statement—her compliance with it—essentially implies that women should never doubt or challenge their husbands or the things their husbands say. Katherine’s language, using words and phrases like “true obedience” further confirms this idea. In fact, Kate even goes so far as to suggest that she is contrite in regards to her gender: “I am ashamed that women are so simple…” (5.2.165). Katherine appears to have become a docile and subservient wife to her new husband.

But what motivates Katherine’s words here? I find it a bit unsettling to think that Shakespeare would introduce such a forward-thinking character as Katherine (unpleasant as she may be) only to have her revoke her strong-willed opinions entirely—a resolution that suggests she has indeed been “tamed.” I would like to think that there is more to her actions than mere blind obedience.

Though I am unsure what to make of Katherine’s actions, I have read enough of Shakespeare’s works to know that Shakespeare often likes to point to his own theatricality—i.e. Shakespeare likes to bring attention to the fact that a play is being performed in front of the audience. This quality is particularly notable in the very structure of The Taming of the Shrew: the plot is essentially set up as a play within a play, thus highlighting the theatricality at work here. As such, I am curious if perhaps Katherine’s behavior is merely acting; in other words, I feel that Katherine’s speech is disingenuous and was only delivered to appease her new husband—leading him to believe that he is in control when, in fact, it is Katherine who is really pulling the strings here.

Adding even more curiosity to the matter is Bianca’s behavior at the end of the play. When Lucentio, Petruccio and Hortensio decide to “test” their new wives by seeing which one of them would come first when called upon, it is Katherine who is obedient and arrives to greet her husband—not Bianca, as the husbands (and the readers) would expect. Though I am a bit unsure what to make of this role reversal or sorts (with Bianca exhibiting behavior more akin to Katherine’s and vise-versa), I suppose it could once again be pointing to the conventions of theater. Again, we have seen instances of role reversal in this play before, with characters assuming false identities, pretending to be other people/characters, etc.

Ultimately I would like to think Shakespeare’s goal here was more akin to highlighting how gender and gender roles are just that—roles that we play, things that are performative like theater—as opposed to suggesting that, though you can “tame” one shrew, there are always more strong individuals out there to pacify and suppress.

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3 thoughts on ““All the World’s a Stage:” Theatricality and Gender Performance in The Taming of the Shrew

  1. michaeldrago

    In some way, it feels as though we’re missing a part of the play; that there’s one more act in which Katherine’s speech is revealed to be the first step of an elaborate hoax ultimately leading to her getting revenge on Petruccio. Alas, with the text that we do have, it becomes much more complicated to understand how Shakespeare wants us to react. Experiencing the story in the form that he intended it to be experienced in – i.e. as a play – would likely make it much easier. As is, we are forced to search for ways in which we don’t have to take the text at face value, for doing so leaves a rather unpleasant taste in one’s mouth.

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  2. deabarbieri

    I feel the same way about Katherine’s speech; it is unquestionably one of the most confusing parts of the play. I especially like your use of the word “unsettling” in regards to Katherine’s speech. It was definitely unsettling to see such a strong female character say such things about femininity and marriage because despite the possibility of irony, it is very difficult to identify with only the text as a reference. However much we would like Katherine’s speech to be an act of defiance, the lack of textual evidence is disconcerting.

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  3. alexatirapelli

    I like the way you have articulated your opinions on the demise of Kate’s stubborn personality to something completely different – something of submission to the male gender. And naming the patriarchal aspects brought a new understanding to my reading. For some reason, your usage of the word ‘patriarchal’ made me think about the historical aspects of society at the time that this play was written/set, and I sort of felt a new sympathy for Katherine’s character. I agree that it is “unsettling” that Shakespeare would present us with such a strong-willed character, only to destroy her by the end. It was exciting to see such an intense woman presented in one of his works (even if she was a bit nasty, but I mean she definitely pales in comparison to his other villainous characters like Richard III). I also liked how you pointed out the meta aspects of the play within the play, and the fact that there are two audiences.

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