The Taming of the Shrew
Things to consider while reading The Taming of the Shrew
This is probably the second-most politically incorrect of Shakespeare’s plays — after only The Merchant of Venice. It has drawn fire, and will doubtless continue to do so, from feminist critics for its treatment of women; it has also gathered impassioned defenses from aficianados.
A few things ought to be made clear. Whether one subscribes to the opinions voiced in the play about the “place” of women in Shakespeare’s culture or our own, there is certainly more to the story than just the position any of the characters hold. Like most works of dramatic art, it expresses contrary opinions through the mouths of different people, and one of the advantages of that approach is precisely that it does not lay down a single position as the only right one.
It also embodies the very old theme — going back at least to ancient Greece — of the so-called “War of the Sexes.” As such, it is given very much to boisterous partisan rhetoric, without necessarily coming down, in neutral narrative terms, on any side in particular. You can make your mind up about that for yourself.
A narrative retelling of The Taming of the Shrew from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.
The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet (and also A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
As in both Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the central issues is marriage, and one of the central facts of marriage in the Renaissance (especially in Italy, and, oddly, more in the upper classes than the lower) is the status of women as effectively a variety of property to be disposed of by men (chiefly their fathers) as they like. This is emphasized in the two previous plays, but also is explicitly stated here by Petruchio. This is not to say that Shakespeare was championing this position in its simple form, but he is certainly examining it as a theme in his play. Consider:
- Instead of being built on a balance of two places or collections of people, as in Romeo and Juliet, this one tracks the story of two sets of suitors — the one, a very large group of suitors pursuing Bianca, the (apparently) sweet and kind younger sister of the “curst” or “shrewish” Katherine. It is in the comparison of these two processes that the play develops its dynamic force.
- As written, the preponderance of the action is set as a play within a play — something evocative of the embedded play in Hamlet and, of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but in fact much more dominant overall. Most performances leave the shell story aside, since it doesn’t seem to come to any conclusion..
- Unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, to a lesser extent, Romeo and Juliet, the play has no real element of the fantastical, for good or ill, at all. Granted, its terms are unlikely enough, but there is no allusion to fairies or magic, aside from a glancing reference to the flower that was supposed to have bewitched the sight and affections of Titania, Demetrius, and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- What do we mean when we talk about a literary theme?
- Shakespeare often develops themes in a number of places, and how he treats them variably in different locations will tell us a good deal about how he thought about them.
- What kinds of themes concern him most often?
- Where else have you encountered the themes here?
- Does Shakespeare seem to take up a specific position on any given thematic question himself? Or does he rather distance himself from the process, and put the dialogue and ambiguity in the mouths of a range of characters?
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Love and marriage (yet again).
- Courtship (as a process linked to, but still distinct from, marriage as such): appears prominently in Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice. While they also involve marriages, many of the other comedies do not deal with courtship as such.
- Law and lawlessness — the “tame” vs. the “curst”. Is there a male equivalent?
- The image of sun and moon. What does it signify?
- The war of wit — cf. Much Ado About Nothing.
- The war of the sexes.
- Subjective vs. objective reality.
Symmetries in the play
- The two groups of suitors.
- The pair of inverted servants and masters.
- Are there other polar oppositions of realities?
- Inner vs. outer story
Inconsistencies or problems in the play
- Dramatically, I think this play is remarkably free of narrative inconsistencies — the plot, while somewhat convoluted in spots, nevertheless holds together without much of a hitch.
- What is the dramatic effect of drawing harmony and a more or less stable position out of this initial range of preposterous activities?
- What do you make of Katherine’s long final speech? Is it to be taken at face value? Is it ironic? Is it some third thing?
- Is this a political play about “gender politics” as many modern (mostly feminist) critics woul have it?
- As the drawing of realistic characters, how does this play convince you? Are Kate and Petruchio convincing?
- Petruchio comes to Padua expressly professing his primary motivation as “to wive it wealthily”. Is this genuine? If so, is it to his advantage or his disadvantage?
- Some (e.g., Charney) classify this play as primarily farce. Others explicitly argue that it goes far beyond farce. What do you think? Does it reveal anything important or universal through or about its characters?
- What is the relationship of the inner play to the outer play? Does the (very incomplete) story of Christopher Sly tell us anything?
- What does the inversion of the servant-master relationship tell us? Does it reflect back on the Kate/Petruchio/Bianca story? On the Christopher Sly story?
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