Perhaps one of the more interesting elements of the plays of William Shakespeare is that his romances typically do not progress as one might expect. Instead, he uses peculiar situations, such as identical twins falling in love in the same city, fairies casting spells on mortals, and women falling in love with women dressed as men. Appropriately, his comedy The Taming of the Shrew is no different. In this play, Petruchio tries to woo and tame the outspoken and domineering Katharina so that Lucentio or one of the other suitors might be able to marry her younger sister Bianca. However, like in Shakespeare’s other plays, the work contains a greater meaning. Shakespeare uses the relationships of Katharina and Petruchio and Bianca and Lucentio as a statement of the relationship between men and women as well as an analogy for the proper relationship between rulers and their subjects.
The basic relationship between men and women is defined in the first scene of act one by the description of Katharina. In this scene, Hortensio and Gremio complain about Katharina because she is not of a “gentler, milder mold.” (Shrew 1.1). In this line, Shakespeare uses a negative to help define what is desired. The fact that it comes from the mouth of a suitor only helps to clarify for what role this trait makes her in reference towards the appropriate. This description becomes much clearer when the comparison is viewed as a compliment to Bianca, the object of their desire. In contrast, she concedes to her father’s will almost immediately to go inside and study. As such, the suitors do not hear her speak nor know much about her opinions. However, they do know that she is not as insulting or as quick tongued as her sister, which is an advantage when compared to the alternative.
However, the substance behind these two characters reveals that they were really not that different at their core. While Katharina is clearly outspoken, she combines that with a wit and sharp mind, as revealed in her puns when she says, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting” and “In his tongue” when asked where a wasp wears his sting (Shrew 2.1). In these two lines, she is easily able to turn Petruchio’s words against him as insults which he hurls right back at her. Curiously, when these two lines are combined, they also imply that her sting resides in her tongue as much as Petruchio’s sting lies with his tongue. In contrast, Bianca proves to be just witty, but not as outspoken. For example, when wooed by a disguised Lucentio in between words of a Latin lesson, she imitates the technique, saying “presume not, ‘celsa senis,’ despair not” (Shrew 3.1) This phrase not only rebukes Lucentio for being forward but also encourages him without committing to a romance. Yet, she still conducts all this in secret with no witness, allowing Bianca the opportunity to change her mind if necessary. Such a deception proves Bianca to be just as willful as her sister, but more pleasing to a greater number of people.
When Petruchio does finally win Katharina, it seems only fitting that he does so through a clever yet loud and apparent means, similar to Katharina’s personality. For example, when he convinces Baptista that Katharina agreed to be married, he says that he and Katharina agree that she would remain shrewish and unpleasant in public (Shrew 2.1). Such a declamation is an outright lie when combined presumably with staging, which Katharina would clearly recognize. Yet by being such a braggart, Petruchio manages to claim Katharina because he is the only one willing to take her on and recognize the source of her stubbornness. In the taming of Katharina, Petruchio shows even more tact by simply outlasting her physically. For example, when trying to convince Katharina to say that the sun is the moon, he threatens her with turning back and returning to his house if she does not agree. Such a punishment would not only mean arduous travel but also no chance of respite through sleep and food, which she had been denied. Petruchio stands to lose nothing in this venture as he is entirely in control and has been eating and sleeping. In fact, by turning back, he would gain more time to tame Katharina before returning to Baptista’s house, thereby saving his manly pride.
Ultimately, Petruchio’s success comes from claiming and abusing his position as husband and master of Katharina. In fact, in order to claim and kidnap Katharina to tame her, Petruchio says that she must go with him because he “will be master of what is mine own: she is my goods” (Shrew 3.2). Such a statement reasserts the traditional idea that the wife transfers from being a possession of her father to that of her husband. This view clearly does not value the woman is a person, but in doing so, Petruchio removes Katharina’s power from her. She knows that she is legally property and does not fight the assertion. Even when she is in Petruchio’s home, she never attempts to run away but rather argues in agreement in order to gain food, such as when she says “The meat was well, if you were so contented” to appease his anger (Shrew 4.1). Such a display radically differs from before when she twisted Bianca’s words in any which way in order to get a confession. Through this display of paternal power and deprivation, Petruchio gains the power he needs to ultimately break his wife to his will through cunning means.
In contrast, Lucentio seems to fail because he underestimated Bianca’s cunning and wit when marrying her. As mentioned before, when Lucentio wooed Bianca as a tutor, she was able to use the same stealth to communicate with him and continue the love. Yet Lucentio never attempted to rebuke Bianca for scolding him because he had no power to do so. Consequently, in that moment the pair became equals, not only intellectually but also in Lucentio’s appraisal of the situation. As such, she becomes part of the ploy to rid herself of Hortensio, as signified by her statement “God give him joy!” (Shrew 4.2). By doing so, Bianca asserts her place as Lucentio’s equal, something which Katharina was not able to do because Petruchio controlled the situation. Thus, when Lucentio summons his wife, he tries to rely on the love she bears him. Unfortunately, she has retained her freewill and had no reason to fear Lucentio or obey him faithfully.
The dynamic of Katharina and Petruchio’s relationship offers an insightful commentary on the nature of power between rulers and their subjects. As Katharina herself states, the husband is “thy lord, thy life, they keeper, they head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee.” (Shrew 5.2) Through these words, Shakespeare explicitly states the similarity between kings and husbands, who are tasked with legal supervision of their subjects. More importantly for the case of Katharina, this means that the head of the unit controls the subject’s survival, mainly the access to food. This makes the subject dependent on the ruler, whether husband or king, in order to survive. Through this analogy Shakespeare asserts that the relationship is not interdependent in terms of power. Such a capitulation on Katharina’s part seems farfetched when one considers her earlier position and wit. Yet even she is smart enough to know that without food, she cannot survive so she must play her husband’s game in order to live as he is the one able to work to earn food. In the same vein, without the ruler’s power, the subjects would not have peace to survive.
In contrast, Bianca and Lucentio’s comments on the power dynamic in which the ruler is subject to the wishes of the people. As mentioned before, Bianca and Lucentio were equal partners in the scheme to rid themselves of the other suitors. In fact, Bianca was just as responsible as Lucentio for Hortensio’s departure as she rejected his gamut for learning music, and continued to flirt with Lucentio as Cambio when Hortensio had resumed his proper form. Without these steps, Lucentio would not have eliminated Hortensio’s claim. This relationship parallels that of an elected body, which owes its position to those who help its members to power. However, to stay in power, the body needs the continued support of its subjects. Equally, in order to remain in power over his wife, Lucentio needs Bianca to agree to submit to his will. Unfortunately for him, he holds no material incentive for Bianca to do so, as Petruchio did. In this parallel, Shakespeare seems to say that without a pivotal and necessary incentive, governments cannot expect to hold power over their people, just as a husband cannot hold power over his wife if he constantly gives her equal power.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare sets up the classic scenario of suitors wooing a woman for her love, yet complicates it with the need to woo an undesirable woman first. Curiously, the only man able to do so wins the woman not by treating her as a loving equal but as a dependent subject, despite her obvious intelligence. This power, like the power of a monarch over their subjects, allows the relationship to prosper in a way that is beneficial to both. Yet, Lucentio and Bianca’s relationship of equal power fails because every decision made by the pair does not always benefit both partners. Though depicted through the admittedly biased mind of Shakespeare, the dynamic still speaks truth about the limitations of governments and gender in Shakespeare’s time. Like it or not, without power and incentive, women and subjects will not always obey their men and rulers, respectively.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. William Shakespeare info. 2005. Web. 20 Feb 2014.
Is this the question you were looking for? If so, place your order here to get started!