The Taming of the Shrew

Why This Play?:

Oh, I have such a love/hate relationship with this work (as do many others long before me).  It was the first ever Shakespearean play in which I performed, back in my senior year of high school.  It inspired a classic, hilarious teen movie (to which I heavily related because I was 17 when it came out).  I’ve seen some great performances of this play.  Part of my love centers on the heightened theatricality of this play – more so than most, the text is determined by how it’s interpreted by a director and actors.

But the straight text, taken without the nuance and emotive direction of seeing it performed, is so troubling.  Modern audiences grapple with Petruchio's treatment of his new wife and of Kate's reasons for transformation.  Many attempt to explain why Kate is a shrew at the beginning.  I think this is a thoroughly modern issue -- since the 20th century, people have been preoccupied with examining past events to explain current behavior.  But where do we draw the line between learning from our pasts and being mired down in them? 

So what Happens?:

A lot of folks are about to take on false identities in this play.  I’ll explain each fully in the section below, but here’s a quickie primer you can refer to in case anything gets confusing:

  • Lucentio = “Cambio”
  • Hortensio = “Litio”
  • Tranio = “Lucentio” (yup, posing as the real Lucentio)
  • Old Merchant Guy = “Vincentio” (until the real Vincentio shows up)

Clear as mud?  Alright, let’s dive in!

Drunken tinker Christopher Sly stumbles out of the alehouse, followed by the hostess who clamors for him to settle his bill.  He falls asleep on the ground instead.  A lord out on the hunt finds him and decides to have a little fun at the poor guy’s expense (what an absolute psychopath).  He instructs his servants to drag Sly to his manor, dress him in the lord’s own costly clothes, and to have all the servants pretend to serve Sly.  Sly wakens at the house, naturally confused, but is pretty ready to believe the servants who insist that he’s their lord and that he’s been asleep for the last 15 years.  The lord’s page disguises himself as Sly’s wife, narrowly escaping Sly’s invitation to laze about in bed together.  Some traveling players arrive, and they ready to perform a comedy for Sly and his “wife”, since laughter is the best medicine (for when you awake from a supposed coma?).  Thus begins the actual Taming of the Shrew – a really extended play-within-a-play put on for the entertainment of a drunk who’s being tricked for God knows what reason. 

On to the play-within-a-play that ends up being the actual play!  In Padua, a new man (Lucentio) has just arrived with his snarky servant (Tranio) to study philosophy.  They step aside to observe the Minola family.  Daddy Baptista Minola has two daughters – strong-willed Katherine and obedient Bianca.  Local dudes Hortensio and older guy Gremio are both interested in Bianca, but Baptista insists that no one will be allowed to court his younger daughter until the elder is married.  Katherine excellently and expediently shows off her disdain of both of Bianca’s suitors and her father’s hurry to see her married.  It works – everyone’s more or less petrified of her. 

Katherine Minola, in all her glory

Katherine Minola, in all her glory

The ladies will have to remain sequestered at home with tutors in the meantime, so the Baptista family heads home.  Privately, Hortensio and Gremio set aside their rivalry and unite to seek out some unknowing idiot to woo Katherine.  Lucentio and Tranio emerge, and Lucentio is utterly lovesick over Bianca.  He’s so smitten, he didn’t even pay attention to the whole situation with her sister and rules for wooing.  When Tranio re-explains the scenario, he decides to pose as a tutor to gain access to the Baptista household and Bianca.  But since someone has to pose as the young lord due to familial duties, Tranio will have to disguise himself as “Lucentio” and play the part.  To recap: real Lucentio poses as lowly tutor for Bianca, servant Tranio will play “Lucentio” to keep up with the daily duties.

Carson does not approve such foolish and flippant class reversal for entertainment's sake

Carson does not approve such foolish and flippant class reversal for entertainment's sake


Brief interlude to remind us that this is a play-within-a-play!  The servants ask a nodding Sly if he’s paying attention to the play.  He half-heartedly urges them to continue.

Sly: "Oh, yeah, this show is great...when is it done?"

Sly: "Oh, yeah, this show is great...when is it done?"

Back to the play!  Another new guy arrives in Padua!  Petruchio blows into town with one goal – to land a rich wife.  He trades some light banter with his sarcastic servant, Grumio (NOT to be confused with rich old suitor, Gremio).  Old pal Hortensio arrives to welcome Petruchio to town.  Upon learning his reason for the visit, Hortensio urges Petruchio to check out Katherine Baptista.  Hortensio warns that she’s tactless and abrasive, but Pertruchio doesn’t care as long as Bianca’s suitors foot the bill in his suit of Katherine.  Hortensio reveals his plan to pose as a tutor to continue to visit Bianca (sound familiar?).  Gremio arrives with a tutor that he’s specially found for Bianca, “Cambio” (it’s really Lucentio).  Meanwhile “Lucentio” (really Tranio) enters and professes his interest in wooingBianca as well.  Hortensio and Gremio are dismayed to have another rival, but “Lucentio” talks them down by offering to enjoy themselves as friends until they are properly allowed to court her.

Kate is up in Bianca’s business, demanding to know which suitor she prefers.  Bianca claims neither holds her interest, then teases Kate about being secretly attracted to Gremio.  Kate smacks her around (how dare her younger sister tease her!).  Baptista comes out just in time to see the attack, and he scolds Kate as he separates her from the bawling Bianca.  Kate accuses him of playing favorites.  

But hey, look – a welcome distraction for Baptista!  A bunch of visitors have arrived.  Petruchio introduces himself, presenting a music tutor “Litio” for the daughters as his gift (it’s really Hortensio).  He proclaims that he’s heard much of Kate’s beauty and calm temperament, and he’s here to court her.  Baptista wonders if he’s for real, then says Petruchio can give it a shot and talk to Kate.  Gremio also presents a tutor, “Cambio” (really Lucentio).  Then “Lucentio” (actually Tranio! Confused yet?) presents himself as a newcomer who’s looking to join Bianca’s line of suitors, and he brought books and a lute as gifts for their lessons.  The tutors are sent to go check in with the ladies, and “Cambio” quickly comes back after Kate has smashed the lute over his head.  This totally piques Petruchio’s interest.  The game is afoot.

Kate enters, guns metaphorically blazing.  She and Petruchio are alone, and he greets her heartily, informing her that he’s her future husband.  She’s not having it, and they engage in an intense and rapid war of wits, complete with many sexual puns [It’s a fantastic scene, one that can be played so many ways! Kate can be furious, or upset but slightly intrigued, or just upset due to confusion…].  Baptista, Gremio, and “Lucentio” come on the scene, and Petruchio informs them that Kate has agreed to marry him next Sunday.  He also claims that she’s gentle and loving around him when they’re alone but she’ll still keep up the shrew act around everyone else.  No one seems to find this odd – rather, Baptista is thrilled and agrees to the marriage.  Kate, dumbfounded (at least textually speaking – only one line of protest, then silence), storms off.  Gremio sees his chance and immediately jumps in to claim Bianca for his own.  Baptista says she’ll go to the suitor with the most money.  Gremio and “Lucentio” spar over who has more money, with “Lucentio” coming out on top…kinda.  Turns out the money belongs to his father, Vincentio, but will eventually be his.  Baptista settles it all by saying that the week after Kate’s wedding, whoever can prove worth can marry Bianca.  Looks like “Lucentio” has to get his father (Vincentio) to show up and confirm his wealth, pronto.

Bianca’s getting her learn on, if her tutors would stop arguing over who’s turn it is to run the lesson.  Ever-diplomatic about receiving equal attention from all men, Bianca instructs “Litio” to tune his lute while she has a Latin lesson from “Cambio”.  While pretending to translate some poetry, “Cambio” reveals to Bianca that he’s really Lucentio, and he’s come a-courting.  Bianca mistrusts him at first, but she eventually tells him that he shouldn’t abandon all hope of winning her over.  “Litio” delivers a musical scale to her with a message of Hortensio’s love, but she spurns the note.  Hortensio thinks he may have to let Bianca go if she’s going to fall for someone as low-class as a stupid tutor like “Cambio”.

Yay!  It’s Kate & Petruchio’s wedding day!  Only no one is actually happy because the groom is terribly late and no where to be found.  Even though she doesn’t care for him, it’s still a pretty cruel blow to Kate, who actually gets teary over the ordeal.  Baptista is wondering what to do when servant Biondello rushes in to announce that Petruchio is coming…but he’s not exactly looking his finest.  And indeed, Petruchio enters in a horrible get up.

Petruchio's bridegroom portrait

Petruchio's bridegroom portrait


Baptista urges he change (“Lucentio” even offers him a spare outfit), but Petruchio maintains that he clothes are unimportant – Kate’s marrying him, not his garb.  They head offstage to be married.  While the wedding is going on, Tranio meets up with the real Lucentio.  He’s gotta prove his inheritance to Baptista to win Bianca for his master, so Tranio plots to convince any random old dude in the town to pose as Vincentio, Lucentio’s father to meet with Baptista.  Lucentio finds this to be a solid plan.

Gremio leaves the wedding and hightails it to “Lucentio” to report all the madness that occurred.  Apparently, Petruchio was an absolute lout – knocking the poor priest around, shouting at everyone, and throwing wine in people’s faces.  Kate trembled like a leaf throughout the ceremony.  The bride and groom and guests troop back for the wedding feast, but Petruchio insists that he has to head back home instead.  Everyone urges him to stay, including Kate, but no dice.  She finally gets angry and claims she’ll stay for the feast while he leaves, and she instructs everyone to go ahead to the party.  Petruchio twists her words, supporting her instructions to the guests, then insisting that his new wife must stay by his side – she is his everything and he’ll protect her against any guests that challenge that point!  [Director’s note: is this a sincere moment of love and husbandly protection on his end, or just a manipulation to control?  Both?]  Off they go into married life!

The happy couple

The happy couple


Gremio bursts into his master’s house; he was sent ahead to ready everything for when the newlyweds arrive.  He fills in fellow servant Curtis about the harrowing journey they took – Kate fell off her horse, Petruchio beat Gremio for the horse’s behavior (without helping Kate), then Kate broke them up.  Lots of bad temper and dirt and injuries.  The battered couple arrives, and Petruchio rages at the servants.  They bring food (weary Kate is stoked to finally eat), but Hubby knocks it aside, insisting it’s too horrid to eat.  Frustrated and hungry, she stomps upstairs to bed, while Petruchio muses that he will rein in his wife’s bad behavior by depriving her of food and sleep (much like taming a falcon) until she softens and agrees to act as a unit.

In Padua, Bianca is openly flirting with “Cambio”, and “Litio” is at his wit’s end.  Over the whole failed courtship, Hortensio gives her up and opts to marry a widow who’s smitten with him.  An old merchant blows into town from Mantua, and Tranio sees his opportunity.  As “Lucentio” he convinces the merchant that there’s beef between Padua’s duke and Mantua’s – for the man’s safety, he should disguise himself as Vincentio of Pisa.  “Lucentio” will help and protect him, as long as the merchant does him the tiny favor of pretending to be his father and promise riches to his future father-in-law.  The merchant believes this is a reasonable course of action and agrees to the plan.

Me, whenever silly characters who should be learned merchants just go along with whatever some stranger says

Me, whenever silly characters who should be learned merchants just go along with whatever some stranger says

Back at Petruchio’s, Kate’s stomach is extra growly.  Grumio offers her a bunch of different dishes, and Kate is ready to accept anything.  When he fails to produce anything except riddles, she beats and spurns Grumio.  Hortensio pops in for a visit, and Petruchio (finally) offers up some food for Kate and guest to eat.  The tailor and haberdasher arrive with some ladies’ clothes and hats that Petruchio ordered, but he proclaims them ugly.  Kate’s protests that they were fine and that she should be free to speak her mind.  Petruchio dismisses all the garments, saying they’ll go Padua to celebrate Bianca’s marriage in their own simple garments.  While they travel back to Padua, Petruchio insists that Kate fall in line with what he says.  It’s broad daylight, but he insists the sun is the moon.  She gives in, and agrees that the sun is the moon.  He corrects her (‘it’s the SUN, what are you talking about?’), and she confirms that whatever he calls it, she will agree.  An old man happens upon them, and Petruchio greets him as a young lady.  Kate obediently calls him a lady, only to be corrected by Petruchio again.  Kate apologizes to the bewildered man, who introduces himself as Vincentio (yup, that would be the real one).  Petruchio welcomes him as family, and the man is astounded to hear that his son is getting married.  On to Padua!  [Director’s note: is that exchange an exasperated struggle with a worn-out woman and power-hungry man proving a point?  I would prefer to stage it as the first moment that Kate and Petruchio have some fun with each other – he dares her to tease the old man, and she willingly plays the game.]

Is it just me, or does the "praising the old man as a young virgin" scene kind of reminiscent of the penis game's "I dare you" mentality? 

Is it just me, or does the "praising the old man as a young virgin" scene kind of reminiscent of the penis game's "I dare you" mentality? 

The real Vincentio arrives at Lucentio’s house and requests entrance.  The real Lucentio is off marrying Bianca at that exact moment, but the “Vincentio” (the merchant) answers, insisting that he’s Vincentio and this new guy is an imposter.  When Biondello and “Lucentio” show up, they both pretend not to know who he is.  A bunch of town people observe the kerfuffle as the real Vincentio grows angrier and more indignant.  Baptista comes out and general confusion abounds.  “Cambio” shows up with his new bride, Bianca – he reveals himself as the true Lucentio and begs his father’s forgiveness (it was love’s fault!).  Bianca apologizes to her father as well.  They’re not exactly stoked, but the couple is married, so everyone gets on board (even Gremio, who decides to attend the wedding feast even if he didn’t win the girl).

Lucentio and Bianca’s wedding feast is on, and everyone’s in attendance.  Hortensio even shows up with his new wife, the (former) Widow.  Everyone’s eating and joking, and the ladies eventually leave to talk on their own.  The men start teasing one another, and Petruchio sees his opportunity to show off (or test?) his wife’s changed ways.  He proposes a bet: each new groom will call for his wife, and whichever woman comes forth her husband wins 100 crowns.  Lucentio calls for Bianca…who says she can’t come.  Hortensio summons the Widow…and she refuses to come, saying he should come to her [Pause for all 21st century Western women to mentally high-five the Widow.].  Petruchio sends for Kate, who comes forth straightaway.  He asks her to bring in the other wives to inform them of their wifely duties.  Kate drags them in and fervidly preaches that women are bound to love and obey the husbands who work so hard to love and protect them.  Scorn and petty annoyances have no place in marriage, according to Kate.  Petruchio has definitely won the wager, and the play ends with their kiss as they head off to bed, leaving everyone else dumbfounded. 

Oh, and that whole Christopher Sly induction bit?  Well, there’s no ending for that piece in Shakespeare’s text.  We’re sort of left to our own imaginative devices on how the trick on him plays out.  [UM, WHAT?]

Check This Out:

Shakespeare’s contemporary and co-writer John Fletcher’s wrote a sequel to TTOTS called A Woman’s Prize (The Tamer Tamed).  I had never heard of it!  It’s about widower Petruchio (no word on how Kate died) finding a second wife who in turn tames him at Bianca’s advice.  Apparently, Jacobean audiences found TTOTS as problematic as modern audiences!  Here’s the RSC’s Gregory Doran’s take on both plays, when he directed them back in 2003.

On this blog, I may occasionally continue to mention Jillian Keenan’s excellent book Sex with Shakespeare.  She supposes that Kate and Petruchio may have sado-masochistic tendancies, and she’s certainly not the first.  In true fetishism, one type needs the other in order to be completely fulfilled.  Is their rocky early marriage their way of playing out their fetishized relationship?  Well, looks like a group in Toronto just finished staging a production of Shrew with this same hypothesis.

The Hogarth Shakespeare project rounded up modern authors (some excellent ones!) to write novels loosely based on Shakespeare’s plays.  Anne Tyler wrote Vinegar Girl based off TTOTS.  I read it.  The updated framing device works well to modernize the story – a prickly woman is stuck in a life that revolves around taking care of her absent-minded scientist father and frivolous sister.  When his revered (eccentric) research partner’s visa is set to expire, dad urges Kate into a green card marriage.  Plot set up works fine, but the characterizations barely scrape the surface.  Kate is contrary and portrayed as being bewildered by basic social etiquette, almost as if the author means to give her Asperger’s Syndrome.  And there’s very little time spent “taming” Kate; we don’t fully see the Petruchio character being really horrible other than being late and sloppily dressed for their wedding (which is due to stress from work, not from teaching Kate lessons).  I get it was an influenced work…the first half is a solid start, but it never really explores some of the themes or major questions of the source material.  But it made me excited to check out the other adaptations, all of which you can find here.     

Everyone should check out the 1967 Zeffirelli film, if only to witness Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s still-married, red-hot chemistry.  Note for Bard purists: you will find some dialogue altered and even inserted.  But the movie itself is a beautiful riot of color.

Thoughts & Themes:

Two things strike me more than anything about this play.  The first is its overt theatricality.  Between the induction set-up and the four different characters who pose as other people, The Taming of the Shrew centers on things not always being what they seem.  Which sort of ties in with the second preoccupation I have with this work: the 400-year fascination with a single character’s motivations.  Why is Kate so tempestuous?  And why are we so intent on providing an explanation for her behavior?  The text offers us hints, but it’s mostly left up to interpretation.  Does our obsession with Kate stem from our belief that bad behavior should always be justified?  Or is it that in order to understand a character’s 180-degree change, we believe that her reasons for bad behavior must be finished or overwritten?  Do we see versions of our inner selves mirrored in Katherine/Kate?

This play, more than almost any other by Shakespeare, is truly subject to interpretation by director/actor.  The text centers around action in this play, with very little focus on the emotion that drives that action (the complete inverse of Hamlet, basically).  Every production or adaptation grapples with offering some sort of explanation as to why Kate is so abrasive.  There is a lot unsaid in this play.  So what is textual fact rather than production decisions?  Here’s what we know for sure about Kate (prior to her complete transformation), based on her own words:

  • When meeting Petruchio, she corrects him on her name: she’s Katherine, but he insists on calling her Kate.  Right away, it’s as if he is rebranding her.  Kate 2.0! – “They call me Katherine that do talk of me.” (2.1.191)
  • She tells her father that she sees his clear preference for Bianca and that it makes her weep – “Nay, now I see/ She is your treasure, she must have a husband,/ I must dance barefoot on her wedding day/ And, for your love to her, lead apes in hell.  Talk not to me.  I will go sit and weep/ ‘Til I can find occasion of revenge.” (2.1.34-9)
  • She actively antagonizes her sister (in beginning of Act 2 scene 1…although, again – why?)
  • She does not want to marry Petruchio, even on her wedding day – “…I must, forsooth, be forced/ to give my hand, opposed against my heart,/ Unto a madbrain rudesby…” (3.2.8-10)
  • She insists on speaking her mind; to stifle her thoughts would be painful – “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,/ Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,/ And, rather than it shall, I will be free/ Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.” (4.3.82-5)

We know for sure from the text that Kate is a spirited woman who wants to make up her own mind, but it stuck in a situation (family, forced marriage) where she can’t.  The audience (and actor) is left to decide for themselves why she’s filled with rage, rather than seemingly compliant like her sister.  [Like being forced into a life she doesn’t want isn’t enough reason?]  Productions have provided all kinds of explanations for Kate’s acerbic behavior – she is jealous of her father’s preference for her sister, she’s hurting over the absence of her mother, she thinks she’s smarter than everyone else around her, she doesn’t fit in to Padua’s societal norms (due to sexual proclivities or even mental health).  My question is, is it really that important why Kate is a shrew?  MAYBE SHE JUST IS.

We live in a day where analysis and self-reflection are much more common and accepted in society.  We comb through our pasts as a means of shedding light on our current moods and decisions.  We look for reasons why we are the way we are – perhaps because of the ways our parents treated us, because of our childhood neighborhoods, or because of the other kids in our classrooms.  We talk to others about our past as a means of explaining ourselves.  For the record – I am not knocking therapy.  Hell, this blog is a prime example of navel-gazing and is very therapeutic for me in its own way.  Of course our backgrounds play a huge part in how we tackle life.  But at some point (or many points throughout your life), you have the opportunity to decide that you are moving forward and that you are responsible for your own mindset.  We have the ability to change – sometimes because we’re adapting to new circumstances, and sometimes because we actively choose to.  It’s scary, but we are the only ones who can make it worth it.  What sucks is when we use our pasts as an excuse to continue with our own bad behaviors.

Kate reaches a point where she accepts that her new life is unlike her old one.  There comes a point, in any interpretation of this work, where Kate doffs her old self for a new one.  She is forced into a new life through her marriage, but she is the one who controls how she adjusts to it.  At what point do we, in our own lives, accept that our past doesn’t have to fully control our future?  What if you got the chance (or forced circumstance) to have a brand new life, to be a new version of yourself?

Of course, this evolution never goes away.  As we live our present, we constantly create our pasts.  We choose when to keep pushing forward and when/how long to stay in one place.  For a year now, I have been working on this project.  I’ve been living the life of a stay-at-home parent, having actively chosen to end my career and be my kids’ daytime care.  The majority of the time, it feels like my real life, like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, at least for awhile.  But occasionally, it feels like I’m in a holding pattern, trying to figure out what to do next.  Those are the times when niggling little doubts eat at me (mostly occurs when dealing with son’s failed potty training).  It can be easy to wonder that Past Deidre was thinking.  When I feel myself getting itchy about my current circumstance, I start to retread my previous choices – why did I choose insurance as my first job out of college, why didn’t Hubs and I choose to live in a different town, why didn’t I try to transition out of my HR career earlier?  When I get like that, I have to breathe and stop myself.  It’s ridiculous to dwell on the choices I made…I can’t unmake them.  I’m here as a result of what I chose.  Like Kate, I am simply in the situation that I am in – and certainly with far more agency than she had in the matter.  No point in blaming anyone for how/why I am here.  It’s all about adjusting my attitude to enjoy what I have at this moment, and to figure out where to go from here.    


It's dog days of summer, so how about a little cooling off?  My local Shakespeare in the Park is putting on The Winter's Tale this month, so that's up next time!