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Michael Billington, theatre critic for the Guardian, asked ‘whether there is any reason to revive a play which seems totally offensive to our age and society’ (6 May 1978). With particular reference to the final scenes of the play, explore the ways in which a modern audience can respond to Shakespeare’s presentation of the relationship between Kate and Petruchio To many desultory observers The Taming of the Shrew may be conjectured as being profoundly misogynistic, an intolerable illustration of female subjugation in 16TH Century England. However in my opinion this is a far too superficial and perfunctory observation. The Taming of the Shrew displays enough ambiguity in its readings to support differing interpretations of its meaning and demonstrates its relevance to modern society.
It is clear that one’s own evaluation of the plight of Kate is an integral part of whether one finds the play offensive or not. On face value the shrewish Kate is tamed by the cruel, exploitative Petruchio who uses her father’s wealth as his only reason to embark on their marriage; a marriage she despairingly tries and fails to resist. He embarrasses and degrades her, culminating in the final scene where Kate openly relinquishes her independence; grovellingly placing her hand under Petruchio’s foot and lectures the other women about what should be their ‘traditional’ servant role within marriage.
However such superficial interpretations fail to consider the strong possibility of the presence of dramatic irony in Shakespeare’s writing, that their marriage is in fact one of ‘partnership’. Fiona Shaw, a contemporary Shakespearean actor, offers this interpretation by commenting ‘her vision coincides with his… Kate and Petruchio were rebels and would remain rebels forever’1. Indeed it has been argued that Kate actually tames Petruchio by seemingly bowing to his requests:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee (ACT V SCENE II 145-6) Superficially this may seem a submission, but it is possible to see the irony in Kate’s words. After all, at the time of writing, the head of state or the sovereign was Elizabeth I, therefore the aforementioned quotation symbolises a direct ironic attack against the patriarchal concept that Kate seems to be urging. Kate’s final speech could be categorised as a capitulation if its reader was without any idea or contextual knowledge about Kate’s complex character because much of its content is derived from sources used in the Elizabethan Church such as the Book of Homilies and The Instruction of Christian Women.
However, it is certainly conceivable that it could be interpreted as a ‘subversive manifesto’. Kate’s flattering of Petruchio through her references to his brave naval background seems to appease him, yet it is she with the ‘soft’ and ‘smooth’ body. Petruchio maybe stronger in the physical sense, but it is he who has had to work harder in life and will work harder in marriage – if Kate has her way. H.G. Goddard’s comment that ‘everyone knows… that the woman can lord it over the man as long as she allows him to think he’s lording it over her’ supports this view, even if this comment is as equally facile as Kate’s ‘taming’ – a tribute to the ambiguity of the play.
Textual evidence also configures with the doubt over whether Kate’s plight parallels with the doctrines of the Renaissance writers who fundamentally endorsed a patriarchal social hierarchy with the female subject to the orders of their husband or father. Lucentio’s final line ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so’ emphasises the notion of scepticism over her sudden changed behaviour and that indeed she may have colluded with Petruchio in order to win the wager.
The short time-scale of the play casts doubt over whether such a character as strong as Kate could really be tamed so emphatically. Indeed the feminist critic Germaine Greer has argued that the play ‘is not a knockabout farce of wife-battering, but the cunning adaptation of a folk-motif to show the forging of a partnership between equals’2, emphasised by Petruchio in the final scene finally acknowledging their alliance -‘we’ll be to bed… we thee are married, but you two are sped’.
It is Kate who is indeed shrewd enough to realise that she must appease Petruchio if she is to be able to forge a happy marriage with him. This is after Hortensio reminds Kate ‘say as he says, or we shall never go’ – a clue about the possible consequences if she continues her resistance. This is not a submission, but a clever ploy by Kate who realises that if her marriage is to progress from a state of extreme discomfort she must forge a partnership.