Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is often criticized for its seemingly misogynistic themes: namely, the idea of breaking a woman’s spirit and making her subservient to her husband. This is apparent through the “taming” of the play’s lead female character, Katherine Minola. Katherine, better known as Kate, is hard-headed, stubborn, and prone to speaking her mind. In the patriarchal society of Shakespeare’s day, which valued weak and submissive woman, her behavior does not go over well with her male counterparts. Thus, throughout the play, her groom, Petruccio, uses starvation, humiliation, and sleep deprivation to “break” her and turn her into what was then viewed as a proper bride — the total antithesis of the character to which the audience is first introduced. That destruction of a strong and powerful woman into one suited for the Stepford Wives is controversial: should the play be viewed in a tongue-in-cheek manner, one criticizing the society in which it takes place, or should it be taken literally and blasted as a work of anti-woman propaganda? Though it seems unusual for Shakespeare’s work, The Taming of the Shrew is ultimately riddled with misogyny and suggests the necessity of a subservient bride and the stifling of a woman’s voice.
Simultaneously, the men notice Bianca’s silence and seeming meekness, and judge her as quickly as they did Kate: while Kate is far too ardent to be a suitable bride, Bianca is ideal, with “mild behavior and sobriety.” Kate scoffs at the idea, referring to Bianca as a “pretty peat,” a spoiled little pet, and making apparent her contempt for Bianca and for the men’s general desire for a docile woman.
Further evidencing Kate’s fierceness is a scene of dialogue between Kate and Petruccio, the man who will eventually tame her. The two seem to have somewhat of a battle of wits, each verbally sniping at the other. It is clear that Kate is intelligent and can hold her own in a verbal sparring match with any man. When Petruccio attempts civility, greeting her with, “Good morrow, Kate, for that’s your name, I hear,” Kate snaps in return, “Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing: They call me Katherine that do talk of me.” Petruccio continues to attempt to win her over with compliments and sweet talk:
Petruccio: You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; / But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate, / Take this of me, Kate my consolation— / Hearing thy mildness prais’d in every town, / They virtues spoke of, and they beauty sounded, / Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs, / Myself am mov’d to woo thee for my wife.
And while many women would have swooned over being called pretty and dainty, the more hard-hearted Kate is not at all moved. “Mov’d! in good time! Let him that mov’d / you hither remove you hence. I knew you at the first / You were a movable.” The two continue to verbally spar, and with each flattery Petruccio utters, Kate responds with an insult.
Petruccio’s use of the phrase “women are made to bear” demonstrates the play’s idea of women: while Kate means that asses are made to bear workloads, Petruccio insinuates that women are made to bear children, thus supporting the play’s continual suggestion of a woman’s place as a meek, servile being, good for little other than raising children and following the misogynistic overtones of the work as a whole.
Comparing Kate’s fire in this scene with her speech in the play’s final scene leads the audience to recognize Kate as a broken woman. Her spirit is totally gone, and she seems to support all of the things about patriarchy that she once despised; she is now subservient to Petruccio and condemns women who act insubordinately to their husbands. To Kate, the husband is the wife’s king, keeper, governor, lord, sovereign, and head — a far cry from the woman who initially spurned all such notions.
Petruccio: Katherine, I charge thee tell these headstrong women / What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.
Kate: Fie, fie, unknit that threat’ning unkind brow, / And dart not scornful glances from those eyes, to wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor. / …. Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee… / I am asham’d that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace, / Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, / When they are bound to serve, love and obey. / Why are our bodies, soft, and weak, and smooth, / Unapt to toil and trouble in the world… / But now I see our lances are but straws, / Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare…”
So then, how can one account for this final scene, in which Kate delivers this passionate speech about the meekness of women and responds to Petruccio’s beck and call with absolutely no resistance? It is evident that he has destroyed her with his actions toward her during their “courtship.” He humiliates Katherine by purposely dressing distastefully and riding a diseased animal at their wedding, and then by dramatically leaving their wedding dinner with Katherine in tow. He also publicly announces what Kate means to him:
I will be the master of what is mine own. / She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, / My household stuff, my field, my barn, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything…
This kind of public humiliation can be seen as part of Kate’s ultimate collapse as a person. One can only bear so much degradation before it affects his or her persona, weakening the will, and Kate is a clear demonstration of this. Moreover, whisking Kate away from dinner and refusing to allow her to eat is also evidence of the starvation she endured at the hands of Petruccio. Petruccio also savagely beats his servants in front of Kate, assuring that he would never lay a hand on her but nonetheless instilling in her the knowledge that he has the potential to be a violent man. He proclaims that he will tame her by depriving her of her needs, disguising it as love and kindness.
Thus I have politely begun my reign, / And ’tis my hope to end successfully. / My falcon now is sharp and passing empty, / For then she never looks upon her lure. / Another way I have to man my haggard, / To make her come, / And know her keeper’s call, / That is, to watch her… / She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat; / Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not; / As with the meat, some undeserved fault / I’ll find about the making of the bed… / … This is a way to kill a wife with kindness.”
Thus, through this series of starvation, sleep deprivation, and humiliation, Kate becomes the docile shell of herself that she appears to be at the play’s close. As a whole, the work is anti-woman and shows the cruel and abusive destruction of a human. In the end, Kate’s “taming” is little more than the ruin of her spirit, and the work seems to praise brutality and malice toward women. A stark contrast to the feminist movement, it is no surprise that the work and its popularity are unnerving to many.