The Taming Of The Shrew: A Tragedy
Tragedy: A narrative that details the downfall of an
idealized or romanticized protagonist.
Comedy: A narrative of an often farcical nature which
details an uplifting conclusion often involving
celebrations such as weddings or coronation.
These concise and minimalist definitions of ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ are often used as a metre stick to measure and define the nature of narratives. In the case of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, pieces like: “Macbeth”, “Hamlet”, and “Romeo and Juliet”, are often referred to as ‘tragedies’, while: “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Taming Of The Shrew” are often seen as ‘comedies’. But in examining the structure of “The Taming Of The Shrew”, it becomes clear that though some of the scenes within the play may appear to be outwardly farcical in nature, and though the typical celebration (in this case a wedding) that punctuates most comedies is present, the play in all actuality is a ‘tragedy’ in that the protagonist, Kathrina, begins in a position of high esteem as she is reputed to be both cunning and clever, if not also crass with her tongue, placing her on a par intellectually with her male counterparts, while also maintaining a great deal of personal independence not often granted women of her era, only to be beaten down into submission until her will is broken, detailing the fall of the protagonist and completing the archetype of a typical tragic narrative.
After the play’s Induction, the play’s author wastes no time identifying the “Shrew” of the play’s title. Gremio, a potential suitor, first claims that Kathrina is ‘too rough’, while Hortensio, another potential suitor, suggests Kathrina will entice no suitors unless she becomes of a ‘gentler, milder mould’, but in both instances Kathrina displays an ability to outwit her male counter parts, first but commanding Gremio not to speak down of her in front of his friends and then by suggesting that she might ‘comb [Hortensio’s] noodle with a three-legg’d stool’, and use Hortensio ‘like a fool’, outwitting both men. In the same act, when her father gives Kathrina instruction, Kathrina questions even her father, asking: ‘shall I be appointed hours, as though… I knew not what to take…?’, asserting her independence and making clear that she is capable of making her own decisions. Such was not the extent of Kathrina’s wit though, as upon her first meeting with Petruchio, her would-be husband and eventual torturer, Kathrina volleyed a series of retorts that undermined every flirtatious word Petruchio tried to flatter her with, first by correcting him when he referred to her as Kate, noting that he must be ‘something hard of hearing’ because those that knew her called her ‘Kathrina’. Kathrina would go on to refer to Petruchio as a ‘buzzard’, telling him he crowed ‘like a craven’ and warning him to ‘beware [of her] sting’. In each instant Kathrina illustrates that she will neither bend to the will of men, nor that her wit was one not to be casually challenged.
This sharp-witted heroine is not the portrait of Kathrina that is portrayed at the end of the play, and it is Petruchio who serves as her antagonist, and Petruchio’s villainous intent is made clear almost as soon as he enters the play, first by verbally and physically assaulting the manservant Grumio, threatening his ‘knave’s pate’ and calling him a ‘villain’ repeatedly. Such behaviour is repeated when Petruchio stood before the alter as Gremio recounts that Petruchio ‘swore so loud… the priest let’ the Bible fall, and when the priest picked up the Bible, the ‘mad-brain’d bridegroom took him such a cuff’ that the priest fell down. Petruchio also makes clear (before the courtship of Kathrina) that his travel’s intent is to ‘seek… fortunes’ and hopes to find woman ‘rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife’, claiming that he would care not if the woman were; ‘foul… old… curst and shrewd’, so long as she is wealthy, for Petruchio believes if he marries ‘wealthily, then [he marries] happily’, illustrating that his ideal relationship is based on wealth and not love, an idea that stands in stark contradiction to the typical romantic relationships based on love that typically populated traditional comedies. This morally corrupt pattern of behaviour continues when Petruchio meets Baptista, Kathrina’s father (after his first meeting with Kathrina), as Petruchio informs Baptista that he and Kathrina had gotten along ‘so well together’ that the following ‘Sunday [would be] the wedding day’, though no such agreement was made and not a pleasant word was offer to Petruchio from Kathrina’s side of the conversation. Between his verbally and physically abusive nature, his greed and dishonesty, it is clear that Petruchio is not the archetypical groom of a traditional comedy, but rather an ideal villain for a tragedy.
Kathrina’s father, being so eager to marry off his daughters, agreed that Kathrina was to marry Petruchio, and once the two were married, Kathrina’s down fall began as Petruchio takes up the position of torturer full time. Petruchio, though, began laying the ground work for his torturous brainwashing techniques from the very first moment he meets Kathrina as he gives to her a new name, a common practice that slaver owners engaged in when the obtained new slaves, and also a practice adopted by cults who rename new members. Petruchio immediately refers to Kathrina as “Kate” when he sees her, though he had been told her name was Kathrina, and continues to use this abbreviated form of her name even after she corrects him. Petruchio indulges other behaviour that suggests he sees his wife as slave owners from the era viewed ‘their’ slaves by claiming shortly after the marriage, that he will ‘be master of what’ was his own, and that Kathrina was his own ‘goods’, and compared her to other pieces of property such as a ‘house,… barn,… horse,… ox,…[and] ass’. He follows this by indulging in torture techniques such as starvation, refusing her food by making excuses about the food’s quality, claiming it ‘burnt and dried away’, and refusing to allow Kathrina to eat it despite the fact she noted the ‘meat was well’. Petruchio goes on to assert that he would both starve Kathrina and deprive her of sleep, stating: ‘she must not be full-gorged… eat no meat’ and would make sure ‘she slept not’, and ‘if she chance to nod’ he would ‘rail and brawl’, with the aim of breaking her will and ‘taming a shrew’. These torture techniques are not unlike those adopted by slave owners in an attempt to break a person’s will, and also adopted by various militaries with the aim of breaking a prisoner’s will with the aim of extracting information, completing the portrait of Petruchio as villainous torturer.
In her final monologue, Kathrina makes clear the completion of the protagonist’s fall. The independent figure who was independent, strong and unyielding at the commencement of the play, is a broken, compliant, subservient and seemingly domesticated by the play’s completion, claiming that a woman’s husband is her ‘ lord,…life,… keeper,… head,… [and] sovereign”, illustrating the esteem she now holds for her torturer and suggesting that Kathrina has developed a sort of Elizabethan version of Stockholm Syndrome, even going to far to say that her ‘love, fair looks and true obedience’ are too ‘little payment for so great a debt’ as the debt she now feels she owes her husband, and claims that women are ‘bound to serve, love and obey’, drawing on traditional wedding vows to illustrate the obedience she seems to be suggesting women owe to their husbands. This debilitating humility which Kathrina has been tortured into adopting is further highlighted when she states that women are ‘soft and weak’ and unable to ‘toil and trouble in the world’. The Kathrina who appears in the plays final scene seems like a tragically dramatic departure from the independent woman who was termed a ‘shrew’ by the men around her and asserted her independence, instead submitting to the authority of her oppressor.
Though “The Taming Of The Shrew” seems to, on the surface, follow the formulaic structure of a comedy, when one looks beneath the surface of the play’s structure, and examines the morally corrupt nature of Petruchio, the play’s antagonist, and considers the impact that Petruchio has on the play’s protagonist, it becomes clear that the play’s narrative does not project an upward trajectory, but rather a downward spiral in which the play’s protagonist is striped of all the virtues which defined her at the onset of the play. For those whom the decimation of the feminist virtues it too tragic though, there are some interpretations of Kathrina’s final monologue that offers some hope of redemption for the feminist reader. Kathrina is sure to chastise her fellow women, stating that she is ‘ashamed that women are so simple’, a concept that is actually contrariwise to the sentiments she seems to be encouraging women to adopt and is more in keeping with her demeanour at the onset of the play. Kathrina also states that women should offer their obedience to a man ‘that cares for thee’, which is certainly not the case with her own husband since Petruchio married Kathrina for her dowry and not because he cared for her, and since Petruchio does not truly care for Kathrina, he forfeits the right to be her sovereign under the guidelines which Kathrina lays out. Coupled with this Kathrina also notes that a husband is owed a debt because of the ‘painful labour both by sea and land’ that they bear, and the ‘toil and trouble’ they endure, but none of the men present endure ‘painful labour’ or ‘toil and trouble’ since they are members of the ruling class and the concept of labour would only really apply to the working class. Still, Kathrina’s standing at the play’s conclusion rests in a position that seems to be very much in opposition to her standing at the play’s commencement and whether or not her final speech is meant to be taken literally as a sign of her taming, or a cynical parody of the subservient bride her new groom had aimed to stripe her down to, Kathrina, by the play’s end, remains only as free as a slave who runs to the eastern bow of a westbound vessel.