The Taming Of The Shrew by William Shakespeare is probably one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. Its plot is derived from the popular ‘war of the sexes’ theme in which males and females are pitted against one another for dominance in marriage. The play begins with an induction in which a drunkard, Christopher Sly, is fooled into believing he is a king and has a play performed for him. The play he watches is what constitutes the main body of The Taming Of The Shrew. In it, a wealthy land owner, Baptista Minola, attempts to have his two daughters married. One is very shrewish, Katherine, while the other is the beautiful and gentle Bianca.
In order to ensure Katherine is married, Baptista disallows Bianca to be espoused until Katherine is wed, forcing the many suitors to Bianca to find a mate for Katherine in order for them to vie for Bianca’s love. Many critics of the play condemn it for the blatant sexist attitude it has toward women but closer examination of the play and the intricacies of its structure reveal that it is not merely a story of how men should ‘put women in their place’. The play is, in fact, a comedy about an assertive woman coping with how she is expected to act in the society of the late sixteenth century and of how one must obey the unwritten rules of a society to be accepted in it. Although the play ends with her outwardly conforming to the norms of society, this is in action only, not in mind. Although she assumes the role of the obedient wife, inwardly she still retains her assertiveness.
Most of the play’s humour comes from the way in which characters create false realities by disguising themselves as other people, a device first introduced in the induction. Initially this is accomplished by having Christopher Sly believe he is someone he is not and then by having the main play performed for him. By putting The Taming Of The Shrew in a ‘play within a play’ structure, Shakespeare immediately lets the audience know that the play is not real thus making all events in the play false realities. Almost all characters in the play take on identities other than their own at some point of time during the play. Sly as a king, Tranio as Lucentio, Lucentio as Cambio, Hortensio as Litio and the pedant as Vicentio are all examples of this.
Another example of this is Katherine as an obedient wife. In The Taming Of The Shrew, courtship and marriage are not so much the result of love but rather an institution of society that people are expected to take part in. As a result of the removal of romance from marriage, suitors are judged, not by their love for a woman, but by how well they can provide for her. All suitors compare the dowry each can bring to the marriage and the one with the most to offer ‘wins’ the woman’s hand in marriage. This competition for marriage is like a game to the characters of the play. While discussing the courtship of Bianca with Gremio, Hortensio says “He that runs fastest gets The ring” (Act I, scene i, l.
140-141) likening receiving permission to wed Bianca to winning a race. In the game, however, women are treated like objects that can be bought and sold rather than as human beings. This is expected since the society is a patriarchal one. For example, Lucentio, Tranio and Petruchio are all defined with reference to their fathers and all the elderly authority figures, like Baptista and Vicentio, are men. The taming of Katherine is not a women’s shrewishness being cured as much as it is a woman being taught the rules of the ‘patriarchal game’. Katherine has learned how to be assertive and with this knowledge is able to control men, and a woman controlling a man is considered ‘against the rules’ of the game.
The play ends with Katherine proving that she is truly cured of her ‘shrewishness’ and is the most obedient of the three newlywed wives at the end of the play. This is demonstrated in her soliloquy when she lectures the other wives on the proper way in which a woman should behave: I am ashamed that women are so simple To offer war where they should kneel for peace, Or seek rule, supremacy, and sway, When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (Act V, scene ii, l. 161 – 164) Although most critics interpret the play as being that of a woman finally acting the way in which she is supposed to act, it is difficult to believe that a character as vibrant and strong-willed as Katherine is changed so easily. Following with the device of false realities that Shakespeare set in place so early in the play, it would seem more logical that Katherine would simply be acting the part of ‘the obedient wife’ in order to be accepted in the society in which she lives.
Katherine can ‘play a part’ very well and can even enjoy doing it. This is shown on the road to Padua from Petruchio’s house when Kate is forced to address Vincentio as a woman and says, “Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet” (Act IV, scene v, l. 37). The Taming Of The Shrew is a light-hearted comedy that is better seen than read. This is especially true since a lot of the humour in it is physical or ‘slapstick’ humour which is possible only on stage.
The complexity of the play is refreshing, as many of the modern plays of today are quite linear and do little to keep a reader’s attention. Another favourable aspect of it is the subplot involving Lucentio and Bianca which lends itself as the basis for many humourous moments, most notably between Lucentio, Hortensio and Bianca. The obvious sexist attitude of the play does not hinder it because of the reasons stated above. One must also take into account the attitudes of sixteenth century England and the fact that the play is a comedy and is not meant to be taken seriously.