The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 3)

Sly is not the only character in the play whose failures at self-understanding result in unhappy relationships. Shakespeare presents two female characters whose troubled identities will no doubt lead to quite unhappy marriages with their respective husbands. These are Bianca, the younger sister of the supposedly shrewish Katherine, and the Widow, whose identity is so troubled that she is never so much as granted a name of her own.

The play-within-a-play which takes up most of The Taming of the Shrew and gives the play its name begins with Lucentio’s experience of love at first sight as he observes Bianca, the younger sister of the shrewish Katherine. His infatuation with Bianca, however, arises out of a false first impression. As he describes her after his first observation of her, Lucentio sees her as “young” and “modest,” assuring his servant Tranio that “sacred and sweet was all I saw in her.”[1]

In the end, however, it is revealed that while Bianca may indeed be “young” she is far from “modest” and neither “sacred” nor “sweet.” While exchanging barbs with the other characters at the wedding banquet in the final scene, Bianca offers a series of jests with defiant overtones and bawdy undertones. In a reference to the common Elizabethan image of a horned cuckold, Bianca takes a jab at the other newly-married couples, Petruchio with her sister Kate and Hortensio, her former suitor, with the Widow:

Head, and butt! An hasty-witted body

Would say your head and butt were head and horn.[2]

When Petruchio offers to bring her into the exchange of comical insults, Bianca responds with a double entendre, indicating her current intention to drop out of the conversation through reference to sexual imagery:

Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush;

And then pursue me as you draw your bow.[3]

At this, she exits the room along with the other women at the banquet.

Bianca completes the revelation of her true, and certainly less than “modest” or “sacred and sweet,” identity in her refusal of obedience to her new husband. When called upon by Lucentio to depart from her female friends and join him at the banquet, she sends the message through the servant Biondello “that she is busy and she cannot come.”[4] Having been forced to rejoin her husband by the newly-tamed Katherine, Bianca offers mockery to the very notion that she has a “duty” to obey her husband:


Fie, what a foolish duty call you this?


I would your duty were as foolish [as Katherine’s], too.

The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca,

Hath cost me a hundred crowns since suppertime.


The more fool you, for laying on my duty.

In this public chiding of her husband for having relied upon her to fulfill her duties as his wife, Bianca reveals herself as quite immodest and hardly “sacred” or “sweet,” contrary to Lucentio’s initial impression of her.

While Bianca’s case is one of a true identity hidden under an assumed one, the case of the Widow to whom Hortensio is married is one of an identity that has become static. It is remarkable that the Widow is still referred to as “Widow” in the text of the play even after she has married another man. Petruchio, for example, refers to her as “his [that is, Hortensio’s] widow.”[5] She is not his widow, however; she is his wife. Even Hortensio, her husband, however, refers to her as “my widow.”[6] Her identity is static and unchanging. It is still attached to her former husband.

Her lack of devotion to Hortensio is exhibited in the final game played among the men in which each calls his wife to see which of them responds most promptly. As the men discuss calling the women, she is finally referred to by Hortensio as “my wife” and by Petruchio as “Hortensio’s wife.”[7] She rebuffs this identity, however, by rejecting the obligations it entails. When the servant Biondello is sent to her by Hortensio to tell her to join him, the servant returns to inform him, “She will not come. She bids you come to her.”[8]

Katherine, in obedience to Petruchio, finally brings Bianca and the Widow to their husbands of the earlier refusal of each of the latter, upon which act the Widow comments, “Lord, let me never have a cause to sight / Till I be brought to such a silly pass!”[9] For the Widow, a wife’s obedience to her husband is “silly.” When Petruchio orders Kate to lecture Bianca and the Widow on the responsibilities of wives to their husbands, the Widow objects that it is “mocking” and she “will have no telling,” reinforcing once again her objection to a change of identity from Widow to wife with all that the latter identity entails.[10]

The result of the hidden identity of Bianca and the static identity of the Widow for themselves and for each of their respective husbands is, undoubtedly, quite unhappy marriages. Each of them refuses to see themselves in the role of an Eve to their respective Adam, fulfilling a role of mutual responsibility, cooperation, and affection like that implied by Adam’s exclamation in Genesis following the creation of Eve from his side:

This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man.[11]

It is, with a great deal of Shakespearean irony, the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine that best fits this biblical pattern. Indeed, Petruchio’s own description of his initial meeting with Katherine draws upon this model of mutual compatibility. Addressing the men who are astonished at Petruchio’s report of his love for Katherine, and her love for him, he says,

O, you are novices! ’tis a world to see,

How tame, when men and women are alone,

A meacock wretch can make the curstest shrew.[12]

The establishment of a relationship based on mutual compatibility between Petruchio and Katherine is indeed “a world to see” as the story follows the structure of Elizabethan cosmogony.

In his classic work on The Elizabethan World Picture, E. M. W. Tillyard cites Edmund Spenser’s Hymn of Love as particularly illustrative of this cosmogony:

The earth the air the water and the fire

Then gan to range themselves in huge array

And with contrary forces to conspire

Each against other by all means they may,

Threat’ning their own confusion and decay;

Air hated earth and water hated fire,

Till Love relented their rebellious ire.[13]

It is this cosmogony that is embodied in the plot following the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio offers a description of himself and Katherine that closely resembles Spenser’s depiction of the elements at war:

Where two raging fires meet together,

They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.

Though little fire grows great with little wind,

Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.

So I to her, and so she yields to me,

For I am rough and woo not like a babe.[14]

Petruchio’s predicted conclusion does not prove entirely accurate, however, as, as will be seen, the actual outcome is much closer to Spenser’s description of the elements at peace with one another than Petruchio’s belief that one element will triumph over the other. Just as the Elizabethans pictured the movement of existence from chaos to cosmos, from disorder and strife to cooperation and compatibility, Petruchio and Katherine move from fractiousness with society, with each other, and within themselves through a process that mirrors the story of creation and culminates in the establishment of their own Edenic relationship to each other, to the world, and to their respective selves.

[1] Ibid., 1.1.157, 176.

[2] Ibid., 5.2.40-41.

[3] Ibid., 5.2.46-47.

[4] Ibid., 5.2.86.

[5] Ibid., 5.2.16.

[6] Ibid., 5.2.24.

[7] Ibid., 5.2.90, 105.

[8] Ibid., 5.2.96.

[9] Ibid., 5.2.127-128.

[10] Ibid., 5.2.136.

[11] Genesis 2:23, ESV.

[12] Ibid., 2.1.309-311.

[13] Edmund Spenser, Hymn of Love, qtd. in E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), 12.

[14] The Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.132-137.

The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 2)

That commentary begins with the first lines of the induction, which feature the beggar Christopher Sly begin forcibly removed from an alehouse by the hostess. From the moment he is introduced to the audience, Sly is immediately exhibited as a henpecked buffoon. Throughout the induction, he continues to display his buffoonery as well as to have all of his desires denied by women. As the dupe of the Lord’s trick to convince Sly that he is actually a lord who has been sleeping for many years and only dreamed that he was a beggar, Sly’s frustrations with females reach their climax when the Lord’s Page, who is actually a boy pretending to be Sly’s wife, refuses his requests for sex.

Entering the stage dressed as Sly’s “madam wife,” the Page begins by proclaiming “her” devotion to “her” husband in a manner befitting an Elizabethan wife: “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband; / I am your wife in all obedience.”[1] Sly’s thoughts quickly turn toward the consummation of this relationship; he brusquely dismisses his “servants” and orders his wife to “undress you and come now to bed.”[2] Sly’s desires are once again rebuffed by a “woman” as his “wife,” unable to fulfill the requirements of the marriage bed, explains,

Thrice-noble lord, let me entreat of you

To pardon me yet for a night or two,

Or, if not so, until the sun be set.

For your physicians have expressly charged,

In peril to incur your former malady,

That I should yet absent me from your bed.[3]

Sly, then, is spurned by a woman in both of the scenes of the play in which he appears.

It is not merely that Sly is a fool, though he is, that places him under the control of women who, in the Elizabethan social hierarchy, he would otherwise be in authority over. It is Sly’s own inauthenticity, which, in turn, leads him to misunderstand these women, that places him under their control. In both of the scenes of the induction, Sly claims an authority that derives from a fictional self-understanding.

In the first scene of the induction, having been ejected from the alehouse and referred to by the hostess as a “rogue,” Sly justifies himself by appealing to an undoubtedly fictitious family history:

You’re a baggage. The Slys are no rogues. Look in the chronicles; we came in with Richard Conqueror. Therefore paucas pallabris, let the world slide. Sessa![4]

Sly’s erroneous historical information and mangled Spanish belie his claimed lineage and station. The name of the “Conqueror” who led the Norman invasion of England was William, not Richard; though William had both a father and a son whose names were Richard, he himself was not a Richard. Sly’s “paucas pallabris” and “sessa” are mispronunciations of the Spanish “pocas pallabaris,” meaning “few words,” and “cese,” meaning “cease.” The identity Sly claims for himself in the opening scene of the induction, an identity which includes an ostensible noble lineage and knowledge of a prestigious foreign language, is as much a fiction as the identity that the Lord and his henchmen will endow him with in the second half of the induction.

It is in the second half of the induction, in addition, that the relationship between Sly’s self-misunderstanding and Sly’s misunderstanding of and subordination to women is revealed. As the Page enters the scene dressed as the wife of a lord, Sly makes two simultaneous yet quite different mistakes about the Page’s identity. He fails first to recognize that the Page is dressed as a noble lady. When she at first enters and addresses him, he speaks to her as if he were speaking to a servant and asks “where is my wife?,” not realizing that the woman wearing the clothing of a noble lady must be his wife given that he is, supposedly, the lord.[5] When the Page-as-Lady identifies “herself” as Sly’s wife, Sly immediately turns his attention to “her” but fails to recognize that his “lady” is in reality a boy dressed as a woman.

These two mistakes regarding the identity of his “wife” are compounded by Sly’s need to turn to the actual Lord, who is pretending to be one of Sly’s servants, to find the proper words with which to address his “lady.” In spite of his assurances to his “wife” that “I know it well” when she explains that it is proper for ladies to refer to their husbands as “lord,” Sly then turns to the Lord and asks, “what must I call her?”[6] The lord responds by telling Sly that he should call his wife “madam,” prompting Sly to ask for clarification: “Al’ce madam, or Joan madam?”[7] The Lord explains more clearly, “Madam, and nothing else. So lords call ladies.”[8] Even with this clarification, however, Sly is still unable to address his “wife” correctly. When he turns to speak to her, he begins by incorrectly referring to her as “madam wife.”[9] He then attempts to order “her” into bed with the same tone in which he orders his servants, commanding all at once, “servants, leave me and her alone.— / Madam, undress you and come now to bed.”[10] Even with the help of the actual Lord, Sly is unable to understand women because he is unable, or unwilling, to understand himself. The result is that the women around him, who understand him better than he understands himself, are able to control, snub, and manipulate him, as do the Hostess and the Page-as-Lady.

[1] Ibid., Ind.2.104-105.

[2] Ibid., Ind.2.114.

[3] Ibid., Ind.2.115-120.

[4] Ibid., Ind.1.3-5.

[5] Ibid., Ind.2.100.

[6] Ibid., Ind.2.106.

[7] Ibid., Ind.2.106-107.

[8] Ibid., Ind.2.108.

[9] Ibid., Ind.2.109.

[10] Ibid., Ind.2.113-114.

The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 1)

The Taming of the Shrew, written perhaps as early as 1592, is Shakespeare’s earliest treatment of the subjects of love, marriage, and the relationships between men and women. It is also, arguably, his fullest treatment of those subjects, particularly the subject of marriage. While other later plays, perhaps most notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, offer a commentary upon these subjects as well, The Taming of the Shrew is the only play by Shakespeare that is focused totally upon the subject of marriage and what makes for a happy—or unhappy—relationship between husband and wife. It also features the couple, Petruchio and Kate, whom Harold Bloom, the Yale-based scholar of literature, describes with characteristic succinctness and insight as the couple “who rather clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare.”[1]

As a commentary upon marriage, The Taming of the Shrew is also a commentary upon the primeval marriage between Adam and Eve as described in the Book of Genesis. As a denizen of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare lived at a time and in a place in which the doctrines of Christianity were still taken seriously. Disputes over doctrine and church order had recently and violently shaken England and certain mores derived, in part, from the Bible still dictated acceptable behavior and language both onstage and off.[2] One of the most important marriage manuals of Elizabethan England, Edmund Tilney’s The Flower of Friendship, of which “seven editions were published between 1568 and 1587,” including “three . . . within the first year of issue,” derives its principles for the proper relationship between husband and wife from the relationship between Adam and Eve.[3] According to Valerie Wayne, a professor at the University of Hawai’i whose work has focused upon women in Early Modern England,

only three other Renaissance texts on marriage appeared in more English editions [than did Tilney’s work]: Heinrich Bullinger’s Christen State of Matrimonye of 1541 . . ., John Dod and Richard Cleaver’s Godlie Forme of Householde Government of 1598, and Erasmus’s Encomium matrimonii in its English translations.[4]

All three of these works make extensive use of the biblical account of Adam and Eve in their respective discussions of marriage.

Indeed, the service for the “Solemnization of Matrimony” itself, from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, the service book then in use in the Church of England, contains a prayer specifically invoking the example of Adam and Eve immediately before the Communion prayers begin:

Almighty God, who at the beginning did create our first parents, Adam and Eve, and did sanctify and join them together in marriage; Pour upon you the riches of his grace, sanctify and bless you, that ye may please him both in body and soul, and live together in holy love unto your lives’ end. Amen.[5]

Significantly, this is the same book Petruchio knocks down along with the priest presiding over the marriage ceremony “when,” as Gremio describes it,

the priest

Should ask, if Katharina should be his wife,

‘Ay, by gogs-wouns,’ quoth he; and swore so loud,

That, all-amazed, the priest let fall the book;

And, as he stoop’d again to take it up,

The mad-brain’d bridegroom took him such a cuff

That down fell priest and book and book and priest:

‘Now take them up,’ quoth he, ‘if any list.’[6]


It is this disdainful attitude toward decorum and social convention that characterize both Kate and Petruchio. Through a presentation of a commonality that begins with this mutual hostility toward the expectations of society and culminates in their eventual agreement to manipulate those expectations for their own benefit, Shakespeare offers to the audience of his play a new and altogether original commentary upon the story of Adam and Eve.

[1] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 28.

[2] There was, for example, “An Act to Restrain Abuses of Players” passed by the English Parliament in 1606, which stipulated that ‘no person or persons . . . in any stage play, interlude, show, maygame, or pageant’ might ‘jestingly or profanely speak or use the holy name of God or Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost or of the Trinity.’ Thus,” says Marjorie Garber, a scholar of Shakespeare at Harvard University, “swearing by the name of the Christian God on the stage was forbidden by law.” Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Anchor Books, 2004), 660.

[3] Valerie Wayne, “Introduction,” in Edmund Tilney, The Flower of Friendship, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2005), 297.

[6] The Taming of the Shrew, 3.2.158-165.


The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 8)

Though love is mentioned by name a plethora of times in the Taming of the Shrew, the word is pronounced by Katherine few times. The first is when she rages against her sister Bianca, demanding to know “Of all thy suitors . . . / Whom thou lov’st best.”[1] The next, a little later in the same scene, is in Katherine’s accusation toward her father Baptist that he leaves Bianca more than her and Katherine will, as a result, end up a spinster: “I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day / And for your love to her lead apes in hell.”[2] Several times, she refers to Petruchio’s love for her in terms that indicate her doubt of it. After her wedding to Petruchio, she entreats him “Now, if you love me, stay.”[3] She refers to Petruchio’s love again with doubt when describing his shrew-taming antics as having been performed “under name of perfect love.”[4] Later, she dismisses his statement of love for her with “love me or love me not.”[5] Before the final act of the play, the only time Katherine uses the word “love” to refer to her own feelings about anything is in her answer to Grumio’s offer of “a piece of beef and mustard” that it is “a dish that I do love to feed upon.”[6] It is only after their mutual text-burning that Katherine at least refers to her love for Petruchio, and her willingness to seal that love with a kiss: “Nay, I will give thee a kiss: now pray thee, love, stay.”[7] This proclamation of her love for him mirrors her first mention of love to Petruchio. It is, as in the first mention of love, part of an entreaty that he will “stay.” Now, however, it is her love for him that is being alluded to, rather than the doubtful reference to his love for her as in the first instance.

A similar phenomenon may be noted in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Though she speaks often of “love,” it is only her fifth husband, Janekyn, whom she says she “took for love, and no richesse.”[8] And it is this same Janekyn with whom the Wife of Bath was at last able to establish a relationship not based on rivalry and mastery. Kittredge’s comment on the lesson to be drawn from Chaucer’s Marriage Group provides an apt summative moral to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew as well. “The difficulty about mastery,” he says, “vanishes when mutual love and forbearance are made the guiding principles of the relation between husband and wife.”[9]

In reaching this conclusion about what constitutes a happy marriage, Chaucer and Shakespeare were neither reinforcing the expectations of their culture nor positing a radical break from it. A relationship of “mutual love and forbearance” is, ultimately, the sort of relationship described as ideal in the most authoritative text of their shared tradition, namely the Bible. According to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:4, “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Similarly, he writes in Ephesians 5:33, “let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” The sort of marriage being advocated here is quite obviously one of “mutual love and forbearance.” Yet, in spite of these high ideals in this central text, the real practice and subsequent textual tradition of the culture often aimed much lower. The result is, of course, that long history of misogynistic texts against which the Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola rebel. Chaucer was certainly not the first to advocate an equality and shared mastery in marriage, but he was an important milestone in the maintenance of this ideal. It is natural, then, that Shakespeare, seeing a like mind on this subject as on much else in his great forebear in English poetry, should choose Chaucer’s stories as models for creative imitation in his own story of a perfect marriage.

[1] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew II.1.8–9.

[2] Ibid. II.1.33–34.

[3] Ibid. III.2.204.

[4] Ibid. IV.3.12.

[5] Ibid. IV.3.84.

[6] Ibid. IV.3.23–24.

[7] Ibid. V.1.141.

[8] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.526.

[9] Kittredge, “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage,” 467.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 7)

In its resolution in particular, the story of Petruchio and Katherine also bears a remarkable similarity to the Franklin’s Tale, which, as Kittredge has shown, offers Chaucer’s definitive word on the subject of mastery in marriage.[1] The Franklin’s Tale lays its foundations, like much of the work of Chaucer, upon the thought of Boethius, which places the greatest emphasis on one’s virtuous dealings with one’s external circumstances rather than upon those circumstances themselves. As the Franklin exclaims in a succinct summation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, “Fy on possessioun, / But if a man be vertuous withal!”[2] This is, it should be noted, in the same spirit as the words spoken by Petruchio after his dismissal of the haberdasher and the tailor when he insists that “honor peereth in the meanest habit.”[3]

The resolution to the issue of mastery in marriage offered by the Franklin is told in the form of a story of a knight, Arveragus, and his wife, Dorigen, whose arrangement at the inception of their marriage was

That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght,

Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie

Agayn hir wyl, ne kithe hire jalousie,

But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in al,

As any lovere to his lady shal,

Save that the name of soveraynetee,

That wolde he have for shame of his degree.[4]

In a combination of the characteristics attributed in the Middle Ages to courtly and to medieval love, then, Arveragus has promised to obey Dorigen and never to exercise authority over her so long as she obeys him in public as befits his station as a knight and as her husband. The Franklin comments on this arrangement and the marital bliss it engendered:

Thus been they bothe in quiete and in reste.

For o thyng, sires, saufly dar I seye,

That freendes everych oother moot obeye,

If they wol longe holden compaignye.

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.[5]

This mutual obedience and love between the two was so strong that each time Arveragus had to go away on a military campaign, “for his absence wepeth she and siketh.”[6] She is unable to be cheered by her friends and their dances and holds nothing but scorn for any man who would attempt to woo her into betraying her husband while he is away.

It is this, however, which gets her into trouble when she jests to Aurelius, a young man trying to win her favors, that she will “been youre love” if “ye remoeve alle the rokkes” along the seashore “stoon by stoon.”[7] Though Dorigen intends to mock Aurelius with the imposition of this impossible task, Aurelius is able to accomplish the feat, albeit temporarily, with the help of “his brother, which that was a clerk” who had studied magic.[8] Upon returning home and finding out what his wife had promised, Arveragus, with tears, orders her to fulfill the promise she had made because “trouthe is the hyeste thyn that man may kepe.”[9] She must do as she said, says Arveragus, in order to avoid the further and greater dishonor of dishonesty. Dorigen, in obedience, sets out for the place where she will meet Aurelius. Aurelius, however, is unable to go through with the act, so impressed is he by the virtue of Arveragus and the love of Dorigen for her husband. In the end,

Arveragus and Dorigen his wyf

In sovereyn blisse leden forth hir lyf.

Nevere eft ne was ther angre hem bitwene.

He cherisseth hire as though she were a queene,

And she was to hym trewe for everemoore.[10]

As Petruchio and Katherine will in the Taming of the Shrew, Arveragus and Dorigen have, through their shared mastery in marriage, attained a mastery over the world around them, including nature, as embodied in the black rocks which quickly vanish from importance when the couple are reunited, and the society around them, as embodied by Aurelius and his clerkly brother. As Bloom said of Petruchio and Katherine, so one might say of Arveragus and Dorigen that they are the couple in Chaucer most likely to live a happy life together.

[1] George Lyman Kittredge, “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage,” Modern Philology 9, no. 4 (Apr. 1912): 467.

[2] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales V.686–687. Of course, the influence of Chaucer upon Shakespeare and the fact of the pervasive presence of Boethius’s thought in Chaucer’s work is also indicative of a strong Boethian strain of thought in Shakespeare, though it must be remembered, as Will Durant has written, that Shakespeare “is an inescapable psychologist, but he is not a philosopher: he has no structure of thought unified by a purpose for his own life and for mankind. He is immersed in love and its problems, and thinks of philosophy, through Montaigne’s phrases, only when his heart is broken. Otherwise he accepts the world blithely enough; he is not consumed with the reconstructive vision that ennobled Plato, or Nietzsche, or Bacon.” Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), 180–181. The same could not be said of Chaucer.

[3] Taming of the Shrew IV.3.170.

[4] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales V.746–752.

[5] Ibid. V. 760–764.

[6] Ibid. V.817.

[7] Ibid. V.990, 992.

[8] Ibid. V.1105.

[9] Ibid. V.1479.

[10] Ibid. V.1551–1555.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 6)

Like the Wife of Bath and Janekyn, the relationship of Petruchio and Katherine too is characterized by a struggle for mastery each over the other which finally reaches its resolution in a symbolic mutual destruction of the authoritative “texts” by which they had hitherto defined themselves, each other, and their relationship. Given the respective natures of Katherine and Petruchio before they meet each other, the conflict between them is as inevitable as the eventual denouement is surprising.

If Katherine is Shakespeare’s character most likely to become a Wife of Bath, Petruchio is almost certain to become like the Walter of the Clerk’s Tale to any lesser wife than Katherine, a tyrannical husband who lords over his wife as a king over his subjects, and perhaps with even greater cruelty. Petruchio’s mistreatment of his servants is surely a sound indication of the sort of husband he might become. Upon arriving home after his wedding to Katherine, Petruchio enters his home with pomposity and hostility: “Where be these knaves? What, no man at door / To hold my stirrup nor to take my horse? / Where is Nathaniel, Gregory, Philip?”[1] When his servants report, Petruchio greets them with disdain and vulgarity, referring to them as “loggerheaded and unpolished grooms” and Grumio, his chief servant, especially, as “you peasant swain, you whoreson, malt-horse drudge!”[2] A servant unable to remove Petruchio’s boot with sufficient swiftness receives a kick.[3] Another who spills some of the water he has fetched for his master receives a blow from Petruchio along with the epithet of “whoreson villain.”[4] When Katherine, moved to pity for Petruchio’s servant, attempts to interject on the servant’s behalf, Petruchio adds that the servant is, in addition, “a whoreson, beetleheaded, flap-eared knave!”[5] The servants who bring dinner for Katherine and Petruchio receive little better as he hurls the overcooked meat at them along with exclamations at their being “headless jolt-heads and unmannered slaves!”[6]

All of this, however, reveals little about Petruchio’s character that has not already been seen in his initial appearance on the stage. From the moment he enters the stage, Petruchio is violent, abrupt, and pompous. As Kahn accurately describes him,

he evokes and creates noise and violence. A hubbub of loud speech, beatings, and quarrelsomeness surrounds him. “The swelling Adriatic seas” and “thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” are a familiar part of his experience, which he easily masters with his own force of will and physical strength. Like Adam, he is lord over nature, and his own violence has been well legitimized by society, unlike Kate’s, which has marked her as unnatural and abhorrent.[7]

Petruchio’s violence is certainly more socially acceptable than Katherine’s, as when he describes the sounds and sights of battle:

Have I not in my time heard lions roar?

Have I not heard the sea, puffed up with winds,

Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?

Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,

And heaven’s artillery thunder in the skies?

Have I not in a pitched battle heard

Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets clang?[8]

Petruchio’s description of war is, ultimately, a description of a decidedly masculine and certainly, within the boundaries of law, socially acceptable outlet for violence. Both the masculinity and the social acceptability of participation in warfare are evidenced, for example, in the speech famously delivered by Queen Elizabeth in 1588, only a few years before Shakespeare wrote the Taming of the Shrew, to her soldiers before their confrontation with the Spanish Armada menacing England:

I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.[9]

In spite of the greater social acceptance of Petruchio’s violence, however, he is nonetheless an outsider because of it. As Gremio, the elderly suitor of Bianca, comments beforehand on Petruchio’s plan to woo Katherine, “such a life with such a wife were strange.”[10] When Petruchio, with his usual abruptness, approaches Katherine’s father Baptista to inquire about Katherine, Gremio warns him, “You are too blunt. Go to it orderly.”[11]

In this, Petruchio bears still more resemblance to Walter of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale. His cruelty toward Griselda is also ostensibly socially acceptable. Walter is, after all, “a markys whilom lord was of that lond” in which he lived.[12] All of his actions, including the apparent killing of his own two children, are performed free of consequence because of his position, along, no doubt, with a bit of the magic of a story-world. He even takes the trouble to “countrefete / The popes bulles, makynge mencion / That he hath leve his firste wyf to lete, / As by the popes dispensacion” to maintain the appearance of legality when he pretends to divorce Griselda in favor of a younger woman.[13] Though Walter’s actions were socially acceptable in that they were entirely within the bounds legality and, though exaggeratedly, the traditional notions of a husband’s authority over his wife and children, Walter was no more well-received by the story’s original medieval audience than he is likely to be among audiences today. Frederick Halm records the reactions to the story as told by Petrarch, Chaucer’s source for the story:

It is related, that on one occasion when Petrarch was reciting the tale to a company in Padua, a gentleman present became so much affected, and burst into such frequent fits of tears that he was unable to read to the end; another, hearing of this, and incredulous as to the possibility of such an effect being produced, read the story aloud in presence of Petrarch without betraying the slightest emotion, but on returning the book to the Poet declared, that he would have been equally affected could he have persuaded himself that the story was true, and that the conviction, that there never was, and never could be, such a wife as Griselda, alone enabled him to reserve his composure.[14]

While Walter and Petruchio behave within the bounds of the legal, the exaggerated cruelty of both sets them apart from social acceptability.

Given the violence-prone natures of both Katherine and Petruchio, it is hardly surprising that their initial meeting is of the sort that Petruchio had predicted shortly before encountering her for the first time:

Where two raging fires meet together,

They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.

Though little fire grows great with little wind,

Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.

So I to her, and so she yields to me,

For I am rough and woo not like a babe.[15]

Their initial dialogue is a hilarious exchange of insults and thinly veiled sexual innuendo which leads Katherine to slap Petruchio, an initiation of a power struggle like that of the Wife of Bath and Janekyn. After the strike, Petruchio warns Katherine, “I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again.”[16] She does not, however, strike him again, and Petruchio never again threatens or performs violence against Katherine. Such a turn works well enough in the telling of stories, but would be improper for a performance on stage. Instead, the battle for mastery continues through verbal sparring.

In the various barbs they exchange, both Petruchio and Katherine attempt to force each other into submission. Petruchio reminds her of the social expectations of women to “bear” their husbands and, subsequently, to “bear” children.[17] Katherine, in turn, compares Petruchio to inanimate objects, referring to him, for example, as “a joint stool,”[18] and to animals, such as “asses” and a “jade,”[19] which David Bevington identifies as “an ill-conditioned horse”.[20] In so doing, she attempts to establish mastery over him like the mastery she has over other objects and animals. Petruchio continues this theme in his antics following their wedding ceremony. As the wedding guests begin to depart for the banquet, he prevents Katherine from leaving with them, declaring,

I will be master of what is my 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;

And here she stands, touch her whoever dare.

I’ll bring mine action on the proudest he

That stops my way in Padua.—Grumio,

We are beset with thieves.

Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man.—

Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate!

I’ll buckler thee against a million.[21]

Petruchio asserts his mastery over Katherine by classing her with the various objects and animals in his possession, bolstering this assertion of mastery with an appeal to the relevant textual authorities through his paraphrasing of the tenth commandment. In addition, Marion D. Perret, commenting on this scene, notes that “since protecting his wife is a man’s duty, this exaggeratedly masculine role, uncalled for by the immediate situation, acts as a public declaration that Petruchio will do his duty as a husband.”[22] This “brilliant stroke” then “forces Kate into the traditional feminine role.”[23]

Petruchio continues his attempts to force Katherine into the traditional female roles after the newly-married couple arrives at his home. His orders to the servants upon entering, for example, are a usurpation of Katherine’s wifely prerogatives of household management and food preparation. Petruchio drives this point home by asking her, once the food has been served, “will you give thanks, sweet Kate, or else shall I?”[24] Given that it was the role of the husband to lead the household’s grace before meals, Petruchio’s question is a sly means of indicating to Katherine that he knows she would usurp his mastery. He gains the upper hand, however, as one of Petruchio’s servants observes, by “kill[ing] her in her own humor,” outdoing the shrew in shrewishness.[25]

Petruchio continues this usurpation of what would otherwise be Katherine’s wifely prerogatives when he calls upon a tailor and a haberdasher to prepare clothing for her to wear during their upcoming visit to her father’s house. In a statement that echoes some of the themes of Chaucer’s discussion of the clothing of the Wife of Bath, Petruchio tells Katherine,

We will return unto thy father’s house

And revel it as bravely as the best,

With silken coats and caps and golden rings,

With ruffs, and cuffs, and farthingales, and things

With scarves, and fans, and double change of brav’ry,

With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knav’ry.[26]

As the tailor and the haberdasher enter the stage, Petruchio first casts his scorn first upon the cap which the haberdasher has made for Katherine, and which bears similarity to the cap worn by the Wife of Bath in its ostentatious size, exclaiming,

Why, this was molded on a porringer—

A velvet dish. Fie, fie, ‘tis lewd and filthy.

Why, ‘tis a cockle or a walnut shell,

A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby’s cap.

Away with it! Come, let me have a bigger.[27]

When Katherine briefly interjects that the cap “doth fit the time, / And gentlewomen wear such caps as these,” Petruchio launches again into a litany of insults aimed at the cap. “It is,” says Petruchio, “a paltry cap, / A custard-coffin, a bauble, a silken pie.”[28] Katherine, however, continues to resist Petruchio’s attempts to gain mastery over her domain and, by implication, over her. “I like the cap,” she says, “And it I will have, or I will have none.”[29]

Petruchio then turns his disdain toward the dress the tailor has prepared for Katherine. “What’s this, a sleeve?” Petruchio asks, commenting, “‘Tis like a demicannon,” surely a reference to the warfare that is raging between he and Katherine for mastery in their marriage.[30] Petruchio’s usurpation of Katherine’s prerogatives is highlighted in the exchange between Petruchio and his servant Grumio in the course of the discussion of the dress:


Well, sir, in brief, the gown is not for me.


You are i’the right, sir, ‘tis for my mistress.


Go, take it up unto thy master’s use.


Villain, not for thy life! Take up my mistress’ gown for thy master’s use!


Why sir, what’s your conceit in that?


Oh, sir, the conceit is deeper than you think for:

Take up my mistress’ gown to his master’s use!

Oh, fie, fie, fie![31]


That the joke about the dress being for Petruchio rather than for Katherine is repeated three times emphasizes Petruchio’s usurpation of Katherine’s prerogatives and the potential usurpation of his prerogatives by Katherine which Petruchio intends to prevent. Grumio sees that his master may end up in the subordinate position, the position traditionally assigned to women in marriage, if he loses this risky battle with Katherine.

Petruchio, realizing the meaning of the joke, moves to immediately end the exchange. Dismissing the tailor, Petruchio turns to Katherine and proclaims,

Well, come, my Kate. We will unto your father’s

Even in these honest, mean habiliments.

Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,

For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich;

And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,

So honor peereth in the meanest habit.[32]

In this, there is a subtle indictment of Katherine for her failure to fulfill her duties. While “our purses shall be proud” because they have enough money, an indication that Petruchio has fulfilled his traditional husbandly duty of providing for the household, “our garments [shall be] poor,” an indication that Katherine has failed to fulfill her traditional role. Petruchio’s use of the word “honor” also contains within it a subtle reference to the battle for mastery in marriage. To “honor” her husband is among the vows a wife speaks in the wedding service of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer then in use; also included among her vows are that she will “obey him and serve him.”[33] The entirety of Petruchio’s statement, in fact, seems to be a loose paraphrasing of the instructions to new wives from the conclusion to the wedding service, in which they are told that their “apparel [should] . . . not be be outward, with broided hair and trimming about with gold, either in putting on of gorgeous apparel, but let the hid man which is in the heart, be without all corruption, so that the spirit be mild and quiet, which is a precious thing in the sight of God.”[34]

Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherine reaches its climax as the two journey back to her father’s house. Along the road to Padua, Petruchio stops to note the brightness of the sun, misidentifying it as the moon: “Come on, i’God’s name, once more toward our father’s. / Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!”[35] A debate between Petruchio and Katherine over the celestial source of the light ensues:


The moon? The sun. It is not moonlight now.


I say it is the moon that shines so bright.


I know it is the sun that shines so bright.


Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,

It shall be moon, or star, or what I list

Or ere I journey to your father’s house.—

Go on, and fetch our horses back again—

Evermore crossed and crossed, nothing but crossed![36]


Katherine at last begins to relent, imploring him to continue “forward, I pray, since we have come so far,” she allows that it may “be . . . moon, or sun, or what you please; / An if you please to call it a rush candle, / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.”[37]

While this exchange appears at first to be another attempt by Petruchio to subjugate Katherine, this is, in fact, the moment of mutual text-burning which will at last allow Katherine and Petruchio to together surpass the stereotypes their society has attached to each of them, thereby forging a relationship like that of the Wife of Bath and Janekyn. The targets of their mutual text-burning are not literal texts, but instead symbols of the received traditions which have hitherto made it impossible for each of them to see and interact with the other with authenticity. Their first target is nature itself and, through nature, the same tradition of biblical interpretation which allowed Petruchio previously to class Katherine among his “goods” as one of his “chattels” alongside his “house, . . . household stuff, . . . field, . . . barn, . . . horse, . . . ox, . . . [and] ass.”[38] The initial dual invocation of God by Petruchio, who exclaims “i’God’s name” and adds again “good Lord,” evokes the opening chapter of Genesis and the biblical creation story it contains.[39] In a satirical reenactment of the creation, Petruchio notes the brightness of the light, created on the first day (Genesis 1:3), but is confused about its source, the sun and the moon having been created on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14–19). The debate over whether the source of light is the sun or the moon also raises once again the issue of mastery. The first time that government of any sort is mentioned in the Bible is in the description of the sun and the moon each possessing rule within their allotted times, “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night” (Genesis 1:16). Like Adam and Eve, who will be created on the sixth day, to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28), the sun and the moon are created as a couple intended to possess a shared mastery over the world around them while each acts within its respective sphere.

The next target for the creative text-burning of Petruchio and Katherine is the venerable and elderly Vincentio. Vincentio, as a representative of the authority of tradition and social propriety is as significant a text to be burned as the first. As Marianne L. Novy explains,

Vincentio, as an old man, represents the class at the top of the social order within a patriarchal society, but when he is with Katherine and Petruchio his identity is temporarily within their power. . . . It is as if, in the new world of the game, ordinary social identities and inequalities are arbitrary and unimportant because other identities can so easily be assigned—anything can be its opposite. Categories of day and night, young and old, male and female, lose their strict boundaries. It is interesting that Petruchio, who so often refers to his father, in this scene alone swears by himself as “my mother’s son” (4.5.6).[40]

Petruchio conspires with Katherine to pretend that Vincentio, who is, in fact, “a man, old, wrinkled, faded, withered,”[41] is a “fair lovely maid.”[42] Katherine goes at the task with gusto, exclaiming,

Young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet,

Whither away, or where is thy abode?

Happy the parents of so fair a child!

Happier the man whom favorable stars

Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow![43]

Vincentio is reduced to a “child” and the submissive “bedfellow,” or sexual partner, of a “man.” It is the first time in the play—and, the audience may infer, in her life—that Katherine has found herself in agreement with another and she celebrates. In the light of a celestial fire, by which, says Katherine her “eyes / . . . have been so bedazzled . . . / That everything I look on seemeth green,” or newly made, Petruchio and Katherine have engaged in a destruction of the symbol of authority, asserting their shared mastery over their world.[44]

The old texts having been burned through the symbolic destruction of the authorities which they represent and which, in turn, represent them, the forging of a new order is completed in their shared kiss in the following scene. Having entered Padua, Petruchio pulls Katherine aside before proceeding to her father’s house and insists that she kiss him.


First kiss me, Kate, and we will.


What, in the midst of the street?


What, art thou ashamed of me?


No, sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss.


Why, then let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.


Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.[45]

The emphasis of Katherine’s initial objection to the kiss, that she is “ashamed to kiss” “in the midst of the street,” is another indicator of the gradual movement away from a struggle of mastery between the marriage partners and toward a shared mastery over the world around them. With this shared kiss, Katherine and Petruchio seal their own unity and simultaneously assert their mutual mastery over social expectation.

The famous final scene of the play with its variously interpreted final monologue by Katherine and its emphasis on the service wives may offer to their husbands is a fitting conclusion to the play taken as a whole. While Katherine’s expressions of disapproval for wives who “seek for rule, supremacy, and sway” fit obviously with the abandonment of a contest for mastery in marriage, however, her admonition that they should “serve, love, and obey” may seem out of place given what has preceded.[46] As always with Shakespeare, however, context is the key here. Katherine’s speech proceeds from a wager made by Petruchio, Hortensio, and Lucentio, each betting that his respective wife will answer to his call when a servant is sent to fetch her. Unsurprisingly, only Katherine comes at the request of Petruchio, and she answers because, as she says in her speech, she knows that he “cares for” her as her husband.[47] The money he has won he has won through her and it is theirs together. In addition, the final approbation of Katherine’s new behavior and the content of her speech comes from Vincentio, the same whom Petruchio and Katherine had insulted on the road to Padua. “‘Tis a good hearing when children are toward,” he exclaims, thereby placing the authoritative stamp of approval upon the marriage of Katherine and Petruchio.[48] By abandoning the struggle for mastery that prevents the other couples present, Bianca with Lucentio and Hortensio with his unnamed Widow, from winning the wager and gaining the approval of their elders, Katherine and Petruchio are able to gain greater wealth and prestige. They are, in short, able to assert a sort of mastery over the society around them because they no longer seek mastery over each other. They are, in addition, says Harold Bloom “rather clearly . . . going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare.”[49]

[1] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.1.108–110.

[2] Ibid. IV.1.113, 117.

[3] Ibid. IV.1.135–136.

[4] Ibid. IV.1.143.

[5] Ibid. IV.1.145.

[6] Ibid. IV.1.154.

[7] Kahn, 92.

[8] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew, I.2.198–204.

[9] Queen Elizabeth I, “Queen Elizabeth Inveighs against the Spanish Armada,” in Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, ed. William Safire (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 85.

[10] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew I.2.191.

[11] Ibid. II.1.45.

[12] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales IV.64.

[13] Ibid. IV.743–746.

[14] Frederick Halm, Preface to Ralph Abercrombie Anstruther, Griselda: A Drama in Five Acts (London: Black and Armstrong, 1840), vii.

[15] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew, II.1.132–137.

[16] Ibid. II.1.220.

[17] Ibid. II.1.200.

[18] Ibid. II.1.197.

[19] Ibid. II.1.199, 201.

[20] Bevington, Complete Works of Shakespeare, 125.

[21] Ibid. III.2.229–239.

[22] Marion D. Perret, “Petruchio: The Model Wife,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 23, no. 2 (Spring, 1983): 231.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.1.147.

[25] Ibid. IV.1.168.

[26] Ibid. IV.3.53–58.

[27] Ibid. IV.3.64–68.

[28] Ibid. IV.3.81–82.

[29] Ibid. IV.3.84–85.

[30] Ibid. IV.3.88.

[31] Ibid. IV.3.151–159.

[32] Ibid. IV.3.165–170.

[33] John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2005), 292.

[34] Ibid., 298–299.

[35] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.5.1–2.

[36] Ibid. IV.5.3–10.

[37] Ibid. IV.5.12–15.

[38] Ibid. III.2.230–232.

[39] Ibid. IV.5.1–2.

[40] Marianne L. Novy, “Patriarchy and Play,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 20.

[41] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.5.42.

[42] Ibid., IV.5.33.

[43] Ibid. IV.5.36–40.

[44] Ibid. IV.5.44–46.

[45] Ibid. V.1.135–141.

[46] Ibid. V.2.167–168.

[47] Ibid. V.2.151.

[48] Ibid. V.2.186.

[49] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 28.