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.

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