Understanding the Many Readings of the Play
The Taming of the Shrew can be a drastically polarizing play to those who study and perform Shakespeare. Like most of his plays, it can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, but the two main readings of Shrew are particularly divisive. Some read it as a farce – not to be taken seriously – others see it as a reflection of how women were expected to behave and how men dominated their wives. The problem is that there is no clear answer provided in the text. Both arguments can be supported by the text. Often, it comes down to how one reads Katherine, especially her final speech.
Students should be briefly introduced to the multiple readings, so they can look critically at the play and reach their own conclusion.
Why is it so divisive?
There is little doubt that Petruchio and Katherine have an unhealthy relationship. The tactics he uses to “tame” the outspoken Katherine are downright abusive. She is forced into marriage, and then humiliated on her wedding day. He starves her and keeps her from sleeping. He punishes her for disagreeing with him, even his most ridiculous assertions. In the end, however, Petruchio is successful. Katherine submits to his will and heartily agrees to his every whim. Violence and emotional abuse transform Katherine into the kind of woman she should be, submissive.
On the surface, it seems impossible for there to be another reading. Petruchio is clearly abusive, but that behavior is rewarded. Katherine gives up her strong-willed nature in the end. However, there are several indications in the play that it is meant to be taken as a farce. Framing the plot as a play within a play provides evidence that it is not to be taken too seriously. Additionally, many comment on Petruchio’s cruelty and express sympathy for Katherine. Even in her speech on obedience, Katherine remarks that husbands’ should be loving and kind. These moments lend credence to the argument that the play is a joke.
How does Katherine’s portrayal effect the reading?
Most often Katherine’s final speech on obedience is critically read to make a point about the play. When Katherine explains that wives should be completely submissive to their husbands, is she being sarcastic? Are her words intentionally ridiculous, as though she is in on the game? Or, has she been beaten down to a shell of the woman she was before, to the point where she truly believes her words? The message of the play depends almost entirely on how the actress delivers this final speech. It determines whether or not she has truly been tamed.
What about the framing device?
The action of the play is actually presented as a play within the play. A wealthy Lord is playing a joke on a drunkard, and convinces him that he is actually a Lord. The play is being put on for the false Lord as a part of the joke. In the version printed in the first folio, the drunkard does re-enter the text at all after the first act. However, in an earlier quarto version, the drunkard comes back in the end and comments on how he now knows how to tame a wife. This framing device raises a lot of questions on how the audience should interpret the rest of the play.
Many of the themes are reflected in both the framing and the play itself. Disguises, dreams, and the construct of womanhood, just to name a few.
What else should we consider?
As always, it is important to look at the comments made by the other characters of the play regarding Katherine, Petruchio, and their relationship. Katherine is widely condemned for her behavior at the start of the play. She is called cursed and shrewd. They wonder if she should will ever marry because they would not wish her on any man. However, once Petruchio starts exhibiting erratic and violent behavior, everyone is shocked and opposed his actions. They start to feel sympathy for Katherine. Readers should observe these changes for indications on how we, as the audience, should respond to the text. Even after winning the bet, Petruchio comments that maybe a woman could also be tamed with kindness.
Getting ready to dive into the play…
Being aware of the multiple readings, the discussions, and evidence can be important as students start their journey through this particular play. They should be encouraged to reach their own conclusions and have open discussions about the evidence. Even Shakespeare experts are divided on this play, why wouldn’t novices? The important thing is to understand both sides of the argument.
With that being said, let’s dive in to The Taming of the Shrew.