In The Taming of the Shrew, we see two sisters pitted against each other. Bianca is a perfect example of feminine virtue. She is obedient, soft-spoken, and studious. Katherine, however, is the exact opposite. She is outspoken, even rude sometimes, about what she wants and thinks. However, if we look more closely at these two women more closely, we see that they are much more complex than they initially seem. Katherine is more outwardly demanding, but Bianca definitely asserts her own will. By closely examining the words and actions of Katherine and Bianca, we can observe the full complexity of the female identity.
At the start of the play, Bianca is exalted as the embodiment of feminine virtue. Before she even walks on the stage her suitors describe her as modest and virtuous. She then displays her virtue by agreeing to submit to her father’s will despite the fact that it makes her unhappy. Bianca repeatedly questions how Katherine can be so cruel despite the fact that it makes Bianca miserable. She expresses her concern over why her sister hates her even as Katherine ties her up and slaps her. Baptista is more concerned with educating his daughters, particularly Bianca, than seeing them married off. Again, Bianca agrees that her studies will be her only companions.
Once we see Bianca on her own, without Baptista, she can be headstrong in her own way. As the two tutors (suitors) argue over which subject she could study first, Bianca makes it clear that she has an opinion on the matter.
Bianca: Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong, To strive for that which resteth in my choice: I am no breaching scholar in the schools; I’ll not be tied to hours nor pointed times, But learn my lessons as I please myself.
In this short speech, Bianca makes sure her teachers understand that they are not the ones in control in this situation. She just does it in a less aggressive manner than her sister.
In the end, Bianca asserts her own will in a way that even Katherine wouldn’t do; she marries a man without her father’s approval. She elopes with a disguised Lucentio and then returns to beg for forgiveness. Bianca ultimately refuses to obey her husband as well. Lucentio loses the bet when he sends for Bianca and she sends a message back that she’s busy. Bianca can be just as headstrong as her sister. She just asserts her will with a gentler hand.
Because she refuses to quietly submit to the men in her life, Katherine is labeled as a shrew. From the moment she walks on to the stage, she makes demands and insults the men that have insulted her as unmarriageable.
Katherine: I pray you, sir, is it your will to make a stale of me among these mates?
As the plot to have her married off to Petruchio progresses, Katherine makes clear her objections to the match. First, she matches Petruchio line for line as they engage in their battle of wits.
Katherine: Remove you hence: I knew you at first You were a moveable.
Petruchio: Why, what’s a moveable?
Katherine: A join’d stool.
Petruchio: Thousand hast hit it: come, sit on me.
Katherine: Asses are made to bear and so are you.
Petruchio behaves erratically from the moment they meet and Katherine immediately questions how her father could want to see her married to such a crazy person. Even as she goes along with the plan, she refuses to do so quietly.
Katherine seems to straddle the line between obedient and disobedient. For example she doesn’t contradict Petruchio at all when he asserts that they are happily engaged. But, later, she begs Grumio for food and asserts that the sun is in fact not the moon. Even though she’s furious and humiliated that Petruchio is late to their own wedding, not to mention his ridiculous clothing, she still marries him in the end. It doesn’t seem very shrewish to marry a man you seem to despise…
It’s not until Katherine and Petruchio share in their amusement at Bianca’s disobedience that they show real intimacy towards each other. She at first refuses to kiss him in public, so he threatens to leave, but she stops him.
Petruchio: First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
Katherine: What, in the midst of the street?
Petruchio: What, art thou ashamed of me?
Katherine: No, sir, God forbid; but ashamed to kiss.
Petruchio: Why, then let’s home again. Come Sarah, let’s away.
Katherine: Nay, I will give thee a kiss: now pray thee, love, stay.
In the end, she turns out to be the most obedient wife. When Petruchio calls for her, she comes without question. Then she delivers a long speech about a wife’s obedience to her husband. Everyone, including the audience, is somewhat surprised that Katherine has made such a quick turnaround. However, there are hints that the old Katherine is still there. She makes sure to include in her speech that there are some expectations on husbands too, but it’s so quick it’s easy to miss.
Katherine: And not obedient to his honest will, What is she but a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to her loving lord?
Both women challenge the authority thrust upon them by the men around them, but they do it in different ways. Bianca asserts her will in subtle ways. Katherine eventually learns how to play this part. By doing so, she defies expectations by proving to be the more obedient wife over her sister. Neither woman, in the end, can be called wholly virtuous or wholly a shrew. They repeatedly illustrate their depth of character and the complexity of their identity as women.