The Taming of The Shrew
Acts Four and Five
by Dennis Abrams
Does this clip look or “feel” like the play we just finished reading?
Act Four: After an arduous journey, during which Katherine falls off her horse and ends up covered in mud, the newlyweds arrive at Petruchio’s house. Petruchio denies his wife food and prevents her from going to sleep (is it torture?) with the goal of “taming” her by making her life miserable. Bianca, in the meantime, has chosen Lucentio – to the pretended disgust of Tranio and real disappointment of Hortensio, who instead married a widow. However, since Lucentio is still lacking in money, Tranio is forced to trick a passing Merchant into pretending to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father, in front of Baptista. All goes according to plan, and Lucentio and Bianca run off to get married. Petruchio continues his campaign to break down Katherine’s will, forbidding her to contradict anything he says.
Act Five: Naturally, the real Vincentio shows up at Lucentio’s lodgings, and is amazed to meet the imposter Merchant; and when Tranio then appears in Lucentio’s clothes, Vincentio fears the worst. He is about to be arrested when the real Lucentio, along with his new wife Bianca makes his appearance, and, begging forgiveness, confesses everything. All are reconciled, but Petruchio has one final test for Katherine – at a banquet that evening, he wagers Lucentio and Hortensio that his wife is more obedient than theirs…and wins.
So…happy endings abound, Lucentio wins Bianca, Petruchio tames Katherine…or does he? And another question: Is there a significance to the fact that Shakespeare doesn’t go back to the framing mechanism of the Induction and Christopher Sly at the end of the “play within a play?” Let’s look at it from some different perspectives:
Bloom: “Though skillfully written, the Induction would serve half a dozen other comedies by Shakespeare as well or as badly as it coheres with the Shrew. Critical ingenuity has proposed several schemes creating analogies between Christopher Sly and Petruchio, but I am one of the unpersuaded. And yet Shakespeare has some dramatic purpose in his Induction, even if we have not yet surmised it. Sly is not brought back at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Shrew, perhaps because his disenchantment necessarily would be cruel, and would disturb the mutual triumph of Kate and Petruchio, who rather clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare (short of the Macbeths, who end separately but each badly). Two points can be accepted as generally cogent about the Induction: it somewhat distances u s from the performance of the Shrew, and it also hints that social dislocation is a form of madness. Sly, aspiring above his social station, becomes as insane as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
Since Kate and Petruchio are social equals, their own dislocation may be their shared, quite violent forms of expression, which Petruchio ‘cures’ in Kate at the high cost of augmenting his own boisterousness to an extreme where it hardly can be distinguished from a paranoid mania. Who cures, and who is cured, remains a disturbing matter in this marriage, which doubtless will maintain itself against a cowed world by a common front of formidable pugnacity (much more cunning in Kate than in her roaring boy of a husband). We all know one or two marriages like theirs; we can admire what works, and we resolve also to keep away from a couple so closed in upon itself, so little concerned with others or with otherness.
It may be that Shakespeare, endlessly subtle, hints at an analogy between Christopher Sly and the happily married couple, each in a dream of its own from which we will not see Sly wake, and which Kate and Petruchio need never abandon. Their final shared reality is a kind of conspiracy against the rest of us: Petruchio gets to swagger, and Kate will rule him and the household, perpetually acting her role as the reformed shrew…
[Going to back to my last quote from Bloom, describing the departure of Petruchio with Kate after their marriage, and Kate’s discovery of how to tame the swaggerer:]
Petruchio: Come on, a God’s name, once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
Katherine: The moon? the sun! It is not moonlight now.
Petruchio: I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
Katherine: I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Petruchio: Now by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list.
Or e’er I journey to your father’s house –
[To Servants.] Go on, and fetch our horses back again. –
Evermore cross’d and cross’d, nothing but cross’d.
Katherine: Forward, I pray, since we have come so far.
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please.
And if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
Petruchio: I say it is the moon.
Katherine: I know it is the moon.
Petruchio: Nay, then you lie. It is the blessed sun.
Katherine: Then, God be blest, it is the blessed sun.
But sun it is not, when you say it s not.
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam’d, even that is.
And so it shall be so for Katherine.
From this moment on, Kate firmly rules while endlessly protesting her obedience to the delighted Petruchio, a marvelous Shakespearean reversal of Petruchio’s earlier strategy of proclaiming Kate’s mildness even as she raged on. There is no more charming a scene of married love [so charming I’m relating it twice!] in all of Shakep0sare than this little vignette on a street in Padua.
Katherine: Husband, let’s follow, to see the end of this ado.
Petruchio: First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
Katherine: What, in the midst of the street?
Petruchio: What, are thou ashamed of me?
Katherine: No, sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss.
Petruchio: Why, then, let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.
Katherine: Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.
Petruchio: Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate.
Better once than never, for never too late.
One would have to be tone deaf (or ideologically crazed) not to hear in this a subtly exquisite music of marriage at its happiest…(One recent edition of the play offers extracts from English Renaissance manuals on wife beating, from which one is edified to learn that, on the whole, such exer5cise was not recommended. Since Kate does hit Petruchio, and he does not retaliate – though he warns her not to repeat this exuberance – it is unclear to me why wife beating is invoked at all.) Even subtler is Kate’s long and famous speech, her advice to women concerning their behavior toward their husbands, just before the play concludes. Again, one would have to be very literal-minded indeed not to hear the delicious irony that is Kate’s undersong, centered on the great line ‘I am asham’d that women are so simple.’ It requires a very good actress to deliver this set piece properly, and a better director than we tend to have now, if the actress is to be given her full chance, for she is advising women how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience:
Fie, fie! Unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound they lord, thy king, thy governor.
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bit the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance, commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owed the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband.
And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul commanding rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms,
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is not boot
And place your hands below your husband’s foot.
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.
I have quoted this complete precisely because its redundancy and hyperbolic submissiveness are critical to its nature as a secret language or code now fully shared by Kate and Petruchio. “True obedience” here is considerably less sincere than it purports to be, or even if sexual politics are to be mocked it is as immemorial as the Garden of Eden. “Strength” and “weakness” interchange their meanings, as Kate teaches not ostensible subservience but the art of her own will, a will considerably more refined than it was at the play’s start. The speech’s meaning explodes into Petruchio’s delighted (and overdetermined) response:
Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.
If you want to hear this line as the culmination of a ‘problem play,’ then perhaps you yourself are the problem. Kate does not need to be schooled in ‘consciousness raising.’ Shakespeare, who clearly preferred his women characters to his men (always excepting Falstaff and Hamlet), enlarges the human, from the start, by subtly suggesting that women have the truer sense of reality.”
So what do you think? Is Kate the tamer or the tamed? Is her speech a masterpiece of irony or an early version of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man?” Curiously, I find myself torn: if I go into a reading of Shrew with the view that it’s the “Shrew” who is tamed, I find irony on top of irony in Kate’s speech. If I go into it thinking that Kate is the tamer, I find her speech a straightforward statement of submissiveness to Petruchio. Even in his earliest plays, Shakespeare refuses to give us an easily determined answer…
And from Harold Goddard, one possible interpretation of the Induction and the reasons for not returning to it at the end of the “play.”
“It is generally agreed that the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew is one of the most masterly bits of writing to be found anywhere in Shakespeare’s earlier works. Much as the authorship of the play has been debated, no one, so far as I recall has ever questioned the authorship of the Induction. Shakespeare evidently bestowed on it a care that indicates the importance it had in his eyes. In The Taming of a Shrew…the purpose of the Induction with reference to the play itself is made perfectly clear by a return to Sly at the end of the play with is over. Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker, has a wife who is a shrew. In the play that is acted before him he watched the successful subjugation of another woman to the will of her husband, and at the end of the performance we see him starting off for home to try out on his own wife the knowledge he has just acquired. Whatever part, if any, Shakespeare had in the earlier play, why did he spoil a good point in the later one by not completing its framework, by failing to return to Sly at the end of the Petruchio play? All sorts of explanation for the artistic lapse have been conjured up, the most popular being that the last leaf of the manuscript, in which he did so return, was somehow lost or that the scene was left to the improvisation of the actors and so was never reduced to writing. But surely the editors of the Folio would have been aware of this and could have supplied a stage direction to clear things up!
I wonder if the explanation of the enigma is not a simpler and more characteristic one: that Shakespeare saw his chance for a slyer and more profound relation between the Induction and the play than in the earlier version of the story.
In the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew, Christopher Sly the tinker, drunk with ale, is persuaded that he is a great lord who has been the victim of an unfortunate lunacy. Petruchio, in the play which Sly witnesses (when he is not asleep) is likewise persuaded that he is a great lord-over his wife. Sly is obviously in for a rude awakening when he discovers that he is nothing but a tinker after all. Now Petruchio is a bit intoxicated himself – who can deny it? – whether with pride, love, or avarice, or some mixture of the three. Is it possible that he too is in for an awakening? Or, if Kate does not let it come to that, that we are at least supposed to see that he is not as great a lord over his wife as he imagined? The Induction and the play, taken together, do not allow us to evade these questions. Can anyone be so naïve as to fancy that Shakespeare did not contrive his Induction for the express purpose of forcing them on us? Either the cases of Sly and Petruchio are alike or they are diametrically opposite. Can there be much doubt which was intended by a poet who is given to pointing out analogies between lovers and drunkards, between lovers and lunatics? Here surely is reason enough for Shakespeare not to show us Sly at the end when he no longer thinks himself a lord. It would be altogether too much like explaining the joke, like solving the equation and labeling the result ANSWER. Shakespeare wants us to find things for ourselves. And in this case in particular: why explain what is clear, when you see it, as was Poe’s Purloined Letter, which was skillfully concealed precisely because it was in such plain sight all the time?
There are two little touches in the first twenty-five lines of the Induction that seem to clinch this finally, if it needs any clinching. The Lord and his huntsmen come in from hunting. They are talking of the hounds and their performances:
Lord: Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good
At the hedge-corner, in the coldest fault?
I would not lose the dog for twenty pound.
First Hunt: Why, Bellman is as good as he, my lord;
He cried upon it at the merest loss,
And twice today pick’d out the dullest scent:
Trust me, I take him for the better dog.
Why, in what looks like a purely atmospheric passage, this double emphasis on the power to pick up a dull or cold scent? Why if not as a hint to spectators and readers to keep alert for something they might easily miss?”
Is Goddard on to something here? Or is he grasping at proverbial straws, finding clues (or a scent) where one doesn’t exist?
In my post on Tuesday evening/Wednesday:
Final thoughts on The Taming of the Shrew — including a feminist’s perspective
A look at Sonnet #20
And an introduction to our next play, the over-the-top violent blood-a-thon, Titus Andronicus