A lot of movie producers like to call The Taming of the Shrew the classic "battle of the sexes" story. They're right, in a way, and it's true that Shakespeare's play has inspired a ton of films and televisions shows that fit this genre. Katherine and Petruchio do in fact go toe-to-toe when they first meet and they do fight for the upper hand in their marriage throughout most of their honeymoon. It's also true that many of these scenes can be hilarious, especially when Kate holds her own with Petruchio.
But, anyone who has read the play knows that it's by no means a simple story about a bickering couple. They also know that the fight is hardly equal or fair. The truth is that Kate is subject to some really brutal treatment because she refuses to be the silent, obedient, and mild-mannered wife that society demands. Unlike Angelina Jolie 's character in Mr. and Mrs. Smith , Katherine Minola doesn't get to parade around in stilettos and a killer black dress with a revolver strapped to her thigh. It's true that Kate puts up a pretty good verbal fight, especially when she first meets Petruchio, but The Taming of the Shrew actually ends with Kate on her knees telling Petruchio that he is her king. Seriously – here's a little excerpt from Kate's final monologue:
I am ashamed 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. (-180)
Whether or not Kate actually believes any of this is up for debate. (You can read what we have to say about the final speech in " What's Up With the Ending? " but come right back.) The point is that Katherine really doesn't have any other choice in the matter. She has to give this speech if she wants any kind of tranquility in her marriage because she has no legal rights as a 16th-century wife – she's basically her husband's property, which means she has to play nice if she wants Petruchio to let her eat, sleep, or pick out her own clothes.
The play makes us stop and think about what it means to portray men and women duking it out on stage, film, TV, whatever. We also dig the way it forces the audience to question their assumptions about "proper" gender roles and their attitudes about the power dynamics between romantic couples (friends and blood relatives, too).
Ever felt pressured to conform to somebody else's expectations and values (at school, home, in a romantic relationship)? Ever been told to act more like a "good girl," or to be a "man"? We thought so. And we think you'll like the way this play makes you think about what that means.
So, what about this whole "taming" thing? How does it work, exactly? First, Petruchio acts like a "shrew" on his wedding day and throughout the honeymoon so that Kate can see what her bad behavior looks like in another person. This involves a lot of yelling, swearing, the abuse of hapless servants, and erratic and cruel behavior toward Kate. Basically, Petruchio deploys some tried and true torture techniques – starvation, sleep deprivation, psychological manipulation, and good old fashioned humiliation – to get Kate to behave the way he wants.
One of the manipulative techniques Petruchio likes to use is a little game called "let's pretend everything I say is true, even when it's not." How does this work? Well, if the sun is shining in the middle of the afternoon and Petruchio says the moon is very pretty this evening, everybody has to agree that yes, the moon is very pretty indeed. Same goes for when Petruchio pretends an old man is really a "budding" virgin . What happens when Kate doesn't play along? Well, she's punished. Notice how getting his way involves controlling the names of things?
OK, so what do we make of this? Aside from the fact that Petruchio is a jerk, we should think about how his character speaks to the idea that social roles are performative – that is, the idea that getting along in the world requires one to do a lot of acting. Many critics point out that Petruchio teaches Kate how to play-act, to perform a role other than "shrew." This would make his "taming school" more of a nightmare theater boot camp than anything else. Are we letting Petruchio off the hook? Absolutely not. He's utterly abusive toward his wife and revels in his power over Kate.
At the same time that the play portrays domestic violence on stage, Big Willy Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that anyone who tries to follow Petruchio's advice and behavior is a total idiot. Hortensio, who spends a lot of his valuable time at Petruchio's so-called "taming school," winds up having absolutely no control over his wife, the Widow. In fact, she ends up humiliating him when she disses him in public and causes him to lose a bet. Also, while it appears that Kate has been tamed, her final speech is so over the top that we wonder if Petruchio has trained an obedient wife or just a woman who has learned how to pretend to be obedient. If the latter is true, is this what Petruchio intended?
Either way, we appreciate the way the characters' obsession with acting and performing allows the play to acknowledge that social stereotypes (shrews, good girls, manly men, etc.) are not innate characteristics and are perhaps best left on the stage.