The Taming of the Shrew
This is probably the second-most “politically incorrect” of Shakespeare’s plays, after only The Merchant of Venice. It has drawn fire, and will doubtless continue to do so, from feminist critics for its treatment of women; it has also gathered impassioned defenses from aficianados. The play, meanwhile, continues to go on and to be produced, blithely indifferent to politicized rhetoric from either side.
A few things ought to be made clear. Whether or not one subscribes to the opinions voiced in the play about the “place” of women in Shakespeare’s culture or our own, there is certainly more to the story than just the position any of the characters holds. Like most works of dramatic art, it expresses contrary opinions through the mouths of different people, and one of the advantages of that approach is precisely that it does not lay down a single position as the only right one. For those who want a final positional summation, that may be unsatisfactory. For those who like to explore questions openly, it has more appeal.
Whatever it may have or lack in terms of a “bottom-line” position, the play also embodies the very old theme — going back at least to ancient Greece — of the so-called “War of the Sexes”. As such, it is given very much to boisterous partisan rhetoric, without necessarily coming down, in neutral narrative terms, on any side in particular. You can make your mind up about that for yourself.
Almost all productions of this play focus chiefly on the contest between Petruchio and Katherine, while quietly excising the (somewhat crippled) frame story (the so-called Induction) that introduces the play. I find that interesting. It is true that the Induction doesn’t seem to have anything narratively to do with the rest of the play, and so setting it aside may do the inner story no harm, and in fact it may seem to make more sense. The fact that the Induction has no corresponding piece at the end (which one would expect from most frame stories) also leads people reasonably to question its presence.
At the same time, as a matter of textual scholarship, it’s likelier that a piece at the end might fall away away from the transmission of the play than that a piece so apparently irrelevant would sprout autonomously at the beginning. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that in a thematic sense it may really have something to say about the play, and may shed some light on how we ought to take the inner story. I believe it does. The intriguing thing about Sly is that he’s a bum — a wastrel and a drunk — who is made to believe that he’s suddenly become a lord. In the process he begins to behave like a lord. How can this not be relevant to the interior story of Katherine and Petruchio? So much is made of the fact that they are at loggerheads, and the fact that Petruchio (in accordance with the accepted moral and social understanding of the time, it should be noted) takes it into his mind to “tame” her, that many critics fail to look at how he does so, and where the transformation actually takes place. Katherine is singularly unreceptive to Petruchio’s early efforts: it’s only later that he breaks through to her, and she to him, and they forge an actual understanding.
Far from being a legitimization of bullying or browbeating of one’s wife, I think this is, beneath an admittedly farcical exterior, largely a play about treating people according to how you expect them to behave. In that light, it’s not an altogether simple message, nor is it really abusive. If one is looking for a position paper on bullying, of course, there’s probably no point in looking here at all. But as a dramatic product, I think it offers considerably more nuance than might initially appear.