The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew is thought to have been written between 1590 and 1592. It is a popular comedy, though its handling of gender roles has been, and continues to be, a source of deep dispute and consternation. Next to The Merchant of Venice, this ranks, perhaps, as one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays.

The ‘shrew’ of the story is Katherina, the wilful and obstinate eldest daughter of Baptista Minola. Baptista refuses to let his younger daughter, Bianca, wed any of her suitors, unless Katherina also marries. The intricate comic plot – full of deception and disguise – revolves around competition between Hortensio, Gremio and Lucentio to win Bianca’s hand in marriage. But at its centre is the attempt of one man, Petruchio, to tame the wild Katherina, and turn her into an obedient and doting wife. It is his apparent success in doing so that lies at the heart of the play’s controversy.

In her final speech, Katherina condemns any woman who is not obedient to her ‘loving lord’ as a ‘graceless traitor’ (5.2.160). Is the play’s final message, then, in support of female submissiveness?

Today’s scholars and directors tend to think not, arguing, instead, for an ironic reading of this final speech. Some critics point to the speech’s focus on the ‘soft, and weak’ female body, which, given that in Shakespeare’s time Katherina would have been played by a young man, might have struck the audience as ridiculous. Some also stress the importance of the play’s frame narrative, which presents the central drama as an entertainment performed for the drunken Christopher Sly – perhaps nothing more than a tinker’s fantasy of how he might tame his own wife. Others read the work as essentially farcical, and not intended as any profound statement on the role of women. Whether or not these readings hold true, in the context of today’s emphasis on gender equality, they sit much more comfortably with a 21st- century audience.

William Shakespeare
Renaissance drama
Literary period:

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