Power and gender in The Taming of the Shrew

Does The Taming of the Shrew advocate sexual inequality or does it show and critique men’s attempts to subordinate women? Rachel De Wachter discusses how we should think about relations between the sexes in the play, and examines how writers, directors and actors have explored this question over the past four centuries.

How should we interpret the dynamics between men and women in The Taming of the Shrew? This question has echoed around the play since it was first performed. We need only look at its incredibly varied production history to see that directors have convincingly interpreted the play in many different, even contradictory, ways. The play’s nebulous quality makes it difficult to pin down, and just a few examples of produtions reveal the interesting scope it offers to directors. Gregory Doran’s 2003 production showed ‘Kate trying to rescue a madman she genuinely loves’.[1] Phyllida Lloyd has has cast only women in her 2016 production to caricature the brutality of men enabling the actors ‘to throw the behavior of the men into a particular relief, and be playful [with that aspect of the play in a] larger than life way’.[2] Caroline Byrne’s 2016 Globe Theatre production presents a darkly violent relationship between the protagonists set against a desperate and brutal political backdrop, with references to the 1916 Easter rising suggesting a common cause between feminism and Irish nationalism. While these different ways of presenting the play offer different insights into its meaning, one fundamental question haunts every interpretation: is this a play that advocates sexual inequality or does it show and critique men’s attempts to subordinate women?

Photographs of Kathryn Hunter and Janet McTeer in all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, 2003

Photographs of Kathryn Hunter and Janet McTeer in all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, 2003

Phyllida Lloyd’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, which used women to caricature men, was first shown at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, in 2003 and revived in New York in 2016.

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Many responses to the play are critical of the apparent inequalities it presents. This includes the earliest substantial response – John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed (c. 1611) – which concludes with the lesson that men ‘should not reign as Tyrants o’er their wives’ (Epilogue, l. 4). Indeed Fletcher’s play aims ‘to teach both Sexes due equality / And as they stand bound, to love mutually (Epilogue, ll. 7-8).’ Interpreting the power dynamics between men and women, in The Taming of the Shrew, an in particular the central couple Katherina and Petruchio, is a problem from the outset. Whether you see the relationships in the play as harmlessly boisterous and knockabout or tragically violent and oppressive, Shakespeare is clearly offering us his take on that perennial trope in both comedy and tragedy: the battle of the sexes. Before readers even consider critical or directorial interpretations, they face a perplexing text whose meaning, perhaps more than many of Shakespeare’s plays, seems to shift depending on the approach taken. These ambiguities can usefully be scrutinised by focusing on the language and structure.

The language of the play: hunting

The language of hunting is a recurring motif in the play and warrants consideration as a larger metaphor beyond its role as a mere social backdrop to the action. In the framing Induction, the Lord arrives at the alehouse with his huntsmen. Their conversation about the hunt seamlessly becomes a conversation about Christopher Sly lying drunk and dead to the world in front of them. The Lord describes him in a dehumanising way, calling him a ‘monstrous beast’ and comparing him to a ‘swine’. Thus Sly seems to become ‘fair game’ for a different kind of trap than those the Lord might use in hunting, though it is no less cruel. The Lord tricks Sly into believing he is also a nobleman, a fiction which the audience recognise as unsustainable.

Byam Shaw's illustrations for The Taming of the Shrew, c. 1900

Byam Shaw's illustrations for The Taming of the Shrew, c. 1900

Sly, the drunken tinker, is ‘convey’d to bed, / Wrapp’d in sweet clothes’ to convince him he is a ‘mighty lord’, though they really think he’s a ‘swine’.

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While there is no conclusion to the frame in The Taming of the Shrew, an alternative, possibly even a source version of the play – The Taming of a Shrew – does conclude with Sly being unceremoniously dumped outside the alehouse, his lowly status reinstated. Though the Lord’s cruel treatment of Sly is based on class rather than gender hierarchies of privilege, it nevertheless sets up a dynamic of inequality and possibly even of abuse. As this is the most obvious thing to link the frame story and the main play it suggests that these kinds of power dynamics are a key concern for Shakespeare in the play.

The Taming of a Shrew, 1596

The Taming of a Shrew, 1596

The frame narrative is concluded in this anonymous play, which may have been a source for Shakespeare. Sly is dumped outside the alehouse and returns to his lowly status as a tinker.

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Katherina is similarly dehumanised on several occasions. Early on, Bianca’s elderly suitor, Gremio, refers to her as a ‘wild-cat’ (1.2.196), suggesting she is vicious and untameable, but perhaps also that in some ways he fears her. Later on, having married Katherina, Petruchio says

She is my good, my chattels, she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything; (3.2.230–32)

By describing her in this way, whether he is in jest or in madness, Petruchio deliberately positions her alongside animal and inanimate household positions. It seems that he is trying to endow her with all the characteristics of things which might be desirable to him: voicelessness, obedience, usefulness.

In one of the central soliloquies of the play, Petruchio sets out how he intends to tame Katherina. His language is rich with imagery related to falconry. Hunting with falcons is thought to have been a pursuit of the upper classes. Petruchio’s close knowledge of it is a mark of his social standing, as well as the source of his confidence that he can tame nature. Both his social status and his knowledge seem to underpin the patriarchal dominance which he intends to assert over Katherina. Petruchio makes an explicit analogy between his method of domesticating his wife and the methods used by falconers. He will ‘man [his] haggard’ (4.1.193) or tame his wild female hawk. As a model for marriage, this seems a disturbing metaphor based on the falconer curtailing the natural freedom of a powerful bird. Shakespeare seems to be highlighting the inequality of the relationship in which the rational, free man subjugates the woman who, like a wild animal, has her access to food and sleep controlled. Petruchio intends ‘to make her come and know her keeper’s call’ suggesting that Katherina will be obedient and understand her position of subservience to her ‘keeper’. Both Sly and Katherina are on the receiving end of patriarchal dominance in relation to class and gender respectively.

The Book of Falconry or Hawking by George Turberville, 1575

The Book of Falconry or Hawking by George Turberville, 1575

There is guidance on how to ‘manne, hoode, and reclayme a hawke’ in George Turberville’s falconry manual.

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Blood sports resurface again in the final scene in the witty jokes between guests at the celebration banquet. These exchanges seem to harbour a certain tension which culminates in Petruchio’s desire to prove Katherina is now the most obedient wife. Petruchio mocks Tranio for having hunted but missed his quarry (as he was wooing Bianca on his master’s behalf). He refers to Bianca as 'this bird you aimed at, though you hit her not'. This punning reminds readers again that, in this play, men perceive wooing as a hunt; one which, with luck, will result in trapping a wife. Tranio then teases Petruchio, suggesting his wife has not yet really been trapped: ‘Tis thought your deer does hold you at bay’. This prompts Petruchio to assert his dominance by challenging the other new husbands to prove which of the three wives is most obedient.

The Noble Art of Venery or Hunting by George Turberville, 1575

The Noble Art of Venery or Hunting by George Turberville, 1575

This finely-illustrated hunting manual is aimed at an elite audience of ‘Noblemen and Gentlemen’.

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The hunting-related diction which Shakespeare uses throughout the play suggests that he is drawing our attention to an uncomfortable correlation which his male characters make between hunting and the treatment of their social inferiors either due to their class or gender. This apparent caricaturing of these attitudes suggests a critique of patriarchal attitudes rather than an advocacy of the methods used by the Lord and Petruchio.

Hierarchies and humiliation: the Induction and the main play

An interesting connection emerges when considering the play in the context of the Induction – both might be seen as portraying attempts to escape from the expectations of social convention as dictated by the dominant hierarchies. Sly is encouraged to think that he is of a higher social class – and indeed he falls relatively easily into the cruel trap set for him by the Lord. It seems cruel because, in fact, Sly cannot escape his lowliness. And Katherina might be read as trying to avoid the trap of marriage from the outset, only to find that she cannot but comply with the demands of society. The wedding scene, though not represented in the play, is shown in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 film. Waiting for the wedding ceremony to be completed, the entire city of Padua collectively holds its breath. The groom, father of the bride, suitors of the bride’s sister, priest and menfolk of the town are complicit in forcing the bride to comply with their expectations. This culminates in the slapstick joke in which Petruchio ‘seals the deal’ with a judiciously placed kiss at the appropriate moment in Katherina’s screeched ‘I will not!’ Her response to the question ‘Wilt thou take Petruchio to be thy lawful wedded husband?’ is turned against her, cutting it off just at the right moment, changing it from dissent to assent. The male hierarchy has prevailed and forced her to fit in with its vision of a woman’s role.

It could be argued that much of Petruchio’s power stems from his willingness to socially humiliate Katherina. In a sense, he uses society’s hierarchy to oppress her. Public humiliation is in the language of the play from the outset. In Act 1, Gremio’s response to Baptista’s offer that he might ‘court [Katherina] at [his] pleasure’ is instructive. ‘To cart her rather’ (1.1.54–55) refers to the practice of publicly humiliating women by making them walk through the streets behind a cart. Continuing in a similar vein, he says he would rather take Katherina’s dowry without the wife but instead be ‘whipt at the high cross every morning’ (1.1.132). This is a reference to a form of public humiliation in which wrongdoers would be punished by the cross in the market square. So Katherina is worthy of punishment and a publicly humiliating punishment at that. The scold’s bridle graphically illustrates the reality of the public punishments that women were subjected to.

Scold's bridle

Scold's bridle

This unpleasant iron instrument, with its twisted animal horns, was used to hurt and humiliate ‘scolds’ who were thought too rude or unruly.

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However, it is clear that Katherina does not lack a sense of shame. Indeed, she is powerfully shamed in front of the whole town when Petruchio is first late and then inappropriately dressed for the wedding. Her choking anger, expressed by the caesura at 3.2.8–10, does not prevent her expressing her outrage and embarrassment. Katherina reminds Baptista that there is:

No shame but mine. I must, forsooth, be forced
To give my hand, opposed against my heart,
Unto a mad-brain rudesby…

It seems strange to modern audiences that the wedding then goes ahead. It is one of the questions of interpretation which a director must decide on. Is she strong armed into it by her father, Petruchio, or both? Is she shamed into it by the public nature of the position she finds herself in: an unmarried woman, and one who seems destined to remain so, in a society that does not value such women?

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Katherina is strong-armed into marrying Petruchio: The Taming of the Shrew, Act 2, Scene 2 by Francis Wheatley.

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Another moment of humiliation occurs at the end of the play when Katherina, having won Petruchio’s wager for him by being the first wife to obey and having also fetched the more wayward wives, is asked by Petruchio to throw a favoured hat on the ground and step on it. The outspoken Widow, interestingly, does not approve of Katherina’s behaviour, calling Katherina’s blind obedience ‘a silly pass’. Even the supposedly simpering (yet, when you look closely at her exchanges with men throughout the play, much more successfully assertive) Bianca agrees, criticising and questioning her: ‘Fie, what a foolish duty call you this?’ The Widow and Bianca see this is an unacceptable way to treat your wife and that Katherina is foolish to tolerate it.

Although the frame play is concluded at the end of the previously mentioned Taming of a Shrew, Shakespeare’s own play does not return to the Induction leaving open the question of what happens to Sly. Structurally, this is interesting and it is worth asking whether this sheds any light on the ending of the play within the play. Are we to consider Katherina’s final speech as similarly inconclusive? Is there room, in fact, for interpretations in which both Sly and Katherina escape subjugation?

Shakespeare seems to set up a tension between, on the one hand, a desire for escape from social conventions, and, on the other, humiliation as a method to suppress these desires in social subordinates, prompting us again to view male oppression as a subject for criticism rather than emulation.

Final speech – humiliated, tamed or free-thinking?

The narrative question which is set up at the outset of this play is who will win this particular battle of the sexes? Katherina’s closing speech seems to offer an answer, though it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. On the face of it, she seems to have been successfully ‘tamed’ by Petruchio, using language from the field of government to explain the power dynamics of husband and wife. She describes the husband as ‘lord’, ‘king’, ‘governor’ and ‘sovereign’, and explains that

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband. (5.2.155–56)

This analogy seems strangely cold and generalised. Has she really been tamed or is she simply parroting a socially acceptable, yet totally impersonal, catalogue of honours a wife owes her husband? But this very coldness puts the success of Petruchio’s taming into question. Perhaps Katherina is merely saying what she knows he wants to hear for a quiet life?

Printed edition of King James VI and I's Basilikon Doron or 'The King’s Gift', 1603

Printed edition of King James VI and I's Basilikon Doron

Katherina’s notorious closing speech has echoes of King James I’s language in Basilikon Doron, when he suggests that a man should ‘command his wife’ and she should ‘obey him’.

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So the text itself draws the audience’s attention to an ironic gap between what Katherina seems to be saying in her speech and the sincerity of what she says. As Emma Smith points out,[3] modern productions of the play virtually never show an unequivocally tamed Katherina. The gender politics which inform our contemporary readings simply do not allow for success in Petruchio’s stated enterprise. Caroline Byrne’s 2016 Globe Theatre production powerfully addressed the complexities of this final speech. A kneeling, seemingly cowed Katherina, who has suffered deeply in this more dark than funny production, pulls Petruchio down to her level just at the point where he seems to be about to raise her up. This elevating gesture is used in the Zeffirelli production to suggest that Katherina has finally risen to the status of a socially acceptable wife. In Byrne’s production, however, the message seems to be that Petruchio’s cruelty throughout the play is unedifying for everyone, and merely lowers him morally and literally, leaving them both on their knees.

Not only modern productions of the play, but the text itself suggests that Shakespeare is critical of Petruchio rather than intent on holding him up as a paragon of woman-taming. It can be argued that, even in the language itself, Katherina’s final speech simply does not ring true.

A problematic play

Undeniably, The Taming of the Shrew is a problematic play and not only in the context of modern gender politics. The difficulties raised by the very idea of a battle of the sexes are inherent in the text itself. George Bernard Shaw, perhaps pointedly taking on a female pseudonym, wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1888 to express his outrage at the dishonesty of Petruchio’s performance in David Garricks’ adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. For Shaw, the play could not be a comedy: Petruchio ‘does what he can to persuade the audience that he is not in earnest … but in spite of … [his] winks and smirks when Katharine is not looking, he cannot make the spectacle of a man cracking a heavy whip at a starving woman otherwise than disgusting and unmanly’. It does seem, then, that Shakespeare is asking us to respond to these contradictions and question the entire project of ‘taming’ another human being, to see it as nothing better than ridiculous and barbaric. While it presents misogyny as well as abuse of power in both gender and class relations, The Taming of the Shrew seems to do this in an ironic way, with all the dangers of misinterpretation that irony always brings with it. And it might be argued that this critique of the oppressing behaviours of those in the play who hold power is inherent in the text and that productions will inevitably stand or fall on their ability to convey this to their audiences.
  • Rachel De Wachter
  • Rachel De Wachter teaches English Literature and English Language to A-level students at Esher College. She has coordinated the A-level course and has worked as an examiner. She is interested in Shakespeare in production as well as feminist and psychoanalytic readings of literature.