The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Alamy

Game, Set, Match

Routinely reviled by contemporary critics as a celebration of misogyny, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is among Shakespeare’s most misunderstood plays.

24 Mar 2023 · 11 min read

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio tells Katherina, his wife of only four or five days, that the sun is the moon and that an old man is a young maiden. Kate knows that she is looking at the sun and not the moon, at an old man and not a young woman—who would not?—but Petruchio demands that she see things as he does. "It shall be moon, or star, or what I list," he tells his wife. At this point in the play, poor Kate has been denied food, sleep, and pretty clothes. She has been worn out and worn down by her new husband. "What you have it named," Kate says of the sun, "even that it is, / And so it shall be so for Katherine."

No contemporary scholar or director treats this play with anything other than a robust awareness of the patriarchal control bearing down on Kate. Both Petruchio’s "social status and his knowledge," writes Rachel De Wachter, "seem to underpin the patriarchal dominance which he intends to assert over Katherina. … 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." Petruchio, writes scholar Karen Newman, uses "civilized coercion" to tame Kate: "public humiliation at their wedding, starvation, sleep deprivation, and verbal bullying, all administered with the utmost courtesy and pretended kindness." As Newman writes in her paper, ‘Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew’: "Kate is figuratively killed with kindness, by her husband’s rule over her. … Kate calls the sun the moon, an old man a budding virgin, and makes the world conform to the topsy-turvy of Petruchio’s patriarchal whimsy."

It is hardly surprising, then, that the contemporary university student, trained as she is to recognize moments of historic patriarchal oppression, is quick to identify this as a moment of "gaslighting." To gaslight someone is to make them question their perception of reality. Gaslighters sow confusion in the minds of their victims in an attempt to gain control over them. When Katherine relents to her husband’s mind control, my students insist, it signals her total defeat. She surrenders her perception of reality to his, submits to his word, and yields her will to his. Gaslighting is of course what Petruchio has done to Katherina, the final degradation of her humanity.

But it is also conceivable that we’ve been led by our own sexual paranoia into misreading the tone and quality of Petruchio’s demands, which may have nothing whatever to do with degrading or controlling his wife, as we are quick to insist. If viewed as a pert invitation, Petruchio’s outrageous claims may seem, not an attempt to get her to question her reality, but to enter into imaginative play with him. Petruchio wants to pretend with Kate. The last thing on his mind, on this interpretation, is to control her perception of reality or her will. His desire is instead to bring her into a sort of magic circle, a space made for him and for her where they will play together, see the world as one, and laugh about it. Their marriage will be an inside joke, their lives full of comradery against the common and the public. That we mistake such a playful gambit for mind-control may reveal our own imaginative impoverishment, not Petruchio’s brutality.

It is precisely through Petruchio’s ridiculous lies about the world around them that Kate finally clues in to the fact that he is kidding—and so should we. But we are wrong if we take Petruchio’s jokes to mean that he is an unserious man. What he isn’t joking about is that he needs his wife to get the joke, and to play along. "Young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet," Kate says to the old man, "Happy the parents of so fair a child; / Happier the man whom favourable stars / Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow." Kate makes a kittenish little inuendo here about the "young maiden" finding a lover knowing full well that it is a joke and that it will be appreciated by her husband. She has lost none of her verbal virtuosity, and in her very next line, Shakespeare gives her a brand-new word, "Pardon, old father," she says, "my mistaking eyes / That have been so bedazzled with the sun / That everything I look on seemeth green." This is the first recorded use of the word "bedazzled." When Shakespeare gives such invention to his characters, it is a reliable way to tell that they are in full command of their own imaginative powers. He gives Kate this wordplay because he wants us to know that she is playing. (We should notice that Kate is making a double joke: when she says she is "bedazzled with the sun," it is another wink at Petruchio’s own joke about it being the moon, as well as her teasing way of excusing herself for calling the old man a young maiden in search of a bedfellow.) Her husband must be grinning widely at his wife’s "mad mistaking." Now that she understands it’s a game, she shows that she is going to play it magnificently.

To miss the playfulness of Petruchio’s insistence upon seeing the sun as the moon and an old man as a blushing maiden is to see the world hazily oneself, through a fog of prescription and proscription that renders all dreary and muted. If there is gaslighting going on, it isn’t being done by Petruchio. Our culture conditions us to think that relationships must be ethical, by which we mean egalitarian, which turns out to mean a quality that is hard to distinguish from flatness. But equality need not imply interchangeability, or even symmetry.

What Petruchio wants (and gets!) is a partner in crime, a co-conspirator. From the start, Petruchio recognizes that Kate is "gamesome," as indeed she is. Their first conversation is one of innuendo and double-entendre, of attack, parry, and riposte. It’s verbal swordplay, the point of which isn’t to defeat one’s opponent, but to enjoy the sporting fun of facing a worthy adversary. "Good morrow, Kate—for that’s your name, I hear," are Petruchio’s first words to Katherina. Her response: "Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing: / They call me Katherine that do talk of me." She corrects him by insisting on her proper name, and she insults him by calling him hard of hearing. In response, Petruchio names her "Kate" 11 times in quick succession, riffing on her name and making certain she knows that he is ready for a match. Game on.

What follows is a scene of verbal one-upmanship that continues to escalate from joke and insult through to sexual suggestiveness and mischievous outrageousness:

P: Come, sit on me.
K: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
P: Women are made to bear, and so are you.

Petruchio’s a jackass, and Kate the bearer of a child, after, presumably, she "sits" on him. We miss the point if we ourselves are not capable of entering into the game-world as spectators, or if we condemn and correct Petruchio’s language and behavior. There is a reason why we use the same word to describe a sporting competition and two equals who are harmoniously united: game, set, match. Kate and Petruchio are a perfect match.

What is most striking about Petruchio’s first lines to Kate is not his verbal swordsmanship, impressive as it is, but his declarations that he wants Kate to be his wife. On three separate occasions he tells her this, each time becoming more insistent. "Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife," he says at first. "Now Kate, I am a husband for your turn," he says after they’ve spoken, teased and insulted each other,

Thou must not be married to no man but me.
For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
Conformable as other household Kates.
Here comes your father. Never make denial;
I must and will have Katherine to my wife.

His wordplay on her name ("Kate" meaning wildcat; "cate" meaning delicacy), brings the conversation back to its beginning, where she insisted that her name was "Katherine" and he that it should be "Kate" (though he does use "Katherine" when he says he wants her for his wife, something which underscores his sincerity). To modern ears, it is not the proposal that is so terribly offensive (though this, too, is criticized: Petruchio doesn’t ask her to marry him. He tells her to), but his declaration that he is going to "tame" her and make her "conformable" as other household delicacies. It’s controlling and demeaning and outright misogyny! Poor Kate is being forced into the role of a wife. She is being forced to "conform," just like all women are.

Yet when we come so quickly and automatically to Kate’s defence, it is we who run the risk of treating her exactly as she isn’t; it is we who expect her to conform to our idea of a vulnerable woman. We treat her delicately, as if she were not capable of standing up for herself, of standing up to a man, or of determining exactly whom she wants to marry. "But, but, but… The Patriarchy!" my students insist. Yet it is precisely her father, the patriarch, whom Katherine quite effortlessly and casually defies. It is precisely the wealthy men of the city who cower before her. It is precisely "The Patriarchy" that Kate sees as being entirely beneath her. If we think that Kate is going to collapse in who she is after a five-minute conversation with a man who doesn’t run scared of her and, what’s more, seems actually to really like her, it is we, not the patriarchy, who think little of her.

My students seem to have no appreciation for the contempt Kate would feel for Petruchio were he to treat her with polite respect. They seem to think that to treat one with "respect" is the same as treating one as though she would be incapable of handling an insult or a joke. Cultural forces with which we are all familiar have played a hand in shaping our current understanding of "respect." To understand it, we might think of ubiquitous institutional human resource policies that outline the behaviours of a "respectful workplace," or a "respectful campus." The policies are, no doubt, helpful guidelines which serve to protect institutions from potential allegations of not protecting staff and students from unwanted and uncomfortable interpersonal exchanges.

But the type of "respect" that our culture champions is in almost every way the opposite of what Kate would find worthy of her respect, and this is largely because we have taken play out of public spaces. For Kate, respect is finding a worthy opponent whom she can hold in esteem and honour. And this means, first, that she must be respected enough to be seen and treated as the same: as a formidable adversary. To this end, one must really and truly play the game and do so with all seriousness. There is a difference between playing a game with a young child and playing a game with an adult. It is good form to let a pre-schooler beat you in a game of Go Fish, but that pre-schooler will never be honoured as a superior, nor even as an equal. It is a condescension on our part to treat one’s opponent this way, not a sign of respect.

Kate scorns and ridicules the men of Padua for this very reason: they are all too timid to face her as an equal in a match of wits and words. They want instead to fall comfortably back into the social norms of politeness and proper behaviour. This is especially true about their attitudes to polite and proper gender and courtship roles, which are what Shakespeare’s play is all about, after all. In conventional courtship, both gender roles, male and female, are more delicate, formulaic, and predictable than a genuine test of valour would allow for. The men court Bianca, Kate’s younger and "tamer" sister in conventional ways, and she responds conventionally, according to a woman’s expected demeanor. This domestication of sex roles may feel safe compared to Kate’s outrageousness and Petruchio’s brashness, but by its very predictability the behaviour lends itself to manipulation and control, control which is wielded effectively by Bianca.

But in play, as in combat, one takes a real chance because uncertainty is a part of the playful spirit. Play is dangerous because it is a risk. One never knows how things might come off. (Every joke is risk, every flirtatious comment a gambit. One risks looking foolish, brutish, or downright criminal.) The discomfort my students have with Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is that he isn’t more "respectful" of her. They protest when Petruchio treats her as a fellow combatant whom he must beat. They squirm when he is hard on her. They writhe when he doesn’t relent. "Yes," I tell them, "It’s almost as though he thinks highly enough of her to be tough enough to handle it." They become apoplectic, sputtering out "Patriarchy!" through their rage. She shouldn’t have to handle it, or be tough, they insist. To be treated with respect in their eyes is to not be tasked with any kind of gamesome combat.

Petruchio doesn’t pull his punches. This is what they find offensive. That Petruchio triumphs over Kate without holding back, that he thinks highly enough of her to trust that she will hold her head up high when beaten by him, and that he knows she will honour him for besting her never enters their wildest imaginings. It is we who are made uncomfortable by Petruchio’s sporting respect, not Kate. We would rather she be played with considerately, gently, and most of all that Petruchio would let her win. Go fish, Kate. Viewed in this light, it is we who want Kate to be treated as an inferior, tamed from the start, and treated without the respect due to an equal. The fragility that my students assume she should have, and the predictable delicacy they believe Petruchio should treat her with, reveal that they don’t in fact think that Petruchio should treat her as a worthy adversary, and certainly not as an equal. She isn’t well-mannered precisely because she is too spirited to hide her contempt with politeness for those she deems beneath her.

When Petruchio says with both playfulness and seriousness that he must tame her and have her for his wife, he shows her that he is not someone she would hold in contempt, and also that he finds her formidable enough to treat ungently. On top of this, he seems to find her genuinely sexy. It is entirely conceivable, then, that Kate desires Petruchio, too. The third time he proposes marriage he is again sincere: "I choose her for myself," he says, "If she and I be pleased, what’s that to you?" This is asked of the other men of Padua, but also of us. Why do we get concerned and upset on her behalf when she doesn’t ask us to. For the one thing Kate does not say to Petruchio is no. Yes, she insults him and says that she’ll see him hanged first before she’ll see her married to him in two days, but of course she isn’t serious about that, just as it is obvious that she is going to remain petulant so that she doesn’t come off as looking desperate in front of the other men of the town. It’s clear that she desires this marriage as much as he does, something even my students are compelled to agree with when they see her crying on her wedding day because her betrothed is late.

Ultimately, as we saw from the start, Kate is bested by her husband. And she is delighted by this. A man whom she can hold in high regard and honour. At last. Now that Kate and Petruchio play for the same team, they are out to best everyone, beginning with Kate’s prim and calculating younger sister, Bianca. At the end of the play, Kate publicly demonstrates how obedient and submissive she is to her husband, and she does so with her head held high. Her subservience to her husband makes her superior to the other women, and him superior to the other men. Her honour elevates him. His elevation raises her in other’s esteem. They are still playing together—literally, as Shakespeare would have it: Petruchio has made a wager with the other new husbands to see whose wife is the most obedient.

By playing along, Kate wins her husband 100 crowns from his friends, and a second dowry, 20,000 crowns, from her father. And yet that game, played together against everyone else, was just the foreplay for the real playing Kate and Petruchio clearly get up to. "Come Kate," are Petruchio’s last lines, "we’ll to bed." Kate is her husband’s playmate, in all senses of that word. And she loves it. What Shakespeare gives us is a play about a married couple who play everyone and then go to bed to play with each other. The only losers are the ones on the sidelines crying foul simply because they are too sophisticated and serious-minded to understand the rules of the game and have forfeited their turn.

Marilyn Simon

Dr. Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book entitled "In a Mutual Flame: Coming Together in Shakespeare."

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