Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew: Analyzing Kate
By Rasha El-Haggan, English Major at University of Maryland Baltimore County (Copyrighted 1999)
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It is both a witty
and complex play with characters that are appealing and believable drawn from life and based on a keen understanding of human nature. One can see this in the main character of the play, the shrew Katherine. Critics and Shakespearean scholars have often wondered about Kate’s character. Conjectures for the reasons of Kate’s shrewd behavior as well as her tameness have puzzled scholars for ages. This essay will attempt to decipher Kate’s shrewish character from the beginning with her father and sister, through
the middle with her first meeting of Petruchio, to the finale where she is finally tamed.
There is a strong underlying notion that Kate’s shrewish behavior is a by-product
of the mistreatment of her sister and father. Firstly, Kate’s father continually humiliates
her in public. For example, when Baptista, Kate’s father, informed Bianca’s suitors, Tranio and Lucentio, in public that he will not allow either of them to marry his younger daughter until a husband is found for Katherine; he is in effect announcing he first wants to have Katherine off his hands. He then offers her to either of Bianca’s suitors.
Katherine’s humiliation at this point is complete. Not only is she discussed on a public
street like a piece of scandalous gossip; but she is also offered to her sister’s suitors by her own father and profusely turned away as one turns away from a piece of rotten meat. Kate then tries to reveal her mortification to her father, “I pray you, sir, is it your will/To
make a stale of me amongst these mates?” (57-58). Upon hearing this, Hortensio scolds
Kate for her infamous temper to which she replies that if she cared enough about him to bother, she would hit him on the head with a stool. This is nothing more than a defense of her pride, she is being publicly humiliated and she reacts with haughtiness to cover her embarrassment. Kate is further humiliated when Baptista announces that he desires to hire schoolmasters “to instruct her [Bianca’s] youth.” He makes no mention of
Katherine’s studies, resulting in her humiliation through public neglect. Any child in her
shoes would have rebelled profusely. She is further deliberately left out when her father directs her to remain behind because he wishes to “commune with Bianca.” Kate then
bridles at this and makes her exit, hurt by this display of neglect.
Similarly, Bianca’s personality adds to Kate’s rebellion. On the surface, Bianca
seems to be a sweet, mild young woman; a “young modest girl,” Lucentio calls her.
However, in reality, she is a calculating and sneaky sister. Her deceit and deliberate call for attention increases Kate’s shrewdness. For example, Bianca plays the role of a long
suffering saint, implying that the situation where Kate must marry before she can is difficult for her, but not so for her sister. The girl Lucentio describes as “modest” does
not hesitate to parade her obedience for her father’s benefit. She says she will make her
books and instruments her company without complaint. She thus gains the sympathy of Lucentio, her two suitors, and her father. In turn, Baptista, to satisfy Bianca, attempts to hire her schoolmasters. Kate, knowing her sister’s deception, retaliates in anger and
jealousy. In Act 2, Scene 1, where Kate bounds her sister’s hands, tormenting her as to
which of Bianca’s suitors she favors, shows that Kate is jealous of Bianca, and the
accusations of favoritism with which she confronts her father betray the hurt she feels.
She sums up her state herself, “I will go sit and weep/Till I can find occasion of revenge”
(35-36). She is hurt and seeks to mend her hurt with revenge; thus we can understand her shrewish ways.
Clearly then, a case can be made for Baptista as a biased and thoughtless father, Bianca as a spoiled child who knows how to give herself an angelic appearance, and Katherine as a neglected, hurt, and humiliated daughter who disguises her grief from herself, as well as from others, with a noisy, shrewish temper.
Katherine’s shrewdness finds itself at a plateau upon her first meeting with
Petruchio. Although Petruchio initially seeks Katherine out for her dowry, we are given to believe that he likes her for her wit and her spirit, for Petruchio is a lively, adventurous man. This is clear in everything he says and does. The reader receives the impression that Petruchio decides to take on the taming of a shrew as a sort of challenge or sporting pastime. One feels, in fact, that Katherine’s wild temper is an attraction to this fiery man, and that he would be far less willing to marry Bianca for her fortune. If Petruchio is a mere fortune hunter, whey does he not seek Bianca’s hand? She not only has wealth to
equal her sister’s, but she also has a mild temper to go with it.
Petruchio’s attraction to Katherine’s spirit helps him penetrate her shrewd shell.
He is delighted to hear that she has broken a lute over his friend’s head for it shows spirit and he thinks the better of her for it. This puzzles Kate, who has no alternative but to keep acting as the shrew she portrayed herself to be the past several years. But Petruchio is not merely an adventurous and forthright man; he is also a man of extreme patience and considerable wisdom. He treats Katherine affectionately, calling her Kate with tender familiarity from the beginning. He answers her noisy scorn with praise, rebutting her jabs with humorous witticisms, managing to convey a fondness for her. “Assess are
made to bear, and so are you,” she tells him. “Women are made to bear,” he replies, “and
so are you” (200-201). With gentle humor, he reminds her of her femininity. His patience and good nature are clearly not the products of a foolish mind. He lets Katherine know from the beginning that he is not deceived about her reputation, “you are
called plain Kate,/And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst” (186-187). When she
strikes him, he does not respond with violence, but tells her instead that if she strikes again, he will strike back. At the close of their interview, Katherine says to her father, “You have show’d a tender fatherly regard,/To wish me wed to one half lunatic;/A mad-
cap ruffian” (287-89). Yet we, as readers, know that Petruchio is no lunatic. Her reaction is really nothing more than an attempt to save face. She says she will see Petruchio hanged before she will marry him, but these remarks constitute the extent of her argument. She has the opportunity to say more, but she does not because in fact she wants to be married for she has met her match.
Finally, by Act 4, Scene 5, Katherine is finally and completely “tamed.”
Petruchio has put a dazzling performance, and she recognizes at last what she failed to see at first—that Petruchio’s mad capers mirrored her own behavior. In this scene, it dawns upon her that all she need do to secure a peaceful existence is to submit to her husband’s will and recognize his authority. Petruchio’s seemingly ridiculous behavior is
again accompanied by a plain explanation, “Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s
myself/It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,/Or ere I journey to your father’s house-
/Everyone cross’d and cross’d; nothing but/cross’d!” She will not be given peace until
she makes herself a pleasant companion to him. At this point, Katherine understands the
meaning of Petruchio’s charade and she responds suitably, “…be it moon, or sun, or what
you please./An if you please to call it a rush-candle,/Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me” (13-15). This is the climax of the play’s main plot. It is the moment at which the
shrew is tamed, although she never was a real shrew; the formerly unhappy Katherine discovers how to be a happy Kate. In being made to admit the truth of a grossly unreasonable statement, she becomes a reasonable woman. Petruchio has turned her from unreasonable aggressiveness to unreasonable submission, in order to attain a comfortable compromise.
In the brief episode at the close of Act 5-Scene 1, Katherine again submits to Petruchio’s will when he demands a kiss in the public street. She is embarrassed, but
clearly does not begrudge him the kiss. When he asks her if she is ashamed of him, she replies, “No, sir, God forbid” (151). She submits, saying, “I will give thee a kiss; now
pray thee, love, stay” (153). She, who has been used to noisily having her own way, begs him to stay and calls him “love” instead of “sir” as has formerly been her habit. There is
now obvious affection between the two, and Petruchio says of their new harmony, “Is not
this well?” (154). He calls her his sweet Kate, and she recognizes the sincerity of the epithet. Therefore, with careful love and affection stemming from Petruchio’s sincerity towards Katherine, her shrewd behavior turns into sweet honey.
In conclusion, due to her father and sister’s lack of affection and humiliation, Kate develops a nasty shrewish character. She then recognizes her equal when she meets Petruchio, yet she has no choice but to keep acting as a shrew. It is not until Petruchio wins Kate’s affection through his kindness and love that she finally lets go of her shrewish cover and becomes the envied wife of every husband.