In order to ensure Katherine is married, Baptista disallowsBianca to be espoused until Katherine is wed, forcing the many suitors to Biancato find a mate for Katherine in order for them to vie for Bianca’s love. Manycritics of the play condemn it for the blatant sexist attitude it has towardwomen but closer examination of the play and the intricacies of its structurereveal that it is not merely a story of how men should ‘put women in theirplace’. The play is, in fact, a comedy about an assertive woman coping with howshe is expected to act in the society of the late sixteenth century and of howone must obey the unwritten rules of a society to be accepted in it. Althoughthe play ends with her outwardly conforming to the norms of society, this is inaction only, not in mind. Although she assumes the role of the obedient wife,inwardly she still retains her assertiveness. Most of the play’s humour comesfrom the way in which characters create false realities by disguising themselvesas other people, a device first introduced in the induction.
Initially this isaccomplished by having Christopher Sly believe he is someone he is not and thenby having the main play performed for him. By putting The Taming Of The Shrew ina ‘play within a play’ structure, Shakespeare immediately lets the audience knowthat the play is not real thus making all events in the play false realities. Almost all characters in the play take on identities other than their own atsome point of time during the play. Sly as a king, Tranio as Lucentio, Lucentioas Cambio, Hortensio as Litio and the pedant as Vicentio are all examples ofthis. Another example of this is Katherine as an obedient wife. In The Taming OfThe Shrew, courtship and marriage are not so much the result of love but ratheran institution of society that people are expected to take part in.
As a resultof the removal of romance from marriage, suitors are judged, not by their lovefor a woman, but by how well they can provide for her. All suitors compare thedowry each can bring to the marriage and the one with the most to offer ‘wins’the woman’s hand in marriage. This competition for marriage is like a game tothe characters of the play. While discussing the courtship of Bianca with Gremio,Hortensio says “He that runs fastest gets The ring” (Act I, scene i,l.
140-141) likening receiving permission to wed Bianca to winning a race. Inthe game, however, women are treated like objects that can be bought and soldrather than as human beings. This is expected since the society is a patriarchalone. For example, Lucentio, Tranio and Petruchio are all defined with referenceto their fathers and all the elderly authority figures, like Baptista andVicentio, are men. The taming of Katherine is not a women’s shrewishness beingcured as much as it is a woman being taught the rules of the ‘patriarchal game’.
Katherine has learned how to be assertive and with this knowledge is able tocontrol men, and a woman controlling a man is considered ‘against the rules’ ofthe game. The play ends with Katherine proving that she is truly cured of her ‘shrewishness’and is the most obedient of the three newlywed wives at the end of the play. This is demonstrated in her soliloquy when she lectures the other wives on theproper way in which a woman should behave: I am ashamed that women are so simpleTo offer war where they should kneel for peace, Or seek rule, supremacy, andsway, When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (Act V, scene ii, l. 161 -164) Although most critics interpret the play as being that of a woman finallyacting the way in which she is supposed to act, it is difficult to believe thata character as vibrant and strong-willed as Katherine is changed so easily.
Following with the device of false realities that Shakespeare set in place soearly in the play, it would seem more logical that Katherine would simply beacting the part of ‘the obedient wife’ in order to be accepted in the society inwhich she lives. Katherine can ‘play a part’ very well and can even enjoy doingit. This is shown on the road to Padua from Petruchio’s house when Kate isforced to address Vincentio as a woman and says, “Young budding virgin,fair and fresh and sweet” (Act IV, scene v, l. 37).
The Taming Of The Shrewis a light-hearted comedy that is better seen than read. This is especially truesince a lot of the humour in it is physical or ‘slapstick’ humour which ispossible only on stage. The complexity of the play is refreshing, as many of themodern plays of today are quite linear and do little to keep a reader’sattention. Another favourable aspect of it is the subplot involving Lucentio andBianca which lends itself as the basis for many humourous moments, most notablybetween Lucentio, Hortensio and Bianca. The obvious sexist attitude of the playdoes not hinder it because of the reasons stated above.
One must also take intoaccount the attitudes of sixteenth century England and the fact that the play isa comedy and is not meant to be taken seriously.