In Shakespeare’s time, the ideal wife was subservient to her husband, and it was the husband’s inherent duty to take care of his wife’s money, property, and person, including both physical and moral welfare. If a man’s spouse proved rebellious, he had the right to physically brutalize her into submission. This social phenomenon of domesticating an unruly woman as one might an animal was the inspiration for The Taming of the Shrew.
Kate fits the stereotype of the shrewish woman at the play’s outset and the Renaissance ideal of the subservient, adoring wife by the play’s close, but her last speech as the final monologue of the play-rightly interpreted-undercuts her stereotype. Even before his initial encounter with Katherine, Petruchio knows exactly how to handle her resistance. In a short monologue, Petruchio proclaims in great detail just how his unorthodox approach will work. He plans not to use violence, but psychological warfare.
For every evil Katherine displays, Petruchio will praise the opposing virtue in her character-even if it does not exist: Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain She sings as sweetly as a nightingale. Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear As morning roses newly wash’d with dew … If she deny to be wed, I’ll crave the day When I shall ask the banns and when be married” (II, i). Petruchio plans to win this woman over by simply confronting her temper with flattery.
Of course, the infamous Kate lives up to her reputation and is every bit as cold and difficult as Petruchio has been told to expect. After observing arguments, base insults, and even a blow inflicted upon Petruchio, the audience begins to lose faith in Petruchio’s unusual methods. This extremely clever gentleman, however, will not easily give up such a dowry. Still, he does not wish to waste a vast amount of time and energy on a woman that could just as soon walk away and leave him looking foolish despite his best efforts.
He knows that, in order to tame her, he must first obtain her. Though little ground has been gained in the fight against her inflexibility, Petruchio, upon Baptista’s return, tells him the outcome of his meeting with Kate. He speaks of a bond so natural and strong that they have agreed to marry on the following Sunday. Instantly, Kate recognizes the lies in his assertions and tries to convince her father of the true nature of their meeting, calling Petruchio, “… one half lunatic, a madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack, that thinks with oaths to face the matter out” (II, i).
Though one might expect Kate’s complaints sway her father’s opinion of Petruchio, Petruchio adheres to his original statements. He discards her complaints as nothing more than silly falsehoods in a playful game: “‘Tis bargain’d ‘twixt us twain, being alone, that she shall still be curst in company” (II, i, 297). Even more incredible, Petruchio enthusiastically convinces all present of Katherine’s sincere love and affection saying: “I tell you ’tis incredible to believe How much she loves me. O, the kindest Kate!
She hung about my neck, and kiss on kiss She vied so fast, protesting oath on oath, That in a twink she won me over to her love” (II, i). To the delight of all present-except for Kate, that is-Baptista immediately gives her hand to Petruchio. Soon, their wedding day approaches, and, as part of his campaign to make Kate realize the error of her current disposition, Petruchio makes a point of embarrassing her. Biondello’s detailed description of the groom’s appearance portrays Petruchio coming in ridiculous dress to the formal occasion.
Through his outrageous clothing and extremely harsh ways, Petruchio blatantly mocks Kate. In the same way that Kate’s loud and irritating disposition caused her family so much embarrassment, Kate suffers embarrassment at her future husband’s inexcusable conduct. The way that Petruchio strikes the priest reminds all of Kate’s violence toward Bianca and countless others. Though Kate never shows knowledge of Petruchio’s intentions of taming her, she receives her first sample of just how difficult married life will be.
Now, under the laws of marriage, Petruchio has legal and societal approval to quit all previous games and, once and for all, put Katherine in her place. He does not resort to the common method of violent persuasion. The time soon after their marriage shows the effectiveness of Petruchio’s psychological methods. No longer does he flatter Kate, but perpetrates a moderate torture upon her mind and body. Masked under the guise of love, Petruchio finds ways to starve her, and perform other various punishments to punish her for her turbulent and unyielding nature.
After falling victim to such treatment, Kate becomes absolutely frustrated: “The more my wrong, the more his spite appears. … [I] Am starv’d for meat, giddy for lack of sleep, With oaths kept waking, and with brawling fed. And that which spites me more than all these wants, He does it under the name of perfect love… ” (IV, iii). Later in this scene, when the Haberdasher presents the hat and gown commissioned for Kate, Petruchio openly criticizes its design. Katherine, delighted by its structure and fashion, angrily opposes her husband.
Of course, this reminder of her shrewish nature causes Petruchio to punish her further by revoking the Haberdasher’s products altogether. Unfortunately for Kate, it seems she cannot resolve her problems with tantrums. Kate is slowly learning that her marriage leaves no choice but submission. After many pains, Kate masters the practice of silence and unthinking agreement. She comes to realize that she must swallow her pride and submit to the whims of her husband, no matter how irrational. Traveling to Baptista’s house, he tests her by intentionally mislabeling the sun as the moon.
Naturally, Kate responds by calling attention to his mistake. Angered at such disagreement, Petruchio threatens to turn around and abandon the trip. Though Kate still has a great deal of independence and wildness in her character, Petruchio’s newest test of obedience, along with the impetus of possible repercussion, forces her to grudgingly concede: “Forward, I pray, since we have come so far, And be it moon, or sun, or what you please. And if you please to call it a rush-candle, Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me” (IV, v).
One might argue that such submission proves Kate newfound tameness. However, according to Petruchio, Kate still needs to learn more. He does not want to fight over every minuscule issue of obedience, and the fact that Kate submits grudgingly proves to Petruchio and his audience that more work is necessary. From this point until the end of the play, Petruchio makes astonishing progress in the domestication of Katherine, mainly because of his unrelenting determination. The final scene of the play depicts Petruchio’s final test of obedience.
Confident in Katherine’s level of devotion, he wagers against the two other newlywed husbands, Hortensio and Lucentio. The bet-testing the obedience of their wives-holds very high monetary stakes and important bragging rights. The clear winner turns out to be Kate. Not only is she the only wife to report when beckoned, but she also delivers a lengthy speech outlining the virtue of an obedient wife and the importance of the husband’s role as lord and protector when she says: “… Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee, And for thy maintenance; commits his body To painful labour both by sea and land To watch the night in storms, the day in cold, Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe; And craves no other tribute at thy hands But love, fair looks, and true obedience… ” (V, ii). Of course, everyone observing this incredible change in Kate’s character is astounded, as she has demonstrated, most convincingly, just how effective Petruchio’s work has been. And thus Petruchio’s unconventional methods have tamed the cursed shrew.