Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “The Taming of the Shrew”

“We shall not spend very much time on Taming of the Shrew. It is the only play of Shakespeare’s that is a complete failure, though Titus Andronicus may be another. The plot of Taming of the Shrew belongs to farce, and Shakespeare is not a writer of farce. Ben Jonson might have made the play a success, but it is not up Shakespeare’s alley.”[1]

So said W.H. Auden in his lectures on Shakespeare. And he indeed did not spend much time on Taming of the Shrew, squeezing it into a lecture brusquely alongside longer treatments of King John and Richard II. This is the only time in Auden’s Shakespeare lectures, barring the three parts of Henry VI and a double lecture on Henry IV 1-2 and Henry V, when he treated three plays in one lecture.

I’m not entirely qualified to say if Auden is right, but his boldness here diffuses a little of the trepidation one has about criticising Shakespeare. I do not especially enjoy The Taming of the Shrew–almost certainly because my first encounter with it was during a first year undergrad Shakespeare course in my English undergrad. As anyone who knows the play can imagine, all our study was done through the torturous lens of critical theory (with a little bit of painfully dry textual criticism). The module was (and still is, as confirmed by a quick look at the university website) called “Rethinking Shakespeare”–the assumption apparently being that, at the tender age of eighteen, we were sufficiently accomplished enough in thinking about Shakespeare that it was high time we did some re-thinking.

It was evident to me even then, in my salad days when I was green in judgement, that there must be more to say about the play than this. However, the memory of those stilted first-year seminars left a bad taste in my mouth, and I’ve never been that keen to revisit the play. Praise be, then, to Matthew J. Franck’s “Shakespeare in a Year” reading plan for getting me to do so.

Taming of the Who?

To a reader willing to take the text on its own terms, it seems to me that, whatever imperfections it may have, The Taming of the Shrew is as much a play about how women tame men as it is about how men tame women.

You can see this in various ways: the oft-forgotten “Induction” (which sets up the main action of the script as a play-within-a-play) presents us with Christopher Sly, a thoroughly untamed creature of appetite who is tricked into thinking he’s a nobleman in order that he might be taught a lesson or two by the nameless Lord in whose house he has drunkenly fallen asleep. The Lord proposes the ruse and asks “Would not the beggar then forget himself?” (Ind. 1.37). I can’t help but have Plato’s Phaedrus in mind again, whose correspondences to Two Gentlemen of Verona I noted in my last post. In the myth of the Phaedrus, Socrates outlines how the noble human soul supposedly loses its place contemplating the Form of the Good in the Heavens through a failure to control its lower appetites, and now has only a dim memory of the Form of the Good. The literary merit and purpose of the Induction are much debated, so this is speculative, but perhaps in Sly, who forgets his beggarship and thinks himself a lord, Shakespeare is prompting us to think of how all men (and I mean mankind), by nature, are lords who have forgotten their lordship and now think themselves beggars, and must be remedially taught and tamed. By God’s design we are, as my colleague Colin Redemer puts it in the Davenant Press’ forthcoming modernisation of Thomas Traherne’s Christian Ethics, “shining human creatures”, but have grown ignorant of this fact. To strengthen this speculative reading further: one is reminded of Sly’s beggar-lord dichotomy when Petruchio dresses in rags for his wedding and then dresses finely upon his return to Padua.

Sly, then, must be tamed and taught, apparently by a feigning of lordship. As the players begin their performance, we meet Lucentio. Why has he come to Padua? To be schooled: “Here let us breathe and haply institute/A course of learning and ingenious studies” (1.1.8-9). Lucentio falls for Bianca, younger sister of Katharina (Kate), the eponymous shrew, as does Hortensio–another young man, though never said to be a student.

Lucentio and Hortensio both disguise themselves as tutors in order to woo Bianca. However, the irony should not be lost upon us: Lucentio (and perhaps Hortensio, by extension, since the two are set up as equals in contrast to Gremio, an elderly suitor of Bianca) has just arrived in Padua as a student, yet now pretends to be a teacher. The suggestion is that they are the ones who need schooling, not Bianca. And indeed, Bianca asserts herself against her tutor-suitors: “I’ll not be tied to ours nor ‘pointed times,/But learn my lessons as I please myself” (3.1.19-20). Later, when Hortensio goes off of Bianca and decides to wed a wealthy widow instead, he is said to have “gone unto the taming school” (4.2.55). On the surface, this refers to him learning from Petruchio how to tame a shrewish wife, but one could read it in reverse: Hortensio’s marriage will be a taming school in which he learns to be tame.

Lucentio’s status as a student is brought to the fore again when his father Vincentio arrives on the scene toward the end of the play, and discovers that his son has married and has hired a Pedant to masquerade as Vincentio in order to pledge a sufficient dowry for the marriage to take place: “I am undone! While I play the good husband at home,/my son and my servant spend all at the university!” (5.1.57-58). Lucentio’s whole time in Padua is framed as being “at the university”–it seems, then, that we should regard him as having been receiving an education this whole time.

All this, suffice to say, goes likewise for Petruchio and Kate, the play’s central couple. Auden’s frustration with the play boils down the fact that it seemingly refuses to commit to being about the taming of either: “Either Petruchio should have been timid and then got drunk and tamed Katherine as she wished, or, after her beautiful speech, she should have picked up a stool and hit him over the head.”[2]

Harold Bloom has a more generous read of the play, seeing it as “as much a romantic comedy as it is farce”.[3] He sees an evident love and tenderness between the couple, and rubbishes the idea of Kate being forced to marry against her will. Rather, we should see a mutual taming taking place: “Their final shared reality is a kind of conspiracy against the rest of us: Petruchio gets to swagger, and Kate will rule him and the household, perpetually acting her role as the reformed shrew.”[4] The play’s title, then, can be read two ways: there is a taming of the shrew by her husband, yet also a taming of (or rather by) the shrew in which the husband himself is tamed.

Far more could be said of course, but, if we take Bloom’s kind of reading, we find that Shakespeare isn’t simply some unthinking cog in the patriarchy who happily wrote misogynistic comedy to please the masses and turn a profit. Rather, he recognises something evident to all mankind and Christians in particular throughout the ages, rendered clearly in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer with which Shakespeare was undoubtedly familiar: that marriage is, following on from procreation and as a remedy for sin, given to men and women for “the mutuall societie, helpe, and coumforte, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperitie and adversitie.”

  1. W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Kirsch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 63.

  2. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, 64.

  3. Harold Bloom,qtd. The Taming of the Shrew, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Dympna Callaghan (London: W.W. Norton & Company), 188.
  4. Bloom, qtd. Taming of the Shrew, 188.

*Image Credit: Johan Persson


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