Summary: In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare explores the interplay of characters who feign personal transformation for the sake of marriage. Bianca, the sweet younger sister and favored daughter of wealthy Baptista Minola, attracts many suitors. Her elder sister, Katherine, is the shrew. Until Katherine weds, Baptista will not entertain marriage proposals for Bianca. After both sisters have married, Baptista tells Katherine’s husband, “Son Petruchio, I think thou hast the veriest shrew of all” (V:2). He makes this assertion in front of two married men, Bianca’s husband and one of her failed suitors, now married to a widow. Confident in Katherine’s obedience, Petruchio wagers that if they summon their wives, she will appear first. Not only does Kartherine prove Petruchio’s point but in front of her sister and the widow she delivers a monologue on “what a women oweth to her husband” (V:2). And so it seems, the shrew has been tamed.
Why this is The BEST: Discovering the true character of a spouse or handling a partner’s irrational foibles are timeless challenges. This is why, despite changing gender roles, there is an abiding interest in this romantic comedy. It is a play within a play that opens with an impoverished drunk, Christopher Sly, falling prey to a joke. After some heavy boozing Sly wakes dressed as a nobleman with servants waiting on him and a doting wife-of-sorts (a page in drag). Continuing the joke, our play is performed to entertain Sly. We never return to the opening; poor Sly never realizes he’s been tricked. The framing joke for the audience never ends. To peer into the romantic proclivities of others is a fool’s game and all we can expect is some comic relief.
What first attracts Petruchio to Katherine is the size of her dowry, but then the possibility of remaking or “taming” her intrigues him. When he learns that she’s broken a lute over the head of a music tutor, he remarks “I love her ten times more than e’er I did” (II:1), a reminder that love sits stubbornly in the eye of its beholder. Petruchio has a plan to change Katherine. He will kill her with kindness and act irrationally. When servants present a perfectly good dinner to the newly-weds, Petruchio finds it substandard and violently throws it out, forcing hunger on his bride. And when Petruchio remarks, in the middle of the day, “how bright and goodly shines the moon!” Katherine responds “The moon? The sun. It’s not moonlight now” (IV:5). Seeing madness in her spouse, Katherine turns from opposition to obedience.
Any audience knows that in the face of her husband’s atrocious behavior, Katherine’s options are limited. To redeem the play, some modern productions reverse the genders – two brothers and a wealthy mother replace Bianca, Katherine, and Baptista. Although more than mere provocation recommends such a production, the original still brims with insight.
In surviving an impossible marriage, Katherine challenges the meaning of victimhood. There is an echo of agency, when she finally tells her husband: “What you will have it named, even that it is / And so shall it be for Katherine” (V:5). Petruchio may believe Katherine is transformed, but all we see is a wife choosing, or being forced, to say whatever her husband wishes to hear. By playing the fool, she has fooled him. A balm suggesting that Katherine’s taming is ambiguous was available from the start, as a sequel from Shakespeare’s circle, The Tamer Tamed, shows that the original audience understood this too.
And yet, a problem remains. Katherine plays the fool and to play the fool is demeaning and false. Our sages show sympathy to adjusting the truth for the sake of peace. A source locates this teaching within Abraham and Sarah’s marriage (see Rashi to Genesis 18:13; interestingly, it is God, not Abraham or Sarah, who adjusts the truth). As much as deception is corrosive, a besotted practitioner skillfully yields it, chiseling away the jagged edges that prevent love from flourishing. Harold Bloom argued for such an interpretation, claiming that the “only one true moment of agony” for Katherine is when Petruchio is late for their wedding. More terrifying than the hardship she endures for him is the thought of living without him. The wager reveals that other wives also fool their men. Every couple, it seems, was in the fooling game, but nobody can match Katherine’s stamina, for she alone has not been caught – or Petruchio was simply more foolish than the others.
What are we to make of Petruchio? Shakespeare casts him together with Sly. They are the only ones to never realize they’ve been fooled, and this renders Petruchio no more gullible than a drunk. There are three linked instances of Biblical women trying to trick men: Lot and his daughters, Tamar and Judah, and Ruth and Boaz. Lot and Judah are not innocent, explains Yael Ziegler, for it “is not so simple to deceive someone who does not wish to be deceived.” This was never true for Boaz, from the outset he refused to be deceived. Under the cover of darkness Ruth appears in his tent but he trades easy anonymity for transparency: “And he said, ‘Who are you?’” (Ruth 3:9). (Comparing Ruth 3:7 to Genesis 9:21 suggests that Boaz was intoxicated that night. Even so, he still refused to be fooled.) Note the difference from Petruchio who does not ask “Who are you?” but prefers to tell Katherine who she is: “Say she be mute, and will not speak a word / Then I’ll commend her volubility / And say she uttereth piercing eloquence” (II:1) Shakespeare shows us that when a spouse displays such disinterest, they become an easy target for, and the inspiration of, much duplicity.
Deception is rampant throughout The Taming of the Shrew, because self-interest is what motivates all the characters. To create this outcome, Shakespeare sanitized this play about marriage of any trace of kindness or interest in the other.
Marriage, however, should require a couple to be curious and concerned about each other. These qualities emerge strongest under the canopy of marriage but they are present in all human interactions. Before Boaz directly asks Ruth “Who are you?” he asks about her –“Whose is this young woman?” (2:5). At this point she is a foreigner with nothing to offer and soon Boaz is showing kindness to her: “Should you be thirsty, you shall go to the pitchers and drink from what the lads draw from the well” (2:9). What a contrast with Petruchio. When asked what brings him to Katherine’s hometown of Padua, he responds “Such wind as scatters young men through the world / To seek their fortunes farther than at home” and whose first question to his father-in-law is “Then tell me, if I get your daughter’s love / What dowry shall I have with her to wife?” (II:1). There is great irony that this most self-serving of men has ended up, along with Christopher Sly, as the only character to never realize he’s been fooled. Petruchio was never curious about Katherine; he was only interested in the material benefit she would bring to him. Ironically, had he cultivated kindness and overcome such self-interest he, like Boaz, would never allow himself to fall prey to such duplicity.
Rabbi Dr. Asher C. Oser is the Rabbi of Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong.