If you’ve ever read a fanfic, a chick-lit novel, or seen a chick flick, you’ve most likely seen/read one of the latest iterations of either The Taming of the Shrew or Much Ado About Nothing. Both plays feature strong, witty women, (as do many of Shakespeare’s plays, actually), dissatisfied with the status quo, who eventually come to be ‘tamed’ by the true love of an equally sharp and witty man. Beatrice, the female protagonist in Much Ado About Nothing, has come to be somewhat accepted by feminists, as she loses little of herself in her eventual capitulation to Benedix; Katerina’s eventual fall in The Taming of the Shrew remains more troubling.
The play opens with a quirky framing segment, in which a poor, drunken tinker is taken up by a wealthy man, dressed in fine clothes, and told that he’s a rich man who has been under a delusion of being poor (this as all part of an elaborate joke). As a reader/watcher, we see him change both his manner of address and his manner of speaking when his clothes are changed, and are led to one of Shakespeare’s most famous questions: do the clothes make the man? Unfortunately, there is no corresponding framing end sequence, so though we may suppose that the tinker is eventually disabused of his notion of wealth and tossed back on the street, we don’t know for sure. In any event, in the course of his evening, he is treated to a play by a traveling troupe, and therein lies the meat of this play.
We are taken to Padua, where we meet a father (Baptista) and his two daughters. The elder, Katerina, is headstrong, sharp-tongued, and bitter. The younger, Bianca, is meek and submissive. Though both girls are presented as equally lovely and well-dowered, Katerina has no suitors while her younger sister has two (that we know of). Their father has decreed that Bianca may not wed before Katerina, frustrating Bianca’s suitors, and so the scene is cast for the appearance of Petruchio, a wealthy young man who is set on becoming wealthier. He claims that he will marry anyone with enough money, no matter how off-putting she may be; he is taken up on his boast by the suitors of her sister. After a quick meeting with Baptista, whose friends included Petruchio’s deceased father, Petruchio presses his suit and eventually meets Katerina. In a lightning battle of wits, punctuated by insults and sexual innuendo, she repulses his advances even as he declares he will marry her and she will be tamed. Baptista re-enters, and is boldly told that the marriage is set for the following Sunday. Katerina is strangely mute at this declaration. They are married in a ceremony set to humiliate Katerina, and Petruchio sets about his plot to tame the shrew. Through a combination of withholding sleep and food (all under the guise of being worried for her welfare) and acting as boorishly to others as she has acted in the past, Petruchio slowly brings Katerina around, until by the end of the play, she declares that whatever he says is true (even if it is that the moon is the sun). Katerina’s part ends with a grand soliloquy about love, marriage, and a woman’s true subservient role within both.
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