The Taming of the Shrew
Analysis of Major Characters
Widely reputed throughout Padua to be a shrew, Katherine is foul-tempered and sharp-tongued at the start of the play. She constantly insults and degrades the men around her, and she is prone to wild displays of anger, during which she may physically attack whomever enrages her. Though most of the play’s characters simply believe Katherine to be inherently ill-tempered, it is certainly plausible to think that her unpleasant behavior stems from unhappiness. She may act like a shrew because she is miserable and desperate. There are many possible sources of Katherine’s unhappiness: she expresses jealousy about her father’s treatment of her sister, but her anxiety may also stem from feelings about her own undesirability, the fear that she may never win a husband, her loathing of the way men treat her, and so on. In short, Katherine feels out of place in her society. Due to her intelligence and independence, she is unwilling to play the role of the maiden daughter. She clearly abhors society’s expectations that she obey her father and show grace and courtesy toward her suitors. At the same time, however, Katherine must see that given the rigidity of her social situation, her only hope to find a secure and happy place in the world lies in finding a husband. These inherently conflicting impulses may lead to her misery and poor temper. A vicious circle ensues: the angrier she becomes, the less likely it seems she will be able to adapt to her prescribed social role; the more alienated she becomes socially, the more her anger grows.
Despite the humiliations and deprivations that Petruchio adds to her life, it is easy to understand why Katherine might succumb to marry a man like him. In their first conversation, Petruchio establishes that he is Katherine’s intellectual and verbal equal, making him, on some level, an exciting change from the easily dominated men who normally surround her. Petruchio’s forcible treatment of Katherine is in every way designed to show her that she has no real choice but to adapt to her social role as a wife. This adaptation must be attractive to Katherine on some level, since even if she dislikes the role of wife, playing it at least means she can command respect and consideration from others rather than suffer the universal revulsion she receives as a shrew. Having a social role, even if it is not ideal, must be less painful than continually rejecting any social role at all. Thus, Katherine’s eventual compliance with Petruchio’s self-serving “training” appears more rational than it might have seemed at first: by the end of the play, she has gained a position and even an authoritative voice that she previously had been denied.
The boastful, selfish, mercurial Petruchio is one of the most difficult characters in The Taming of the Shrew: his behavior is extremely difficult to decipher, and our interpretation of the play as a whole changes dramatically depending on how we interpret Petruchio’s actions. If he is nothing more than a vain, uncaring, greedy chauvinist who treats marriage as an act of domination, then the play becomes a dark comedy about the materialism and hunger for power that dictate marriages under the guise of courtly love. If, on the other hand, Petruchio is actually capable of loving Kate and conceives of taming her merely as a means to realize a happy marriage, then the play becomes an examination of the psychology of relationships.
A case can be made for either interpretation, but the truth about Petruchio probably lies somewhere in between: he is unabashedly selfish, materialistic, and determined to be his wife’s lord and master, but he also loves her and realizes on some level that domestic harmony (on his terms, of course) would be better for her than her current life as a shrew in Padua. To this extent, Petruchio goes to alarming lengths to impose his mastery on Kate, keeping her tired and hungry for some time after their marriage, but he also insists on framing this treatment in a language of love, indicating his eagerness for Kate to adapt to her rightful, socially appointed place and his willingness to make their marriage a happy one. Above all, Petruchio is a comic figure, an exaggerated persona who continually makes the audience laugh. And though we laugh with Petruchio as he “tames” Kate, we also laugh at him, as we see him satirize the very gender inequalities that the plot of The Taming of the Shrew ultimately upholds.
Just as Bianca is Katherine’s foil—her opposite—the intrepid, lovesick Lucentio serves as a foil for Petruchio throughout the play. Lucentio reflects the sort of idyllic, poetical view of love that Petruchio’s pragmatism dismisses: Lucentio is struck by love for Bianca at first sight, says that he will die if he cannot win her heart, and subsequently puts into motion a romantic and fanciful plan to do so. Whereas love in the play is often mitigated by economic and social concerns, Lucentio is swept up in a vision of courtly love that does not include the practical considerations of men like Petruchio. Throughout much of the play, then, Lucentio and Bianca’s relationship appears to be refreshing and pure in comparison to the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine. Petruchio’s decision to marry is based on his self-proclaimed desire to win a fortune, while Lucentio’s is based on romantic love. Moreover, while Petruchio devotes himself to taming his bride, Lucentio devotes himself to submitting to and ingratiating himself with his. While Petruchio stages his wedding as a public spectacle, Lucentio elopes with Bianca.
The contrast between Lucentio and Petruchio distinguishes The Taming of the Shrew from other Elizabethan plays. Through Lucentio and Bianca, the play looks beyond the moment when the romantic lovers are wed and depicts the consequences of the disguises and subterfuges they have charmingly employed to facilitate their romance. Once the practical business of being married begins, Lucentio’s preoccupation with courtly love seems somewhat outmoded and ridiculous. In the end, it is Petruchio’s disturbing, flamboyant pragmatism that produces a happy and functioning marriage, and Lucentio’s poeticized instincts leave him humiliated when Bianca refuses to answer his summons. Love certainly exists in the world of The Taming of the Shrew, but Lucentio’s theatrical love, attractive though it is, appears unable to cope with the full range of problems and considerations facing married couples in adult life.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!