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.
More characters from The Taming of the Shrew
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