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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!