Although the turning point of the action in a Shakespearean play usually occurs in the third act, here, in Act II, we already witness an emotional turning point for Kate when she fails to refute Petruchio’s assertion that they are engaged. Her silence at the end of this scene is remarkable. She has always used her tongue liberally to get her way, and here, when Petruchio seems to force marriage upon her, a decision that will affect the rest of her life, she lapses into silence. As before, when Baptista is present, the men ignore Kate, talking about her, not to her. In the same way, Petruchio treats her like she doesn’t exist when telling the others of their wedding plans. In fact, Petruchio thinks so little of what Kate replies that Gremio, fearing that Petruchio’s presumptuous confidence will impede his own chances of marrying Bianca, reiterates what Kate initially says to him: “Hark, Petruchio, she says she’ll see thee hanged first” (II.i.292). Inexplicably, when Petruchio persists, she actually complies.
Kate’s compliance with Petruchio’s decree may surprise us, but if we consider her as essentially misunderstood by the other characters, her behavior may appear more understandable. The men view her as a shrew, but they care very little about the origins of her shrewish nature. Nor do they wonder why Kate chooses to maintain her behavior. If her temper results from her frustration with the dim-witted qualities of the men around her, one easy explanation for her acceptance of Petruchio would be that he is her equal in wit and willpower. Indeed, compared to the other suitors who simply run from Kate’s temper, Petruchio fires a countering shot at each and every one of her arrows. Petruchio displays an admirable wit, and, in this verbal duel of puns and double entendres, we see quintessential Shakespeare inventiveness and linguistic skill. On the other hand, Petruchio does not respect Kate, or at least he pretends to disrespect her for the sake of the game. It seems strange that Kate’s independent personality would be willing to accept someone who gives her just as little credit as did the other suitors merely because he can match her wit.
At the beginning of the scene, though, Kate shows that she may have another motive for complying with Petruchio. When fighting with Bianca, she admits that she is jealous because of the fact that her sister is being courted and will probably soon marry. She says to Baptista: “She [Bianca] is your treasure, she must have a husband. / I must dance barefoot on her wedding day, / And for your love to her lead apes in hell” (II.i.32–34). (Leading apes in hell refers to the lot of women who die old maids, unmarried.) Here, Kate appears to be frustrated by the fact that her biological clock is ticking, but she finds herself caught in a vicious circle: she hates the suitors because they do not want to marry her, and men will not marry her because she makes it so obvious that she hates them. Perhaps Petruchio’s indefatigable nature has broken the cycle, or it may be that he is the first man to speak kind words to her, even if he did not truly mean them.
Whereas Hortensio and Gremio make it very clear when they are put off by Kate’s sharpness, Petruchio amiably covers it up with praise: “For she’s not froward, but modest as the dove. / She is not hot, but temperate as the morn” (II.i.285–286). After Petruchio invokes this simile, Kate’s resistance falters. It will return, but Petruchio clearly did not miss the mark with his strategy, which capitalizes on her need for acceptance. In this scene, Kate shows that she is doubly miserable in her existence as an unmarried girl, having alienated herself from the society she despised. It may be that marriage represents a new beginning for Kate, a chance to take on a new social role and possibly find a more satisfying way to integrate herself into her surroundings.