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Petruchio and Kate are about to arrive at Petruchio’s country house. Grumio arrives first, however, complaining that he has been sent ahead to ensure that the servants prepare for the arrival of their master and his new wife. Curtis, another servant, greets him and hears his tale of the journey from Padua—Kate fell into the mud, Petruchio flew into a rage, and the horses ran away. Grumio then orders Curtis to assemble all the other servants, properly attired and on good behavior. Curtis calls for them, and a few arrive just as Petruchio and Kate return.
Petruchio immediately becomes enraged, claiming that his servants fail to attend him properly. They do their best, but clearly he is not pleased by anything. He demands dinner, and they prepare it as quickly as possible, but he claims that the meat is burned and pushes the whole meal off the table. In the meantime, Kate, visibly tired and hungry, pleads with him to be more patient with the servants. Petruchio cheerfully tells her that he demands much of them for her benefit—his new bride will receive nothing short of perfection, he says, pretending to ignore the fact that his new bride simply needs a hot meal. After taking her off to bed without food, Petruchio returns to the stage alone and announces his intentions. All his actions have been calculated to aggravate Kate and to keep her wanting, for he refers to her as a wild falcon that he must train to obey his call. He intends to prevent her from sleeping by making a fuss about the way the bed is made, just as he did with the food. This, he says, is the best way to “curb her mad and headstrong humour” (IV.i.190).
Read a translation of Act IV, scene i →
Back in Padua, Tranio (still disguised as Lucentio) and Lucentio (still disguised as the schoolmaster) are trying to conclude their scheme to win Bianca for Lucentio. Hortensio, distraught at having lost Bianca to his rival schoolmaster, takes it upon himself to inform Lucentio that he too is out of luck in his pursuit of Bianca. Tranio plays along, feigning surprise when he sees the real Lucentio and Bianca courting each other during their “lesson.” He pretends to be so angry that he decides to foreswear Bianca’s charms, and he convinces Hortensio to do the same—thus cleverly removing the competition.
Tranio informs Bianca and Lucentio of these events after Hortensio leaves. Hortensio has decided to marry a wealthy widow instead of Bianca and is leaving to go to Petruchio’s to attend “taming-school.” He wants to see how Petruchio handles Kate so that he can apply the lessons to his own marriage. Just as Tranio finishes the story, Biondello rushes into the scene with encouraging news: he has just seen a man entering Padua who would make a convincing fake father for Lucentio.
Tranio approaches the newcomer, learning that he is a pedant schoolmaster from Mantua. He then comes up with a story to put the old man in his debt: the dukes of Mantua and Padua, he says, are at odds with each other, and the duke of Padua has proclaimed that anyone from Mantua found in Padua shall be put to death. The pedant, frightened out of his wits, promises a favor to Tranio in exchange for protection. Tranio says that, as it happens, he is in need of someone to act as his father (meaning Lucentio’s father, Vincentio), and so they seal the agreement.
Read a translation of Act IV, scene ii →
With the beginning of Act IV, the play begins to stick even more closely to the alternating plot/subplot structure that it has followed loosely up to this point: for the next several scenes, the action alternates on a scene-by-scene basis between the Petruchio/Katherine story and the Lucentio/Bianca story. In developing the main plot, this section devotes itself largely to a gradually developing joke in which Petruchio frustrates Kate by using an exaggerated pretense of concern for her comfort to keep her hungry, tired, and generally uncomfortable. In developing the subplot, this section is devoted to the consequences of the increasingly complex series of disguises and deceptions that both enable and complicate Lucentio’s courtship of Bianca.
Petruchio’s monologue in Act IV, scene i explains most of what transpires in this scene, as he tells the audience of his scheme to bend Kate to his will. He will tame her as the falconer trains his bird, by holding lures out in front of it, just out of reach. All has been planned in his mind in advance: “Thus have I politicly begun my reign,” he says, where “politicly” means “with careful calculation” (IV.i.169). Petruchio wishes to bend Kate’s hostile temperament into benevolence by turning everything against her—ironically, under the guise of heightened concern for her well-being. He means to “kill [his] wife with kindness” (IV.i.189). Though Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is undoubtedly condescending and chauvinistic, it is nevertheless significant that Petruchio decides to “kill” her with kindness rather than with force. By couching his attempts to smooth out Kate’s rough temper in language of love and affection, Petruchio both makes himself more sympathetic in the eyes of the audience and opens the way for an actual loving relationship with Kate once she decides to accept her new role as his wife. Had Petruchio simply attempted to dominate his wife forcibly, he would have appeared monstrous to the audience, making a pleasant union impossible.
Though Shakespeare loves to use disguise as a means of transgressing social boundaries, in The Taming of the Shrew social roles and social positions are ultimately too binding to escape. This is one reason why the stakes are so high in Petruchio’s “game” with Katherine. Petruchio’s monologue indicates the importance of his plan. He understands that despite Kate’s independence, her only hope for achieving happiness lies in her ability to adapt to her role as a wife. Otherwise, she will be forced to continue the socially alienated misery of her life as a maiden, out of sync with her role in society. For Petruchio and Katherine, this negotiation is well under way, and, despite their frequent quarreling, it is aided by their obvious attraction to one another. But for the parties involved in the subplot, who continue to deceive themselves and those around them, uncharted waters lie ahead.
In Act IV, scene ii, the subplot nearly reaches complete success. Through the duping of Hortensio and the acquisition of the services of the naïve pedant, all obstacles between Lucentio and Bianca seem to be removed—except, of course, for the fact that the man Baptista knows as Lucentio is really Tranio. This was the fundamental flaw in the plan, which is why Biondello, perhaps the most sensible character in the play, later arranges for the two lovers to elope while Baptista speaks with the pedant. All in all, the whole scheme amounted to little more than an entertaining distraction, since the disguises cannot be maintained forever if Bianca and Lucentio ever wish to fulfill their desires.
From Biondello’s news, we see that the ploy has begun to unravel quickly, now that they have finally reached their goal. Once Lucentio and Bianca have married, they must either flee Padua or reveal their ruse, since Baptista soon expects to marry Bianca to the disguised Tranio. It would be no great matter for Lucentio to return to Pisa, or to go elsewhere, since he is wealthy and educated, but for Bianca it would mean abruptly leaving her family, friends, and inheritance. In fact, the young lovers don’t have the faintest idea what their married life will be like, since Lucentio has been acting a role from the beginning, and they have had to court each other in secret. They may represent the ideal of young love at first sight, but their love does not seem to be developing in a way that facilitates future growth.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!