“And where two raging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.”
Few lines capture the essence of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew better than these words. Spoken by the brash Petruchio, they reveal his confidence in his ability to transform the sharp-tongued Katherina Minola into his agreeable, compliant wife.
Though no other man would take on the challenge of taming Padua’s infamous shrew, Petruchio relishes the opportunity. He assures his comrades that he fears neither her ill temper nor her harsh words, for his interest lies in her noble pedigree and considerable wealth, but his actions convey more than an idle curiosity in the beautiful young firebrand.
Before his first introduction to her, Petruchio witnesses the aftermath of her temper on his friend Hortensio, who had simply corrected her practice on the lute. Kate’s response to his criticism was to break the instrument over his head. Wounded and distraught, Hortensio flees the music chamber, the sight of which fuels Petruchio’s enthusiasm for the ensuing contest.
“Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench!
I love her ten times more than e’er I did.
O how I long to have some chat with her!”
He gets his wish. Believing that this stranger is just another fop pressed upon her by her desperate father, Kate greets him with all the disdain and waspishness for which she’s known. Petruchio neither shrinks nor runs from her aggression, but meets it with a determination and wit that equals her own. Their heated banter kindles a competitive spark and awakens an attraction between them that simmers throughout the entire play.
Though Kate insults him, threatens him, even slaps him across the face, Petruchio holds his ground, undeterred from his ultimate goal. When Kate finally exhausts the last of her ammunition, Petruchio stakes his claim.
“And therefore, setting all this chat aside,
Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife, your dowry ‘greed on,
And will you, nill you, I will marry you.”
But his profession doesn’t stop with that declaration. Petruchio states both the reason and purpose of his pursuit.
“Now, Kate, I am a husband for your turn,
For, by this light, whereby I see thy beauty—
Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well—
Thou must be married to no man but me.
For I am he am born to tame you, Kate.”
Again, Petruchio reveals an interest beyond conquest. He leaves no doubt of his intention yet cushions the blow with an acknowledgment she’d not received from any other man. Petruchio admits he likes her. That confession, coupled with the appeal of his intelligence and audacity, stays Kate’s objection to the marriage.
But even that becomes a battle of wills, the opening salvo launched by Petruchio’s outrageous behavior during the wedding ceremony and his insistence they leave immediately after, foregoing the customary celebration dinner. Not yet realizing the full force of Petruchio’s resolve, Kate refuses to leave and announces to the crowd that the celebration is to continue, with or without the groom. Not missing a beat, Petruchio takes his bride in hand, pronounces “I will be master of what is mine own,” and whisks her away without a backward glance.
The subsequent scenes are filled with actions that, under any other circumstance, would likely be considered abusive, but Shakespeare laces this comedy with a liberal dose of farce, offering his audience the chance to view the classic battle of the sexes with enough humor and hyperbole to keep them entertained and engaged. One can almost imagine the men’s shouts and the women’s groans when Petruchio explains how he’ll train his wife the way he trains his falcons. Likewise, we can well envision the women’s cheers when Kate again finds her voice:
“Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe.
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,
And rather than it shall I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.”
This fusion of spirit and intellect energizes the audience and encourages them to choose sides, drawing them deeper into the story, a true testament to Shakespeare’s unrivaled ability to captivate and amuse.
Though the play ends with Kate’s capitulation, critics and fans alike wonder just what Shakespeare meant to accomplish with Petruchio’s victory. Some contend that the bard was simply bowing to the conventions of his day, a time when women were expected to obey their husbands without question. Others argue Shakespeare was a visionary, that Kate’s final speech extolling the virtues of wifely submission was delivered tongue-in-cheek by a woman who was smart enough to make her husband believe he had the upper hand, only to manipulate him later with her feminine wiles.
I believe the truth is much simpler. Shakespeare knew how to please an audience, and he made it his priority to do so consistently. Experts today would say he was speaking to his tribe. He understood how they thought, and he sought to make them wonder and laugh and think. Little did he know that half a millennium later, his tribe would still be listening.
~ Vickie Price Taylor