We all know Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, but we are generally less educated in Shakespeare’s comedies. The fact of it is, though, that Shakespeare wrote more comedies than he did tragedies or histories. This review will focus on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, which, in my opinion, has some of the most controversial issues of any of the Shakespearean plays.
The play essentially tells the tale of a rich man who is desperate to see his two daughters marry into noble families. The youngest of the two, Bianca, has many suitors, and is admired for her beauty and modesty. Yet her father, Baptista, refuses to let her marry any of these suitors until his older daughter, Katherina, has married. Unlike her sister, Katherina does not have a single suitor; she is outspoken, loud, and, in contemporary terms, unlady-like, or, as one suitor calls her, a “fiend of hell” (Shr. 1.1.98). The play continues, disguise and intrigue entering its narrative, forming what is generally seen as an amusing story, fitting for what was labelled a “comedy”.
Petruchio: And you good sir. Pray, have you not a daughter
Called Katherina, fair and virtuous?
Baptista: I have a daughter, sir, called Katherina.
I, personally, found the above lines very amusing, but there are frequent periods of blunt comedy within the text, especially concerning Grumio, a servant to one of the suitors. Whilst not being directly named a “fool”, this is the role he seems to play, and strengthens the element of comedy in the play.
Despite this, the genre of “comedy”, in concerns to The Taming of the Shrew, has often been challenged. After all, whilst this is essentially a tale of romance, and thus presents the opportunity for comedy, it is a dark romance, the “shrew” in the title actually referring to Katherina, and the story depicting the “taming” of her outspoken personality, meaning that the end product of the play is a quiet, obedient Katherina who follows every word her husband says, her personality seemingly obliterated.
Petruchio, Katherina’s husband, forces her to endure several days without food and sleep, torturing her as a part of this “taming” process. Then, upon returning her to his father, he tests her obedience. He calls the sun the moon, and an old man a young maiden. Katherina, perhaps out of terror of her husband, agrees with him. This misogyny goes a step further, too; the very conclusion of the play depicts the husbands of Katherina and Bianca to have a bet, each claiming to have the most obedient wife. Petruchio wins the bet, having Katherina fondle his feet in front of the crowd, which includes her entire family.
Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew was designed for a patriarchal world where the woman was seen as lesser to man. The majority of its audience in the globe would have been men, and so it is easy to see why a play with what now is such controversial content, could have been, at the time, funny. However, this may look too bleakly on Shakespearean society. Whilst it is true that the play’s audience would not have the same views of equality that exist in modern society, for this was a time before the waves of feminism, many critics argue that not everyone would be able to laugh at Katherina’s torture at the hands of Petruchio. This is, of course, complete speculation, but some argue that the sexism is so blatant in the play, that Shakespeare actually uses satire to indicate the injustice in society, and, in this move, makes himself one of the first feminists (although he cannot be labelled as such, seeing as how the word “feminism” did not exist during his time, let alone a concept of this movement).
Regardless, The Taming of the Shrew is an exceptionally interesting play, if confusing on occasion, when more than half of the characters on stage are in disguise. It is funny, and it is thought-provoking; I would recommend giving it a read, or else checking to see if there are any recent performances of the play, seeing as Shakespeare was meant to be heard, not read on a page.
Note: the quotes in this post use line references from the Norton edition of the play:
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Dympna Callaghan, Norton, 2009.