”The Taming of the Shrew” is one of Shakespeare’s wittiest plays, though it is also one of his most controversial due to its depiction of gender relations. Both these aspects of the play are on display in the monologues by its two main characters, Petruchio and Katherine.
A Controversial Comedy
The Taming of the Shrew was first performed around 1594, making it one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s comedies.
While it was written early in his career, it includes many of the hallmarks of his best comedies: cutting wit, complex wordplay, and compelling meditations on gender roles and relations. However, on this last point, it is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays.Katherine, the opinionated and witty woman who is ‘tamed’ by her suitor Petruchio, shares qualities with other Shakespeare heroines like Rosalind from As You Like It and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. Like Rosalind and Beatrice, she is smart, outspoken, and independent, defying the gender expectations of Shakespeare’s day. In this play, however, she is treated quite differently. Those later Shakespeare heroines end the play with something close to equality with their male counterparts while Katherine is literally tamed by Petruchio through a plan of psychological and physical abuse.
She ends the play by submitting to his will and her ‘proper’ place as a wife.This seemingly regressive view of gender roles has made the play controversial today. These tensions, as well as Shakespeare’s complex wordplay, are apparent in the two long monologues, or solo speeches, spoken by Petruchio and Katherine.
Petruchio’s monologue occurs at the end of Act 4, Scene 1.
Having married Katherine at the behest of Hortensio, who needs Katherine to be wed so he can pursue her sister Bianca, Petruchio has taken her to his country house for their honeymoon. He lays out his plan to us, the audience, in a soliloquy, or monologue delivered directly to the audience, at the end of this scene.Petruchio compares his task to that of a falconer training a hawk and describes his plan to deprive her of food and sleep until he has broken her down, and she submits to him. He also describes how he will do this while pretending to care for her: ‘Ay, and amid this hurly I intend that all is done in reverent care of her’ (4.2.183-184). Summing up this plan of pretending to care for her while actually torturing her, he uses a phrase that has since entered the language as a common saying: ‘This is a way to kill a wife with kindness’ (4.
The fruits of Petruchio’s ‘taming’ are seen at the very end of the play. In Act 5, Scene 2 Katherine delivers a long monologue explaining that she has seen the error of her ways and submitting to Petruchio. Like Petruchio’s monologue, which opens with the falconer comparison, Katherine’s begins with a long metaphor. She compares a woman’s relationship with her husband to a subject’s relationship with his king.
She lists the ways a king protects his subjects and deserves respect, in the same way a husband should.She ends the monologue by exhorting her fellow women to follow her example: ‘Come, come, you froward and unable worms, My mind hath been as big as yours..
.But now I see our lances are but straws, our strength as weak, our weakness past compare’ (5.2.173-178). In this, she brings back the king-subject metaphor, comparing women to knights with lances made of straws.
Interpretation of Monologues
This disturbing portrait of a woman who has had her spirit broken by her husband’s psychological and physical torture disturbs many modern audiences. It seems out of character with other strong-minded Shakespearean heroines.
Some scholars attribute this to The Taming of the Shrew being one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. They argue that Katherine is the playwright’s early attempt at portraying an independent, fully realized woman.Other critics argue that there is a strong degree of irony in both monologues. Irony refers to a literary technique of saying one thing literally while intending something different.
For example, when Petruchio makes the audience members co-conspirators with his soliloquy, the audience is supposed to realize how disturbed his plan is. According to this reading, the audience should consider Katherine’s speech ironic in that she is knowingly playing the role of the subdued wife because it benefits her.
Like so much in Shakespeare, the monologues in The Taming of the Shrew are open to multiple interpretations. Taken literally, they seem to endorse the idea of a man torturing his wife into submission. They can also be read as ironic indictments of this practice.
Either way, they are full of vivid imagery and give us such iconic phrases as ‘kill a wife with kindness.’