Shakespeare, the Metadramatist: A Feminist Perspective on The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew may have represented a somewhat progressive view of the best way to treat a wife at the time it was written (Newman 232), but for twentieth- and twenty-first-century feminists, it is hard to watch. Despite the comedic effects that make for a lively production start to finish, when Petruchio drags Kate away from her own wedding reception, insisting she is his “chattels” (3.2.236), when he deprives her of food and sleep until she learns to bend her will to his entirely, it is hard not to squirm in discomfort, even if we know Petruchio to be a caricature. Though Kate is outrageously rude, without the assumption that she should be still and compliant—that domination is a given and the strategies for achieving it the only question—Petruchio’s behavior comes across as nothing short of abusive. Therefore, the end of the production by The American Conservatory Theater of San Francisco deserves careful regard. After Kate harangues Bianca and the Widow, proclaiming it the wife’s duty to obey her husband, and earns a kiss from Petruchio, she turns to the audience and winks. The choice is bold. But does the text justify this choice? Or is it a concession to modern sensibility and an act that does violence to the central intention of the text? I will argue that the wink is in fact justified, and that it, moreover, makes the play palatable for a modern audience with a feminist sensibility, for it foregrounds one of the play’s themes that in turn contains a feminist impulse: We all play roles thrust upon us by others. While anyone can be forced to pretend to obey another, it is foolish to believe coercion can inspire true subservience, something all too often demanded in particular of women. Kate may have learned to behave herself, but her identity has not dissolved into Petruchio’s.
Petruchio subjects Kate to food and sleep deprivation during the week between their wedding and the date scheduled for Bianca’s, but despite the abuse, she fails to turn into the compliant wife he wants. Her final words to Petruchio before he first decides they will depart for Bianca’s wedding express her displeasure at being denied the dress the tailor has made for her: “Belike you mean to make a puppet of me” (4.3.109). Though it is clear that she wants the dress (4.3.107-108), her complaint expresses hurt pride, a sign of a strong sense of self, and there is nothing to suggest that she is coming to terms with her reality—no backing down or willingness to accede to Petruchio’s demands. It is therefore somewhat surprising that he agrees to head for her father’s house, especially since he immediately changes his mind when Kate disagrees with his assertion that they will arrive by dinner time (4.4.195). Despite the fact that she has shown no sign of submitting to his whims, he has agreed to set out.
When Petruchio calls off the trip when Kate fails to parrot his absurd pronouncement that they will arrive at Baptista’s by dinner time, Kate must realize that he will demand utter compliance. Nonetheless, when he agrees once again to begin the journey and, once again, tests her, still she shows no change of heart:
Petruchio. Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
Katherine. The moon? The sun. It is not moonlight now.
Kate challenges Petruchio, and she continues to challenge his absurd proclamations until Hortensio1 pulls her aside and says, “Say as he says, or we shall never go” (4.5.13). Immediately Kate gives in. The suddenness of her shift in attitude and the fact that Hortensio suggests that she dissemble make it clear that her change is externally motivated rather than evidence of any genuine change of heart. In case the point is not obvious enough, the playwright shows us Kate and Petruchio happening upon Vincentio. Kate proceeds to claim, because Petruchio bids her do so, that Vincentio is a beautiful young virgin (4.5.41-45) only to immediately apologize for her mistake when Petruchio suggests she must be mad (4.5.49-53). The effect is comedic because of the play with gender and age. But what is the meaning of Kate’s exaggerated obedience? Clearly, she knows Vincentio is no young virgin girl. Kate has made a conscious choice to say what Petruchio insists on hearing. It is the point of the scene.
And so the wink is justified. Whatever its particular significance—whether it means that she does not mean what she just said, or she has figured out how to get Petruchio to treat her well—it signifies that Kate and the audience share a secret that Petruchio is not privy to. It assures us that Kate has not succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome.2
That the harangue and the wink come at the end of a wager that involves six people is not coincidental. Rather than discussing their wives, Lucentio, Hortensio and Petruchio lay bets on their wives’ obedience, and so a performance must follow in order to settle the bet. In the very act of showing off their control in front of others, in other words, the men make fools of themselves. And Hortensio should know better—after all, he has gone to Petruchio’s for “taming school” (4.2.56) and claims to have learned how to tame his widow (4.5.82-84). Moreover, if anyone “tamed” Kate it was he—it is at his suggestion that she adopts the strategy of pretending to do Petruchio’s bidding as noted above. But friendly feelings prevail, the men take the joke in good spirit, and it is clear to all that though these men have married women who have wills of their own—perhaps even women who dissembled on purpose to get what they wanted—no great harm is done. Indeed, the incident suggests that a balance of power between men and women is the norm, and that it is not unusual for people, indeed women in particular, to say one thing and do another. Nonetheless, before these audiences and certainly in his own mind, Petruchio remains the hero, the man who instilled absolute obedience in the most ungovernable of women. But to us, the “outer” or “real” audience, Kate has signaled that things are not as they seem to Petruchio and his admirers, that she, too, wears a mask for her husband.
We, the audience, then, sit and watch the characters slip in and out of different identities, both externally, by assuming disguises, and internally, by pretending to be someone they are not. Moreover, there is an audience on stage, viewers, like us.3 They are, at the same time, being watched—they are players. Are we, then, players, too? By placing the play within a play, Shakespeare suggests as much—the metadramatic moment implies that we, like the players, shift our identities. The characters do so to gain social standing, avoid disaster, help others, get what they want, or just simply to survive. No moral judgment is implied—it’s comedy, and it shows us the truth about human beings with gentle good humor. By putting on the story as a play within a play, Shakespeare reminds us that these characters are not real—and he suggests that the audience is not, either. Kate’s wink assures us that she, too, has slipped into a disguise. Her gesture confirms the message that she, like the presumably more compliant women, is playing a role, adopting an identity, saying the lines that Petruchio needs to hear. The message is unequivocal: Petruchio can force Kate to his will and say what he wants to hear, but he does not control her internally, no more than Hortensio and Lucentio control their wives.