Tamed or Broken: A look at Petruchio and Kate’s relationship in “The Taming of the Shrew”

“Bonny Kate… super-dainty Kate… Kate of my consolation” (2.1.186-190), all these terms of endearment fall short of impressing Shakespeare’s curst Katherina when she first meets her husband-to-be, Petruchio, in the play “The Taming of the Shrew”. Shrew that she is, Kate spars with him verbally, and even strikes him during their first meeting, but by the end of the story, Petruchio appears to have tamed his Katherine. Her famous last monologue in which she states that “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign” (5.2. 146-147) is a far cry from her attitude in the beginning of the play, and leaves the audience wondering just how sincere the sentiments of the speech are.  Based upon the previous interactions between the two characters, the textual evidence implies that while Kate has not sacrificed her spirit entirely, she has learned how to control her temper and maintain a feisty, yet respectful relationship with her husband.

While some folks might state that Kate was forced into the marriage with Petruchio, upon further examination of their first encounter, Shakespeare utilizes stichomythia to prove how well suited the two are for each other. Just as rapidly as Kate throws insults at Petruchio, he parries and tosses them right back. Take for instance when she orders him to leave, saying “Remove you hence. I knew at first you were a moveable” (2.1.196-197), calling him a piece of furniture, to which his reply is “Thou hast hit it, come sit on me” (2.1.198), and she hits back with “Asses were made to bear and so are you” (2.1.199) and he strikes a verbal blow, saying “Women are made to bear and so are you” (2.1.200).

No other characters in “The Taming of the Shrew” have this kind of repartee, and it just goes to show exactly how compatible the two are. Petruchio is the only person who can keep up with Kate’s mental agility. Apart from Katherina and Petruchio, this form of dialogue is seen in another Shakespeare couple’s repertoire. Beatrice and Benedick from “Much Ado about Nothing”, where it is also used to emphasize the couple’s mental compatibility, so if we are to assume that the two couples possibly parallel each other, this argument is quite simply, Elizabethan-era flirting, Shakespeare-style. Furthermore, Petruchio tells her “Give me but thy hand Kate” and she literally does so, which results in something called hand-fasting, a part of betrothal ceremonies during this time period. This works as a binding contract, usually for a year and a day, or as long as love shall last. When Katherina places her hand in Petruchio’s, that signifies her consent to the marriage.

After the wedding takes place, with all the fuss about Petruchio’s lack of proper wear, Petruchio literally packs up and pulls Kate out of their reception early, heading on the road to his house. From this point on is where some claim that Petruchio abuses Katherina, but to my eye, it seems as though he is merely giving her a taste of her own medicine and how her rude behavior affected those around her. When the newly wedded couple arrives at Petruchio’s home, they (especially Kate) are soaking wet, starving and chilled to the bone. Petruchio goes about striking and shouting at his servants, much like Katherine did to her sister and schoolmasters, and now it becomes Kate’s turn to calm Petruchio down, protesting for him to have “Patience, I pray you. ‘Twas a fault unwilling” (4.1.150).

Whether the fault was willing or not, Petruchio finds fault with everything, including the meat that is intended to be their supper, claiming that “ ‘twas burnt and dried away” (4.1.164),  despite Kate’s claims that “The meat was well  if you were so contented” (4.1.163). The last half of the sentence is a new turn of phrase for Katherina, who has never used pleases and thank you and “if you were so contented”. Until now, the only concern for her has been her own pleasure, not anyone else’s. Peter the servant puts it into perspective with a single line, explaining directly to Nathaniel, and indirectly to the audience, for those thick enough not to understand it: “He kills her in her own humor” (4.1.173), proving that Petruchio’s intention is merely to give Kate a taste of her own medicine, not to necessarily abuse her.

One must recall that while Petruchio’s behavior might seem cruel, he is inflicting the same punishments on himself. Instead of putting Katherine down and making an underling of her, Petruchio refers to her as a falcon, a majestic bird of flight. While he admits that he intends to “rail and brawl” (4.1.200) all night long, this means that not only Kate gets no sleep, but neither does he. Interestingly, though this should be the time when the marriage is consummated, we find no such mention of any sort of conjugal relations, instead all we have is Petruchio’s ardent claim that:

“This is a way to kill a wife with kindness

And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.

He that knows better how to tame a shrew,

Now let him speak-‘tis charity to show” (4.2.201-205).

The lack of sexual implication in this night strikes me as a kindness. While Petruchio could easily have demanded his marital right of Kate, and used it as a method of taming her, he chooses instead to keep her awake all night by tossing and shouting and ruining the sheets, not through rape, which in my eyes makes him a better man. Far from being a cruel tyrant, Petruchio is causing her discomfort, but not pain. Through slight discomforts, he is training her, much as we do to young children, teaching them with a word here and there, the rescinding of certain privileges, and sometimes even a spanking, the last of which Petruchio is man enough not to utilize.

The true turning point of the relationship and the final straw for Kate seems to be when Petruchio ruins the gowns the dressmaker has created. After that point, it seemed that Katherina was willing to throw her hands in the air and simply play Petruchio’s game, rather than sticking with her own hardheaded perspective no matter what the consequences are. At the beginning of Scene 5, it seems that Kate begins as her usual self, claiming to Petruchio that “I know it is the sun that shines so bright” (4.5.5), to which her husband replies solidly “It shall be moon or stars or what I list, Or ere I journey to your father’s house” (4.5.7-8). From this moment on, the battle to tame Kate is more than half won. When he keeps changing his mind about what he’s calling the sun/moon, clever Katherina solves the scenario in four lines:

“But the sun it is not when you say it is not,

And the moon changes even as your mind.

What you will have it named, even as that it is,

And so it shall be so for Katherine” (4.5.19-22)

By changing her view, I don’t see that Kate has relinquished her spirit and strength as a woman. Yes, she has stopped throwing things and having temper tantrums, but I see this as the excuse she’s wanted to cast off the stigma of being a shrew. Katherine used to fume and become angry because her father favored the perfect white Bianca, who was really just putting up a perfectly innocent farce. Now, Kate has less to be angry about. While Petruchio originally married her for her money, they are surprisingly well-suited for each other and despite trying to tame her, Petruchio has treated her fairly well. Actually, in a way, Kate has tamed Petruchio as well. At the beginning of the tale, the two were irritating, headstrong and obnoxious. Through the course of the plot, both characters have evolved to become quite different and rather more civilized on the whole.

The same Kate who once disdained the idea of Petruchio as a husband, recoils at the idea of kissing him in public. However, when Petruchio asks her “What, art thou ashamed of me?” (5.2.144), where the answer would have been yes, instead now, Kate’s reply is “No sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss” (5.2.145). She does not resent Petruchio, but has learned good manners in her time away from her father’s house. After supper when the men are wagering on their wives, the good Bianca and the widow show their true faces. Bianca has spent her whole life playing the innocent obedient angel to snag an eligible man. Now that she has reached her goal, she intends to relax and allow her true personality to come out.

Neither Bianca nor the widow come when summoned by their husbands, the widow even having the nerve to bid her husband to come to her instead, but Katherina the curst, now tamed, appears, dragging the other two women out with her. Upon Petruchio’s command, she tosses the cap she’s wearing onto the ground, that cap that she so highly coveted that the haberdasher brought. She has changed from the Kate who sat like a petulant child whining over an accessory. Instead, the audience sees a woman, not a girl, who realizes that there are more important things in life. Kate realizes that good humor and decorum matter more than material goods and outward pride.

In her final speech, we see the maturity of the new Katherine. While some critics may claim that her spirit has been broken and that the monologue is anti-feminist, I find cause to disagree. Kate emphasizes not only the duty of women to men, but also vice-versa, the duty of men to women. She states that your husband is the one “that cares for thee. And for they maintenance commits his body to painful labor both by land and sea” (5.2.146-148). Yes, women should “place your hand below your husband’s foot, in token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready, may it do him ease” (5.2.176-179). However, that duty is an exchange, not an obligation. The duty of men is to care for women, only then do they receive the sweet favors of their lady-love. Should they neglect their duty, or be cruel, then the woman has no obligation to fulfill the duty to be kind and welcoming towards her husband. Interestingly, after this speech has been made, upon Petruchio’s request, Kate does kiss him, and the final words that are said from the lips of Petruchio are:

“Come Kate, we’ll to bed.

We three are married, but you two are sped.

‘Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white,

And being a winner, God give you good night” (5.2.184-187).

Through this we finally see, what appears to be the consummation of Kate and Petruchio’s marriage. Only when Kate displays love for her husband openly does he bed her properly. Before this, though they shared a bed, Petruchio was too busy taming his falcon to fly her properly. Now that they are equals, does Shakespeare allow for that announcement to be made, thereby proving that Kate’s spirit is not broken. Petruchio has won, not only the wager, but the war with his bride, and also he is the winner out of the three men in choice of a wife. For while Lucentio thought that Bianca was the pure white fleur that would be a jewel in his household, he now he realizes he is doomed. While Petruchio and Kate fought a long, hard battle, they came out the victors, both as better people, and honest lovers, spirits intact, feisty as ever, only now with a touch of dignity and respect for others as well as themselves..

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