Despite what many modern critics say, Shakespeare's plays are written from a profoundly Christian perspective. This site presents literary criticism demonstrating that. To submit your essay for publication (arguing either for or against this position), email us - kevin @

The Taming of the Shrew - or Rehab in Padua

Rehab in Padua

Who is the real head of the household in any family?

The Taming of the Shrew, or, Rehab in Padua
The Problem
Katherine Minola is a shrew.

Elizabethans, who never laid eyes on a Disney cartoon, would not have mistaken a shrew for a cute, cuddly, kindly mouse. They would know that a shrew is a vicious, relentlessly aggressive animal, the only mammal with poisonous venom, and that a shrew’s bite can kill an animal several times its size (which the shrew will then eat). Elizabethans had no illusions about how truly nasty shrews are.

It is a mistake to think that Katherine is justifiably angry for a specific cause. She is angry, but it’s not justified and there is no cause. Katherine binds (2.1.1) and strikes (2.1.22) her sister Bianca. Bianca tries desperately to supply a satisfactory answer to Kate’s questions, but, unable to do so, falls silent. Her father Baptista asks “Why dost thou wrong her that did ne’er wrong thee? When did she cross thee with a bitter word?” Katherine answers: “Her silence flouts me, and I’ll be revenged” (2.1.29). Revenged for what? She also strikes Petruchio (2.1.217), strikes Grumio (4.3.31), and insults everyone without provocation. Yet there is no cause for this behavior. She is wealthy, young, and beautiful (1.2.83). She has a loving father and sister. She lacked for nothing when being raised: Baptista says “I will be very kind, and liberal/To mine own children in good bringing up (1.1.100-101). Katherine herself admits “I . . . never knew how to entreat, nor never needed that I should entreat” (4.3.7-8). Her anger is unexplained and inexplicable.

This is irrevocably devastating to Katherine: she is unhappy in her fury and it is difficult to see how she could successfully and happily fulfill any of the roles open to her in Shakespeare’s imaginary Italy (or, for that matter, and anachronistically, our own world of today).

The Solution
The cure for Katherine is Petruchio.

It is a mistake to think that Petruchio is a lazy money-grubber, and it is a mistake to think that he is a misogynist bully.

With respect to wealth and industriousness, Petruchio tells Hortensio us that his father has died and that he has been “Left solely heir to all his lands and goods/Which I have bettered rather than decreased.” (2.1.117-118). He is generous, offering to leave Katherine “all my lands and leases whatsoever” (2.1.125) upon his death. He is hard-working, noting in multiple conversations that he is anxious to keep working (2.1.74, 2.1.114, 3.2.185) and even at the play’s concluding banquet complains those there do “Nothing but sit and sit, and eat and eat!” 5.2.12). Katherine’s handsome dowry (1.2.54-55), as well as the bribes of Gremio (1.1.138), Hortensio (1.2.211-212), Gremio again (1.2.213), and Tranio (as Lucentio) (1.2.265-266) to marry Katherine are all offered to him prior to his asking. He does say (after Hortensio’s telling him of Katherine’s dowry) “wealth is a burden of my wooing dance” but it is never hinted that Petruchio is a selfish or greedy man. When he says to Hortensio “Thou know’st not gold’s effect” he may mean that he seeks money for use toward a noble goal.

With respect to being a misogynist bully, it is important to put in context Petruchio’s goal, and to do this it necessary to examine the four frauds perpetrated in the play.

  1. In the induction, a Lord concocts an elaborate ruse to deceive the drunkard Christopher Sly that Sly is a nobleman rather than a commoner. The ultimate purpose of this ruse is not clear. The fraud runs through the induction, appears in 1.1.242-246, and then is not mentioned again.
  2. From 1.1.188 – 5.1.107, Lucentio and Tranio conspire to deceive those of Padua that Lucentio is a scholar and tutor named Cambio and that Tranio is Lucentio, in order that Lucentio (Cambio) may subvert Baptista’s plan to keep Bianca from all suitors until after Katherine is married. Lucentio first pointlessly lies to his other servant Biondello (1.1.225-226), telling him that the cause of his exchange of identity with Tranio is a murder. Lucentio then lies to Gremio, his sponsor, whom he tells “Whate’er I read to her, I’ll plead for you” (1.2.150), and, of course, misrepresents himself to the Minola household and Petruchio. This ruse is dropped after Lucentio achieves his goal of marrying Bianca, after nearly getting his own father Vincentio jailed. While Lucentio achieves the goal of marriage with Bianca, the last words between the newly wedded couple are an acrimonious spat wherein Lucentio berates Bianca for losing him money and Bianca calls him a fool (5.2.135-138).
  3. From 1.2.128 – 4.2.17, Hortensio pretends to be music teacher named Litio, also in order to subvert Baptista’s plan to keep Bianca from all suitors until after Katherine is married. Hortensio lies to Baptista (his neighbor and the father of the woman he wishes to marry) and to Gremio (breaking their “parle” agreed in 1.1.113-134). Hortensio drops this ruse when he learns that Bianca favors “Cambio” (actually Lucentio). This occurs in 4.2.1 – 4.2.17, a deliciously “meta” scene wherein Hortensio as Litio meets with Tranio as Lucentio, which is thus a play (Litio and Lucentio in the scene) within a play (Hortensio and Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew), within a play (two players, in the play put on for Christopher Sly as described in the induction). Hortensio foreswears Bianca and vows to wed a wealthy widow, but despite “going to school” with Petruchio, ends up at odds with the new wife in Act 5.
  4. From 2.1.131 - ?, Petruchio pretends (?) to be “as peremptory as she [Katherine] proud-minded” with the goal of curing Katherine of her fault. As he announces this, Petruchio states that “extreme gusts” will extinguish both his peremptory and her proud-minded nature, “So I to her and so she yields to me” (2.1.136). Note the “I to her” in this statement. In 4.1 and 4.3, at Petruchio’s estate, Petruchio prevents Katherine (and simultaneously himself) from eating and sleeping, orders dresses to be made and then sends them away, and in general acts the opposite to Katherine as the Lord does to Christopher Sly in the induction, where Sly is treated to a comfortable bed in the “fairest chamber”, music, aromatic fragrances from “sweet wood”, baths in warm scented water, food and drink, fine clothes, and everyone doing his every bidding. Both may be viewed as rehabilitation exercises; it seems obvious that treating a drunken sluggard to wine and a comfortable bed is a recipe for failure, and the induction scene may be making the point that there’s no easy way to rehabilitate bad habits (of drunkedness and sloth, or of anger). Petruchio, as he summarizes in 4.1.165-188, has an entirely different plan than that of the Lord in the Induction, and he concludes humbly enough “He that knows better how to tame a shrew/Now let him speak; ‘tis charity to show.”

Petruchio’s efforts are to cure Katherine, not to subjugate her to his will because of a need to exert male dominance. The greatest problem current audiences have with the play is that they do not understand the Elizabethan view of marriage. The two sections that make audiences clench their teeth are: 1. Petruchio’s announcement as he takes Katherine away (over her protestations) after the wedding and before the reception; and 2. Katherine’s speech at the end of the play.
Before reviewing these, note that the Elizabethan (Christian) view of marriage would follow from St. Paul’s description in Ephesians 5.21-33:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, since, as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church is subject to Christ, so should wives be to their husbands, in everything.
Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy by washing her in cleansing water with a form of words, so that when he took the Church to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless.
In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself.
man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because we are parts of his Body.
This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh.
This mystery has great significance, but I am applying it to Christ and the Church.
To sum up: you also, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband.

Husbands and wives are to be “subject to one another”, just as Petruchio says he when telling Baptista of his plans for Kate “So I to her and so she yields to me” (2.1.137). Petruchio accepts his role of leadership1 but also his role of sacrifice for his wife. After their marriage and when Petruchio announces that he and Kate will not stay for the reception (as it is, as they say, time to “stage the intervention”), he says:
They shall go forward, Kate, at thy command.
Obey the bride, you that attend on her;
Go to the feast, revel and domineer,
Carouse full measure to her maidenhead,
Be mad and merry, or go hang yourselves:
But for my bonny Kate, she must with me.
Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret;
I will be master of what is mine own:
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing;
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare;
I'll bring mine action on the proudest he
That stops my way in Padua. Grumio,
Draw forth thy weapon, we are beset with thieves;
Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man.
Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch
thee, Kate:
I'll buckler thee against a million.

Katherine is “my chattels” but so much more: she is also “my any thing,” that is, all that he has and is and for whom he is willing to sacrifice all that he has and is. Note that he has also commanded the other guests to follow Katherine’s orders.
Katherine’s speech at the end of the play, after her “successful rehabilitation”, is enough to make the current crop of feminists vomit:

Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

For those who believe that men and women are “the same” (not at all what St. Paul or the Elizabethans thought), there is much to hate in this speech. Perhaps one way of mitigating this hatred is to believe that Katherine delivers the speech ironically. Another way of mitigating the hatred might be to think that Katherine and Petruchio concocted the sequence of events in the entire last act as a way of extracting more resources for their (now mutual) noble goal that Petruchio has chosen for his (now their) money. Another way of mitigating the hatred is to consider that Katherine may be passing through a phase, and that after this phase she will reach a mean between her previously headstrong, completely independent but destructive behavior and her current seeming obsequious subservience.

Kate is a shrew, Petruchio cures her of this condition, and the two live happily ever after (5.2.117-119):
Here is a wonder, if you talk of a wonder
And so it is. I wonder what it bodes.
Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life
And awful rule, and right supremacy,
And, to be short, what not’s that’s sweet and happy?

Understanding Ephesians 5.21-33 means understanding that Petruchio is talking of not of his rule, but of Christ’s rule.
Those who would apply our current standards of rehabilitation or marriage to Shakespeare’s era should consider two things:
  1. This is an anachronistic disservice to the greatest author who ever lived.
  2. Maybe the Elizabethans were onto something: half of marriages in the United States now end in divorce and the success of our rehabilitation facilities is even worse.
1 Indeed when in his home and on the route back to town, he tolerates no contradiction, says day is night and night is day, and “turns man into woman”.