In the eyes of the feminist critic Newman4 throughout the play Kate is not silenced, instead she propounds her views and articulates male language in a refusal to be controlled and categorised by the power structures by which men subordinate women. Kate describes Petruchio as ‘no cock of mine, you (Petruchio) crow too like a craven’. Her willing engagement in conversations containing sexual puns or innuendo emphasises her colloquial parity with Petruchio.
Thus it is Kate who is educating Petruchio rather than the latter educating the former about the role of women in marriage. By engaging in loquacious argument, Kate’s refusal to conform to the conventions of 16TH Century England acts as a sharp warning to Petruchio that he cannot simply bamboozle her into marriage. In the Zeffirelli production of the play, Elizabeth Taylor certainly portrayed a character of deep internal strength and fortitude, often hurling items at Petruchio in a physical as well as emotional resistance to his suppression.
Even when she seems to be silenced during Act II Scene I or suppressed in Act V Scene II as Kahn has argued ‘her spirit remains mischievously free’5. Her appearance is in sharp contrast to that of the ‘worthy’ Bianca. Her hair is unkempt, her clothes ripped and untidy, and she possesses a tense persona, quite unlike the almost shy and innocent persona of her sister. This illustrates the rebellious nature of Kate and her desire to remain independent, not tied to the needs of her sister and father.
However it would be quite narrow to confine one’s reasoning to a feminist argument – there are many other reasons why this play is not offensive. The play after all is a comedy, not a tragedy or drama. While it would be fair to accept that a suppression of Kate would have been appreciated by a 16TH Century audience, it can be doubted as to whether this is what Shakespeare intended. Surely he wouldn’t want to offend the country’s first female monarch so profusely? The audience is not supposed to derive entertainment from the ‘taming’ of Kate, but from the comic and farcical way in which their courtship and eventual marriage is delineated – as almost a battle of equals. The fact that the play has a happy ending and that both are triumphant emphasises this comic genre.
The plot’s structure underlines the notion that this play is a fantasy and not reality. The surreal induction scenes containing Sly, in which it is made clear that the pending performance is meant purely for his entertainment, introduces the theme of a play within a play and so is designed to detach the audience from the matters of the plot. It also represents a trail of conscious deceit, which links to the deception of Kate and Petruchio over the wager. Likewise the depicted fantasy of male domination also parallels with the views of H.G. Goddard earlier. The constant swapping of identities among the other characters again furthers the theory that all we are viewing is merely role-play.
In addition, although characters such as Tranio and Lucentio are Italian by name, but they are certainly not by nature, which again serves as a comic device that this play is not to be taken seriously. Therefore Kate’s final speech is to be no more believed than the deliberately inadequate disguises of Tranio and Lucentio, who in Zeffirelli’s production, look almost exactly the same before they undertook their ‘physical transformation’. This is evident in Shakespeare’s own stage directions when he instructs ‘enter Tranio, bravely disguised as Lucentio’.
If one were to accept that Kate is actually tamed, then it could still be convincingly argued that she in fact deserves the treatment she receives. One could certainly understand the attitude of Baptista in wanting to offload her to a husband – ‘my daughter Katherine, this I know, she is not for your turn’ he despairs. Kate’s behaviour does create fear in her sister, especially in Act II Scene I when Kate ties Bianca’s hands in attempt to find out who she loves and Bianca begs for mercy: ‘good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself, to make a bondmaid and a slave of me’. If Petruchio finally tames Kate then perhaps this acts as her comeuppance.
However, if one views other Shakespearian plays then one could certainly detect a number of outspoken female characters that are treated with much more sympathy: Emilia in Othello, Paulina in The Winter’s Tale and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. These plays were written after The Taming of the Shrew which may explain a possible trace of literary immaturity in Shakespeare’s writing. In this sense it could be argued that he didn’t intend to create the same degree of ambiguity at all.
The plot’s worthiness as a comedy for contemporary enjoyment as well as criticism reflects the fact that the themes considered within the play are still important in modern society. Indeed the play raises a number of pertinent questions about subjects such as the role of women, the role of and meaning of marriage, and the reasons for marriage, making it a worthy piece of educational literature. One can only find the play offensive if one finds modern society offensive because the themes of deception, gender differences, greed and want are prevalent in society today (both to the advantage and disadvantage of women).
The fact that we still live in a patriarchal society demonstrates that its structure has not fundamentally changed and therefore the play can not be considered an anachronism. The Taming of the Shrew only configures with the thoughts of other authors or poets such as Chaucer who in his Merchants Tale depicted an almost farcical marriage where the bride deceives and outwits her male counterpart in order to gain the marital domination. It is the play’s strength that it can be interpreted in many different ways. In addition to the conclusion that it depicts the suppression of women or the outwitting of men by women, a Marxist analysis may conclude the play as the gaining of status by the lower class mortal or as the force of love triumphing over want. Billington’s statement could only be correct if this play’s audience always considered the treatment of Kate to be profusely offensive. The fact that popular musicals such as Kiss Me Kate have been successful as well as many other similar productions highlights its worthiness as a play and reason to continue with its production.
One reason why the play should be continued in production is that it educates its audience about the historical contexts of 16TH Century Britain. Between 1550 and 1660 Britain was concerned with an intense preoccupation with women who are a visible threat to the patriarchal system. Shakespeare was not alone in writing about this subject, instead he actively engaged in the controversies of the day. The Taming of the Shrew challenges the assumption that the wife will simply submit to her master’s wishes as well as question whether this hierarchal structure can continue if it is threatened by rebellious behaviour.
It is clear that Billington has fallen into the trap by failing to recognise the extent to which Kate and Petruchio’s marriage is equivocal in addition to neglecting the ironic tone in Shakespeare’s argument. The Taming of the Shrew is successful in delineating two contrasting paths to marriage which, contrary to many observers’ primary viewpoints, illustrates Kate and Petruchio’s marriage as the happy one. Whereas Bianca and Lucentio’s courtship is ‘disguised’ and their marriage reveals their partnership as superficial and deluded, Kate and Petruchio systematically destroy each other’s disguises, and their ‘contract’ turns into a union of true, enduring love.
Indeed it may be noted that Billington himself only uses the word ‘seems’ and not ‘is’ and therefore it may be he who is utilising the device of ambiguity in an attempt to forge his own revelationist opinion. The very fact that contemporary versions of the play such as Ten Things I Hate About You have been popular demonstrates why there is reason to revive a play which clearly provides entertainment for a modern day audience.