Is it possible to stage Katherina’s final speech as a suitable closure and/or does it open up further problems for the audience /actor / director? William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, centres around the marriage of two sisters: Bianca, considered the epitome of beauty and obedience, and Katherina, the ‘shrew’ for whom the play is named. Bianca, the younger sister, cannot marry until a husband is found for Katherina. Of course, Katherina’s reputation as ‘ Kate the cursed’ makes this rather difficult.
Bianca’s suitors (Lucentio and Hortensio) find someone to ‘tame’ Katherina -Petruchio. This sets the stage for many different interpretations of the play for the audience, including the role of Katherina and the impact of her final speech. Unlike Petruchio’s character, which was dwelt on when the play was first written, Katherina’s character has only recently attracted much critical attention, particularly with the development of feminism.
Many modern critics might therefore concentrate on the aspects of gender and class throughout the play, especially those made in Katherina’s final speech. Earlier audiences, however, may have had different views, for example many may have commented on how the scene between Christopher Sly and his attendants was not resolved or the issue of Petruchio and his wife-taming tricks towards Bianca. It is therefore advisable to take into account the different expectations audiences have about the play.
I feel that the main problem, however hard one tries, is that it is not entirely possible to feel a sense of ‘closure’ at the end of the play. Throughout the last scene of Act V, Shakespeare builds up the dramatic tension of the characters, which leads to the climax of Katherina’s speech of submission. Looking at Katherina’s speech, it is noticeable that she has been tamed by Petruchio’s actions throughout the first four acts. Her monologue reveals that she now sees it is her duty to respect her husband and to be obedient to him.
Critics, however, have argued that it is not possible for such a person’s behaviour to change so drastically in such a short amount of time. The play takes place in a matter of days, too short a time to be able to tame such a ‘curst and shrewd’ character. It would take much longer to cure Katherina of this manner she possesses, with this in mind, it is very likely that Petruchio either liberated Katherina in how to control her fiery temper, especially since she has found mutual respect and a place in society.
In the play, it would also be difficult for Katherina to pretend she was acting, as she would have risked being discovered if she showed herself being aggressive with the other characters. Some twentieth century critics suggest that she does not speak with her own voice here and that a masculine voice has replaced the voice of the scold. It is however ironic that Kate’s speech, which rounds the play off, virtually silences the stunned male characters. As the audience, are we meant to understand that Katherina’s speech is a joke against the male actors in the play?
From the start of the play Katherina is ridiculed as a joke, often described as a ‘ wildcat’, ‘ an irksome brawling scold’ ‘ shrewd’, ‘ ill favoured’ and ‘cursed’. Some argue that Kate has a stereotypical role to play out, one which would have certainly been familiar to the Elizabethan audience. Kate, who has long been chastised by her father for the way she treats her sister, now gets the chance to play the role of dutiful wife, beating and berating Bianca in the process; this justified tirade earns her the approval and admiration for such a significant change in character.
What better ending could Kate wish than to be loved and praised by a husband who sees through her shrewishness to her spirit, while at the same time condemning Bianca in her sister’s chosen role. Her father, Baptista, is so impressed that ‘ the wager thou hast won, and I will add unto their losses twenty thousand crowns, another dowry for another daughter, for she has chang’d, as she had never before’. Katherina’s speech points out the weak, stereotypical nature of a woman.
In her speech, Katherina seems to be confirming the rights of patriarchical hierarchy, that ‘ her husband’ should be ‘ thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign. This reinforces the idea that Kate recommends total subservience to her husband. It is rather ironic that given that this is Katherina’s longest and most eloquent speech, it declares the other women’s weaknesses, as well as her own. It can be established that Katherina’s speech does provide a closure to a certain degree, but it also raises questions, especially those regarding context.
The Taming of the Shrew, was a topic of interest in Elizabethan times, and was written for a contemparas audience. This may be why critics have reacted so differently to this play. Some critics have claimed that Katherina’s speech should be read as an ironic demonstration of the patriarchy she seems to be endorsing; for example, George Bernard Shaw thought it was a product of Shakespeare’s ‘ immaturity’ of character.
He remarked that the last scene in which Katherina, the former ‘shrew’, accepts Petruchio’s total domination over her, thus winning a wager for him, is ‘altogether disgusting to modern sensibility’. Mark Von Doren views, that while we would be ‘outraged’ in life ‘a certain callousness’ is induced on stage in the beholder so that ‘ he will laugh freely and steadily for two hours’. He is in other words, saying that we can accept as comedy on stage what we could not accept in life.
These two critics are from the earlier part of the twentieth century accept that there might be problems with making comedy out of a cruel ‘ taming’ of a human being in order to bring her into life. Mark Von Doren’s view is one that I can concur with, Shakespeare wrote a play to entertain the Elizabethan audience, He did not write it to spark of feminist debates. Clearly today, one needs to remember that Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew as a comedy. It is however, certainly evident that as Michael Bogdanov suggested ‘Shakespeare was a feminist’.