The Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare and Spinoza

The Taming of the Shrew is an experimental play that throws new light on love from unexpected angles. The relationship between two people is always more tangled than we are inclined to think and is inevitably subject to change. Pairs of lovers like Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra may start out on the peak of a perfect partnership but nevertheless go under due to a combination of outer and inner conflicts. Therefore, the various imperfections of the parties concerned might as well be revealed and dealt with right from the beginning: A lover who is in no way a prostrate admirer may succeed where a romantically adoring wooer fails. The Taming of the Shrew is one of those fairy tales in which a rebellious fireworks of a princess is courted by an enterprising young man who employs all manner of unusual means to win her over.

The setting is Padua, where lovely Katherine is impossible to please. Everyone wants to be rid of the headstrong source of domestic disharmony, and her father will not let go of his younger daughter Bianca until the older one is married. For a long time, however, no man has the courage to take her on; then a cheerful fellow from Verona comes to propose. Petruccio tames the wild-cat and wins the princess.

The title indicates comedy. The heroine is seen squarely from the outside. This is confirmed in the prologue, in which a drunkard is found in a ditch and taken to a nobleman's house, where "The Taming of the Shrew" is put on as part of the entertainment. The play was written about as early as
Titus Andronicus, so it is pretty coarse-grained. Still, the plot is more than the story of a difficult girl. The taming process requires a series of measures which add to our insight into Shakespeare's view of ourselves.

Side by side with the shrew we find her mild sister and the story of how she is won by her wisest suitor. Lucentio plays the part of a school-master to gain access to Baptista Minola's household, because the good Baptista is unwilling to let his daughter manage her own marriage. Lucentio the student is fully prepared to work hard for a prize that can only be won by energetic endeavour. As a guideline he accepts Ovid's
Ars Amandi rather than the simple maxims of the Stoics or Aristotle. He especially appreciates the teaching that a fortunate result can only be obtained through pleasing the lady. His experience is less preached as a program than exhibited as a result. In Bianca's words: “I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times, But learn my lessons as I please myself”.

The framework of the comedy thus lies in what happens to the two sisters: the development of love from two different kinds of inauspicious beginning, through vicissitudes and the circumvention of obstacles, to improvement and final success. The story of our two couples makes a double experiment.

Petruccio and Katherine are the most important test case for the doctrine. They are in for a tough time, since the older sister too wants to have her own experiences but lacks pliancy and flexibility. Katherine behaves almost as if mad and is treated accordingly. She makes life hell and will therefore need a devil for a husband, is what her sister's suitors say as they flee in horror. The witch scolds Bianca and even ties her up and beats her whenever she feels like it. When dressed-up Hortensio tries to teach Katherine to play the lute, she gets irritated and bashes him over the head with the instrument.

Is Katherine a bit simple-minded? — No, she is really both quick and intelligent. Her ready wit manifests itself in her exuberant exchange with Petruccio in act 2. But her natural gifts are without direction; like Iago or Shylock she is a good head gone awry.

The background for her aberration is not revealed to us, though we know that older children often have a stricter upbringing than younger ones. However this may be, father is afraid of Katherine and so is Bianca. Big sister is therefore lonely, a loneliness made more profound because nobody understands her calibre of caustic joking. Katherine fears the worst and protects herself by forestalling rejection by her surroundings. She scoffs at the good-tempered Petruccio and hits him when he contradicts her. She starts to cry, though, when she has to wait for the bridegroom until the last minute before the wedding; when the marriage ceremony is over, she entreats him to stay for dinner with the family if he really loves her.

Petruccio's recipe

Such softer episodes appear by and by. The girl Petruccio meets to start with is a mess. Had he been a Romeo, he would no doubt have turned bitter and despondent and sought another woman. One of Bianca's suitors, the disappointed Hortensio, certainly consoles himself and weds a rich widow after Bianca rejects him.

But Petruccio is different. He is altogether free from any Iago-like touchiness, he does not hang his head like a Silvius of
As You Like It, nor is he old and tired like Bianca's Gremio, not even hasty and slightly simple-minded like Gremio's rival Hortensio.

What is he? Petruccio is rich, self-assured, fearless, poised, undaunted, undiscourageable, and of unflagging effort — almost like an experimental scientist! Like Spinoza Petruccio does not moralise; he is optimistic that people, if given right understanding, will show right conduct; and he finds a pragmatic way of inducing the required insight.

Nothing flusters him. When Petruccio wants something, he pursues his aim without fail; nothing can side-track him and nothing hold him off. He laughs at personal insults and promises to return beatings. He likes Katherine, even when she is strong and violent; and we are spared all confidences about her behind her back. Having an open eye for her good sides, her admirer praises her to others and means what he says. Compared to his own self-confidence he finds his sweetheart modest; he enjoys the verbal duel with her and straight away nicknames her Kate. He is furthermore quite open, readily admitting that others consider her a pest, but is still personal and enthused: “O let me see thee walk”, he asks. — When Katherine holds that his own wisdom will have to keep him warm, he quickly parries: “so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed.”

He is fully equal to Katherine. When she indicates she would rather see him on the gallows than at the altar, Petruccio's philosophical comment is: “'Tis bargained 'twixt us twain, being alone, That she shall still be curst in company.”

The crux of Petruccio's behaviour is that he breaks altogether with Katherine's expectations. The shrew is used to shocked withdrawal and flight on the part of her victims, but Petruccio ignores all such easy ways out and instead shows unfailing good will. Such behaviour is precisely what philosophers like Spinoza and Plato find necessary in order that harmful patterns may be changed. Life is full of tough beginnings like that of Petruccio and Katherine. When not tackled with firm determination, they are forever followed by new reverberations. For the world to be set right someone has to break the vicious circle. Such is the contribution of Rosalind, Viola and Petruccio. While such renewers can be found, there is hope. Once they disappear, we have the start of Romeo's funeral.

Petruccio's special technique is like that of a homeopath in that he fights fire with fire, but in small doses. When Katherine plays the shrew, he lets her taste a mild version of her own recipe. On their marriage he arrives at the church dressed as a scarecrow. He leads her to the altar, but swears and knocks the priest over, drinks from the altar wine and throws wafers at the sexton.

This behaviour has a strange effect on Katherine. For the first time in her life she is made to witness how her own conduct must appear to others. She is ashamed of her lover's behaviour, tries to tone him down, and starts to feel responsibility herself. After Petruccio has removed her from her family, she quickly turns the most reasonable of the two, even beginning to voice such arguments as used to be levelled at her by others.

In this way we witness a re-learning as intense and long as psychotherapy. Katherine's rebellious impulses recur, but with ever weaker force. Petruccio, on the other hand, goes very far indeed with his relentless cure:

The two are riding from the wedding, it is cold winter and pitch dark. The bride falls off her horse, but when the servant wants to help her up, Petruccio beats him because Katherine's horse stumbled. On arrival at Petruccio's country house the bride receives no supper. “'Tis burnt”, shouts Petruccio and throws the dishes at the servants. The weary wife is then brought to the bridal chamber; but the husband finds fault with their bed, flings the bedclothes around, rails and brawls and keeps her awake.

On the way back to Padua there are even more severe lessons in store for Katherine. They ride in balmy sunshine. “... how bright and goodly shines the moon!” exclaims the persevering teacher. “The sun”, replies Katherine scornfully, but is straightaway told that if so, they are to turn around at once.

The exercise goes on and on. Two o'clock is seven, Lucentio's old father is a handsome young woman. Katherine finally agrees to anything at all; but when she gives in, Petruccio immediately switches to the opposite point of view, accusing her of foolishly claiming that the sun is the moon, and asking her if she is demented, taking a withered old man for a girl? Thus Katherine is forced to contradict herself.

Petruccio's activity is strongly reminiscent of what we call brain-washing. As such it is certainly far beyond Spinoza's ethics and its moral standing perhaps questionable. So too is the apparent conclusion in the play's last scene, in which Baptista's two newly wed daughters and their husbands celebrate their unions with Baptista, Gremio, Hortensio, and Hortensio's jolly bride. The men lay a wager as to who has the most obedient wife. This bet is won hands down by Petruccio, with Katherine admonishing women to “unknit that threat'ning, unkind brow” towards their husbands. “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, Even such a woman oweth to her husband”; anything else is revolt against the natural order, women being weak and in need of their husbands' protection and provision. — During the taming process Petruccio had compared Katherine to a falcon, to be transformed into a useful instrument for its master. If these overt cues are taken as decisive for our interpretation of the play, we must conclude that it advocates the absolute subordination of women. Its only content is then a hilarious way of turning unreasonable, headstrong heiresses into obedient wives.

The second possibility is to consider the play as a comparison of different
ways of obtaining wifely compliance and contentment. Again Petruccio is the winner; both Lucentio and Hortensio have got themselves wives whose obedience is expressed mainly through an outer show of being mild and gentle, while they are privately bent on getting their own way.

What is the meaning of ‘sovereign’?

The relationship between Katherine and Petruccio points to a third interpretation. A difficult personality has had her destructive behaviour pattern amended. For the success of the process it is hardly decisive which of the parties is right on every issue — as early as right after the wedding, the wife has progressed to expressing the more sensible opinions. Nor is it a question of which of them should decide the direction; the tenor was set by Katherine when she demanded that whoever shouted the loudest should call the tune, while Petruccio only answers her challenge.

Are we in fact witnessing a power struggle at all? If Petruccio had gone on forever with his unreasonable behaviour, we would have been; but the point is precisely that he does not. There is nothing to indicate that the Veronese, like a Richard the Third, intends to drive his wife permanently mad to get rid of a rival for power. Katherine's attitudes to start with would have been detrimental to a harmonious married life. Petruccio's teaching leads her out of her raging and storms; and, this accomplished, the husband drops his bullying.

The respect accorded to Petruccio by Katherine at the end of the play is not a respect due to any husband or any male regardless. Petruccio tells the widow who has just become Hortensio's wife that her husband is already beginning to be afraid of her. She replies: “He that is giddy thinks the world turns round.” Self-confident Petruccio is not at all offended, and Katherine is now up in arms to disprove the accusation that he has a shrewish wife. We may all tend to project our own faults onto others; the distribution of blame and praise, rights and obligations all around is complicated and may in fact be without relevance. What develops through the conflict between Katherine and Petruccio and its resolution is a natural veneration for the bond of their common life and the forces associated with this community. The husband in this case represents the understanding of how important these facts are and how they can be realised through a rather rough and ready behaviour therapy. These are impersonal attitudes towards sensible behaviour and the value of rational arguments which anybody can learn.

Such is the background of the last act. Shakespeare's own opinion emerges in Katherine's words about a wife's relationship to her husband being analogous to a citizen's to his king. All we have previously discerned about Shakespeare indicates that he places
leaders in a special position, be they kings, judges or spouses. But a leader's privilege does not imply the right to arbitrary exercise of power. The leader is in charge of the goals and ideals of the community; if he abuses his trust, he must be stopped, as must Richard the Third, Macbeth or Lear.

In this special sense Katherine acknowledges Petruccio as
sovereign. A sovereign is he who needs no controlling authority above him and who still secures his flock, he who can hold and exercise power without abusing it. Katherine has come to know Petruccio as such a leader, and on this foundation they retire to bed together, in full harmony and to their mutual pleasure.

The Taming of the Shrew is an example of a promising reform of human personalities — in the small format of private life.