All Commentary
Thursday, July 3, 2014

How to Woo a Shrew

William Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew. Circa 1591.

In Robert Heilman’s introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, he notes that, broadly speaking, there have been two ways to read Kate’s final speech. Either she has been “tamed” and her speech is sincerely submissive, or she presents us with a tour de force of irony.

The problem is that the first reading seems too dull and tidy in the context of this play’s manic force and in the context of Shakespeare’s other plays. The second reading seems too simple, far too modern, and ultimately divorced from textual evidence. The audience is left, in the first case, with a triumphant Petruchio and a defeated Kate whose claws have been removed entirely, and who has little dramatic interest or purpose left. In the second case, one is left with a defeated, hoodwinked Petruchio, and with a defiant Kate who has not changed or learned at all since her violent opening scenes.

Both sides of the argument are wrong.

Instead of a moment of submission or of trickery, Kate’s final speech is best seen as her final, and thoroughly enthusiastic, agreement to play with Petruchio. It is her agreement that they, and they alone, construct the rules that govern the intimate order of their marriage. They can take what they like of societal convention—good food, good clothes, comfort—and leave what they find nonsensical—prohibitions on kissing, insistence on women’s silence. They will be misread by those who surround them, but they can enjoy that misreading and play with it, knowing the truth about their intimate order, walled off by banter, wit, and shared admiration.

That reading of the play seems a pretty long way from the warring Petruchio and Kate we all have in mind. But it is helpful to take Petruchio at his word that he intends to “woo [Kate] with some spirit.” After all, “woo” and “wooing” appear more than twice as often in the text of the play as “tame” and “taming.” Indeed, Petruchio makes no mention of any desire or need to tame Kate until after she strikes him. Petruchio does make it clear, though, both in his intent to woo with “some spirit” and in his assurance to Baptista that he will “woo not like a babe,” that his approach to Kate will not be tempered by the combination of contempt and terror that has marked the interactions that other men have had with her. He will approach her as an adult, and not as a cowed child. And so he does.

The rapid-fire banter that opens act two is some of Shakespeare’s most enduring comedy. It has direct modern descendants in the classic Hollywood romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s and in nearly every American television comedy. We can’t get enough of the witty, sparring, courting couple. Shakespeare couldn’t either, and similar bantering shows up in As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and bizarrely, Richard III. But what is this rough wooing, this bantering approach to seduction? Why does it work? And do Petruchio and Kate use it to achieve a relationship that is more intimate and more preferable than the more conventional relationships that surround them?

Joking, and bantering in particular, implies and establishes intimacy. So when Kate responds to Petruchio’s slightly impertinent greeting, “Good morrow, Kate, for that’s your name, I hear,” with the increasingly impertinent and punning reply, “Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing./ They call me Katherine that do talk of me,” she simultaneously denies intimacy by refusing to allow him to nickname her and invites intimacy by beginning to banter with him. When Petruchio responds with a rococo rhetorical display of puns on the very nickname she has told him not to use, the scene is truly underway, and the bantering that the audience and (I think) Kate and Petruchio find so delicious and so intellectually and sexually stimulating has truly begun.

What the linguist Geoffrey Leech has called “the banter principle” can help explain the significance of the moment when Kate hits Petruchio. They have just reached the bawdiest point of the scene (the series of puns on tongues and tales) when Petruchio, perhaps feeling he’s gone a bit too far or perhaps simply having satisfied himself that Kate has the wit to spar with him intelligently, seems to ask Kate for an end to the banter and an opportunity to speak seriously with her about marriage: “Nay, come again. /Good Kate, I am a gentleman.” She responds, “That I’ll try,” and hits him. Petruchio warns her that she will only be able to do so once without reprisal, and the conversation returns to its former tone. What has happened here? Petruchio seems to have begun to make a suggestion that they move from the intimacy of bantering to a more serious intimacy. Kate, angered by his haste, distrustful of his motives, or unnerved by the suddenly apparent seriousness of his intent, strikes out with a physical blow, which violates all the unstated rules of their interactions and of bantering in general. Petruchio warns her that these rules have been broken, and the scene returns to its former merry tone.

A related change in tone occurs when Kate attempts to flee the room, insisting, “I chafe you if I tarry. Let me go.” Petruchio’s response is to resist her honest desire to leave by keeping her in the conversation with another flight of rhetorical fancy, this time blended with what may well be honest compliments. While Kate tries to forestall this new tone in Petruchio’s wooing by meeting his comments with banter, it still leads almost immediately to his statement that he will keep Kate warm, “Sweet Katherine, in thy bed.” Note the additional intimacy and sexual charge of his use of her full name here, for the first time in their conversation. Both of these moments, then, are times when Kate or Petruchio try to move the scope of their conversation outside the bounds of the banter principle and toward something more serious and more explicitly intimate. In each case, the banter has led directly to the moment of greater intimacy, and in both cases it is used as a way to draw the pair closer to each other, while still keeping them apart.

Couples who base their courtship and seduction interactions on bantering and argument create intimacy not only through the workings of Leech’s banter principle but in the creation of a linguistically created intimate order, entry into which is determined by the ability to “keep up” with the linguistic fireworks required and by the willingness to indulge in them—at least initially—to the exclusion of one’s relationships with the rest of the world.

This withdrawal from society takes us to the second stage of Petruchio’s spirited wooing, which begins with his ill-clad arrival at his wedding ceremony and continues through his famously rude treatment of Kate. But while Petruchio beats his servants and destroys property, he never uses violence against Kate. This is, as noted earlier, kinder than Kate has been to him. What Petruchio does instead is insist again and again, first that Kate learn to inhabit, and then that she enjoy inhabiting, the intimate order that they have been creating together since their first meeting.

Petruchio, like all the most expert flouters of convention, is a master of the conventions that he flouts. No slave to conventional behavior, he is well aware of the social niceties (gifts, polite introductions, gentlemanly bearing, ancestry, and behavior) and is willing to use them when appropriate to make life easier and more pleasant. He is equally aware that his behavior on his wedding night—starving the bride, tearing apart the bed, preaching a ranting sermon on continence—will inspire a similar effect—emphasizing the importance and pleasure of a good husband to Kate by her shocked reaction when she is presented with a bad one.

What is happening here seems deeper and more important than simply “taming” Kate to meet a standard set by a society for which Petruchio seems to have well-deserved contempt. It seems, instead, to be a direct outgrowth of Petruchio’s comment to Bianca’s suitors when they mock him after his initial wooing of Kate. “Be patient, gentlemen, I choose her for myself./ If she and I be pleased, what’s that to you?” Petruchio asserts that—pleasant as the ways of polite society are—the intimate order inhabited by lovers is always and all ways of greater significance. His actions toward Kate can be seen as an attempt to turn Kate into a “Kate conformable,” not “with other household Kates,” as he jokingly suggests, but conformable to his household and to his vision of an intimate order for them as a couple that both will find far preferable to the extended order that chafes them. And note that it is not Petruchio alone who “be pleased.” Kate will be pleased as well.

As he and Kate journey back to her father’s house, they journey back into that extended order, and it becomes time for Petruchio to show Kate the playful pleasures that their intimate order can afford when it is brought into contact with the extended one. Picking up on their earlier squabble over the time of departure, Petruchio admires the brightly shining moon. Kate points out, quite reasonably, that the sun is out, not the moon. Petruchio insists that before he goes one step farther toward her father’s house, Kate admit that it is the moon. This is a scene that often gives rise to critical comments like: “Petruchio arrogates to himself both the power of Adam, who first gave names to all things and served frequently in the Renaissance as the model for patriarchal rule, and the power of God, the creator and patriarch of all patriarchs.” This reading of Petruchio as an absolutist tyrant would be more tenable, I think, if the scene only contained the sun/moon argument. Kate’s final speech in that argument, “Then god be blessed, it is the blessed sun/ But 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 that it is,/ And so it shall be so for Katherine,” certainly could be read as nothing more than exhausted, defeated, acquiescence. However, the scene does not end there. Instead, Vincentio enters and Petruchio spins a mad fantasy about Vicentio as a “fair lovely maid.” With no hesitation, and with a speech that suggests she takes a certain relish in nonsense, Kate plays along. When Petruchio then insists on describing Vincentio accurately as “a man, old, wrinkled, faded, withered,” Kate just as happily switches her description. She also takes the opportunity to note playfully that her mistake must have been the result of her eyes having been “bedazzled with the sun.” One can almost see the sideways glance she casts at Petruchio at this line. Indeed, by the time the scene closes, Petruchio refers to this exchange as “our first merriment,” emphasizing its playful quality and its mutuality all at once.

Where does all this leave us as we approach the end of the play? Kate’s final speech is almost endlessly troublesome and troubling for critics. First we have the simple view of Kate as completely beaten at the end of the play. “By making her language devoid of references to love and affection and, instead, surfeited with references to domination, power, and authority, Shakespeare has her suggest that Petruchio is more like a despot than a loving husband and she more like a frightened subject than a devoted wife…. The language she uses to describe Petruchio’s treatment of her applies more to a prison warden,” writes associate professor of English Carolyn Brown of the University of San Francisco. Or there Melinda Spencer Kingsbury's equally simple view of Kate as unchanged by Petruchio’s attempt to change her: “The physically aggressive and violent images … reveal a Kate not so different from the Kate we initially witness threatening Hortensio and slapping Bianca.… the fact that her speech is the longest one of the play demonstrates that her ‘scolding’ ‘chattering tongue’ has not been tamed.” Or we have Wayne A. Rebhorn's view of Kate as triumphing over a buffoon-like Petruchio, who is too dim to see that she continues to defy him. “Her ‘conversion’ enables Katherine to do what she has really wanted all along—take on the very role which Petruchio failed to fulfill and which women in the Renaissance were never supposed to play, the role of orator.”

There isn’t time to do a full reading of the speech here, but consider the many ways in which Kate’s images echo and repeat Petruchio’s words from earlier speeches in the play in a show of rhetoric equal to, or surpassing, any that he has displayed. Consider the way that he invites her to critique freely the men and women who have so cruelly spoken of her throughout the play.  Consider—perhaps most importantly—the way the scene ends. Kate ends her speech with a melodramatic gesture suitable to Petruchio himself—kneeling on the ground and offering to let Petruchio step on her hand. This is precisely the sort of comically heightened language and action that Petruchio has spent much of the play teaching Kate to enjoy. Petruchio tells Kate to kiss him, inviting her to join him, again, in a flouting of societal convention that gave her pause in the previous scene. Presumably she does, as he then invites her off to bed and they exit in a final, literal demonstration of the intimate order that they share in defiance of the foolish men and women around them.