Talking amiss of her: speech, silence and shrewishness in The Taming of the Shrew

Jan 2, 2002   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook

[I wrote this essay as part of my graduate work at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.]

“Surely we’re trying to find out at the beginning what we mean by ‘shrew’. Supposing we said ‘shrew’ equals ‘noisy one’. Along comes a man to tame the noisy one. And for almost five acts we never hear from her.”

— Fiona Shaw (Rutter 1)

Kate hears repeatedly, and we hear, too, that she is a shrew. She is a shrew, apparently, because she says just what is on her mind. That is, she says what is on her mind when she is able to get a word in. In a culture that places enormous value on the silent, obedient woman, in a culture where a woman’s only hopes to escape her father’s home and rule are the convent or a husband, Kate is told that no one will ever want to marry her.

Kate speaks for the first time at 1.1.57. She has the audacity to ask her father, essentially, if he is going to humiliate her by marrying her to a man who is not her equal: “I pray you sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?” (Shakespeare 1.1.57). Either before her father can answer or because he has no intention of answering, Hortensio interjects to tell her that she will have no husband unless she reforms her disposition: “No mates for you / Unless you were of a gentler, milder mould” (1.1.59-60.) Kate’s reply to Hortensio is tart and bitter, but he has just told her that her very nature makes her undesirable. Kate speaks of herself in the third person when she responds to Hortensio:

Iwis it is not halfway to her heart —
But if it were, doubt not her care should be
To comb your noddle with a three-legged stool
And paint your face and use you like a fool.

( 1.2.61-5)

Kate claims not to be interested in marriage here, which makes sense, given the company in which she finds herself. She understandably, if crudely, insults Hortensio in response to his dig; what happens next is both fascinating and important: Hortensio wails, “From all such devils, good Lord deliver us!” and Gremio joins right in, “And me too, good Lord!” Hidden from Kate’s view and hearing, Tranio says, “That wench is stark mad or wonderful froward” (1.1.66-69). Because she responds in kind to a personal and nasty insult, Kate is a ‘devil’, ‘stark mad’ and ‘wonderful froward’. All this within the space of eight lines.

Before another twenty lines have gone by, Gremio will refer to Kate, who is still there, as a “fiend of hell” (1.1.87).

And does Kate’s father defend her when these would-be suitors to her sister carry on this way? Does he reprimand them for their childish behaviour? Not for a second. He reassures Bianca that he will love her “ne’er the less” (I,i,76) and asks the suitors if they can suggest teachers to keep Bianca entertained. Finally he leaves Kate alone, telling her that he must speak with Bianca; Kate is decidedly not welcome to participate in this conversation.

Kate hears that she is a shrew, a devil, a fiend from hell. She hears that she is undesirable. She sees her father behaving in a loving and protective fashion towards Bianca and yet not so much as clearing his throat in her defense as she is publicly insulted and humiliated by Bianca’s suitors. Bianca shows her no sympathy at any point. Indeed, Anne Thompson points out that Kate “. . . is the only Shakespearean comic heroine without a female friend at any point in the play” (Thompson 37).

Kate is lost. Kate does not know, at the beginning of the play, quite who she is or what to do with herself in a society that disapproves of her desire to speak freely. She is outcast; she experiences no love. She is so used to hearing herself spoken of in the third person, even when she is present, that she sometimes refers to herself that way. In her Women in Early Modern England, 1500-1700, Jacqueline Eales writes that during the period in which The Taming of the Shrew was written, women were not seen as naturally submissive and therefore social restraints were imposed upon them. Silence was one form of restraint, a virtue highly praised in a good wife or an obedient daughter. Disobedience to the monarch or to the father or husband was unnatural and led to confusion or unrest. Lisa Jardine writes, “The woman with a sharp tongue breaks the social order: she is strictly disorderly” (Jardine 106).

Kate envies Bianca’s desirability; she envies Bianca’s ability to keep her mouth shut even while she is repelled by it. “Her silence flouts me, and I’ll be revenged” (2.1.29). Kate also longs for her father’s love; her bitterness and her disappointment are both palpable and understandable when she laments to Baptista, “She is your treasure, she must have a husband” (2.1.32). One can almost hear a cry of ‘what about me?’ in the subtext here. As Fiona Shaw observes, “Part of Kate’s rage is at the unfairness of it all” (Rutter 11).

Despite her protestations to Hortensio in 1.1, Kate is very much interested in marriage. The next time we see her, she is demanding of Bianca: “Of all thy suitors here I charge thee tell / Whom thou lov’st best” (2.1.8-9). She cannot imagine what it is to have a suitor, much less what it might be like to love one. She treats Bianca so roughly, in part, because Bianca has found a way to flourish, or at least to navigate, in a world that labels Kate a misfit. Bianca is loved by their father; Bianca has men – not just one, but several – men hoping to marry her. Bianca has found more traditionally female means of getting what she wants: tears (Maguire 65). Kate calls her on this when she says ” A pretty peat! It is best put finger in the eye, and she knew why” (1.1.79). In 2.1, Bianca turns on the tears again, just in time for Baptista’s entrance. Once more, Kate hears that she is insolent, that she is a “hilding of a devilish spirit” (2.1.26).

When a man finally does express interest in Kate, Baptista tells him, “She is not for your turn, the more my grief.” (II,i,62.) Baptista has said he cannot marry off Bianca until he finds a husband for Kate, but he summarily discourages Petruchio. Petruchio, far more shrewish in his way than Kate is in hers, is not easily put off. The first sign that Baptista may actually love his elder daughter, and, in fact, the first sign that her ‘shrewishness’ has brought her some benefit, comes when Baptista admonishes Petruchio that he will not draw up the financial terms of the marriage agreement except “. . . when that special thing is well obtained / That is, her love, for that is all in all” (2.1.125). Unfortunately, Kate is not around to hear her father say these words; she will hear a very different version of this conversation from Petruchio in a little while.

Baptista sends Kate to speak with Petruchio. She has no idea what to expect. Speaking of her own experience with the role, Fiona Shaw discovered,

She doesn’t know how to behave alone with a man, and this is clearly going to be a wooing. But she has never been led to believe that anyone would marry her . . . she comes in – and is talked to by a man for the first time; that’s what disorients her. Not his violence, but his gentleness. He seems to be talking in riddles. He’s a bit peculiar, this man. She hasn’t heard people talk like that ever (Rutter 11).

This is the first time a man has shown any interest in Kate. She must feel both excitement and suspicion when she first enters. She may be torn between nervous uncertainty and a need to know who and what this man is. She may feel that she has been given a once in a lifetime opportunity. Feminists may take offense at this statement, but Kate is living in a world without love, and I reiterate that her options are limited to the convent, a husband, or the humiliated, devalued status of an old maid and a shrew in her father’s house. With her first words to him, she corrects Petruchio for calling her Kate; tone is everything, of course, but she simply says, “They call me Katharine that do talk of me” (2.1.180).

Petruchio responds with “You lie” (2.1.181). You lie. He tells her that she lies and he changes her name. Then he tells her that she is bonny, pretty, super-dainty, that she offers consolation, that she possesses mildness, virtue and beauty, and that he would like to marry her. These are wild and whirling words; Fiona Shaw is right when she says that he seems to be talking in riddles. Petruchio also shifts from the formal ‘you’ at the beginning of this speech to the more intimate ‘thee’ by the end of it. Kate, intrigued and suspicious at the same time, resorts to her usual tactics, although it is significant that she is more articulate, and punier than we have yet heard her be. When she says to Petruchio, “I knew you at the first / you were a movable”, he does a remarkable thing. He does not call her a witch or the devil’s dam or a fiend of hell. He does not panic or wail. He serves her shot right back to her. Kate calls Petruchio a movable and he responds within the space of one shared verse line. For the first time in her experience, Kate has some one to play with.

Kate discovers the joy that words can give. The conversation moves quickly, with many one syllable words and a handful of shared verse lines. Fiona Shaw suggests, though, that Petruchio takes the game too far:

. . . she makes to leave, and he blows it by saying, ‘With my tongue in your tail?’ I feel that’s below the bottom line. She doesn’t mind a bit of rude talk, she’s up to that, but nobody speaks to her obscenely. She walks down, he apologizes, and she wallops him. I think she is really appalled. That slap is the first clue that Kate’s behaviour is, ironically, a plea for dignity (Rutter 11).

Kate is drawn back into the conversation both by the word play and by the fact that Petruchio doesn’t run away, cry or call her names when she slaps him. He holds her still, but he keeps the repartee moving. More monosyllables, more shared verse lines. These two discover a rhythm, a synchronicity with one another. Petruchio undermines much of this joyous exploration, though, when he tells Kate that he and Baptista have already struck up a bargain. “A dowry ‘greed on” (2.1.259). She was not consulted. Petruchio says “And will you, nill you, I will marry you.” (2.1.260); and then “Never make denial / I must and will have Katherine to my wife” (2.1.269). Kate is stunned and disappointed; she suddenly finds herself without words. This man has behaved strangely and crudely, but he has also been exciting and smart and charming. Now Kate learns that she has been bought and sold in advance; Petruchio has appeared to be interested in who she is, but he isn’t asking her about getting married, he is telling her.

Petruchio’s brazen behaviour and sharp wit are suddenly tainted. When he appears, she lashes out at Baptista:

Call you me ‘daughter’? Now I promise you
You have showed a tender fatherly regard
To wish me wed to one half lunatic,
A mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Jack
That thinks with oaths to face the matter out.   (2.1.274-8)

This is not shrewishness; this is disappointment, pain, and righteous indignation.

Petruchio further undermines Kate when he tells the assembled men, ” ‘Tis bargained ‘twixt us twain, being alone, / That she shall still be curst in company” (22.1.293-94). He has taken her own voice, her only defense, away from her with this suggestion that any protest on her part is an arrangement between them.

Kate is either unable or does not attempt to persuade her father to cancel the wedding. She decides sometime after Petruchio departs II,i that she wants, on some level, to marry him, in spite of his bad behaviour. He is her best and only hope, perhaps? He is not afraid of her, he can keep up with her, he says what no one has ever said to her, that she is beautiful and desirable.

Kate prepares for her wedding day offstage, unseen and unheard; she hopes to recoup some of her devalued shrew status with a wedding to this dashing, puzzling man and a lavish wedding banquet. She might feel a measure of triumph that all those who have told her she was unmarriageable will at long last be proven wrong. But “nothing has ever been right for Kate, including her wedding day. Even that’s wrecked” (Rutter 12). The humiliation of getting all dressed up and having no one to marry is immense for Kate; the disappointment of being stood up by the only man who has ever shown her any interest has to be brutal. Kate runs away from 3.2 in real, not strategic, tears, crying “Would Katherine had never seen him though!” (3.2.26). When Petruchio does arrive, his absurd appearance, worthy of 15 lines’ description, is a new source for shame. Petruchio gives us a clue to another aspect of his personality, though, when he says, “Could I repair what she will wear in me / As I can change these poor accoutrements, / ‘Twere well for Kate and better for myself” (3.2108-10). Kate’s response to Petruchio’s arrival and his apparel is unseen and unknown; we don’t hear or see a shrew throw a tantrum. What we do hear is a description of Petruchio’s shocking and extreme behaviour, including, but not limited to, cursing in the church and cuffing the priest. Petruchio’s actions are so scandalous that Gremio, who formerly called Kate a fiend of hell, now says, “Tut, she’s a lamb, a dove, a fool, to him” (3.2.147).

Kate’s allegedly shrewish behaviour in the wake of the offstage wedding is simply the tried and worn patience of a cruelly disappointed bride. She wants to enjoy the wedding banquet that she never before dared hope to have; Petruchio says he must away. Kate is once more misled; he says he is content when she entreats him to stay but that contentment is for the entreaty, not for the staying. Kate says, “I will be angry” and then “I see a woman may be made a fool / If she had not a spirit to resist” (3.2.205 and 209-10). Petruchio is relentless. He responds, “They shall go forward, Kate, at thy command” (3.2.211). He tells the assembled wedding party to obey the bride, to feast and revel it, as if he is finally conceding this moment to Kate and will stay, but he then insists that she must go with him. Most mortifying of all, and far worse than calling Kate his chattels and his household stuff, is when Petruchio rails at the group with “Touch her whoever dare, / I’ll bring mine action on the proudest he / That stops my way in Padua” (3.2.222-4). There is nothing in the text to suggest that anyone moves at all, or attempts to protest in any way. Kate has asked nicely, and then she has more vehemently insisted on attending her own wedding feast. Not only has Petruchio denied her this, he has gone out of his way to point out that she is tied to him and no one else will come to her rescue. Stunned and stung, Kate is once more at a loss for words.

Kate arrives at Petruchio’s house in 4.1 after a grueling, heartbreaking and cold journey. Her horse has fallen on her and Petruchio has left her lying in the mud so that he may beat Grumio for allowing the horse to stumble; this so-called shrew has waded through the mud in order to come to Grumio’s rescue and arrives into a scene of such chaos and manufactured disorder that from her arrival through the long, hungry night until the appearance of the tailor in the morning, she never has a moment to orient herself or to catch her breath. Fiona Shaw points out that

She’s got to elbow the room, to break the frenzy of . . . about twelve hours of complete nightmare, and say something that she hadn’t intended to say, which is that she can’t spend her life not speaking. (Rutter 17)

Kate takes another linguistic step forward as she claims her right to words. Her verse, save the last line, is absolutely regular; the elision that would make the metre of the last line regular speaks to the urgency and the importance of what she has to say. She climbs a staircase of imagery to express her anger and her injury.

Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And, rather than it shall, I will be free
E’en to the ut’most, as I please, in words.”   (4.3.75-80.)

(Emphasis and elision mine.)

Through Petruchio’s trial by public humiliation and private deprivation, Kate is learning more about who she is, how she wants to live and to express herself. Petruchio makes contact with Kate’s calmer, clearer self by performing violence, anger and outrageousness for her. She can learn to use her voice to better advantage than railing. She is ‘tamed’ when she understands enough about herself, and becomes secure enough in that understanding, to join in Petruchio’s games without sacrificing herself to do it. On the road back to Padua, Kate discovers that she and Petruchio can not only have harmony, but can probably, as Charles Brooks suggests, “entertain themselves gloriously at the expense of others” (Brooks 354). Her language takes wing during the rich interplay of her sun and moon exchange with Petruchio and it positively soars when she addresses Vincentio, the “young budding virgin” (4.5.37), on the road to Padua. Paola Dionisotti observes,

Kate picks up all those images of sun and moon and intensifies them. She dances with it. The beauty of the speech becomes like an escape from the situation. The images are warm and the meshing of the lines gives the feeling that they’re writing a love poem together, or playing a game. She has finally discovered that it is a game, and that they can play it together (Rutter 20).

Kate’s final speech, the so-called ‘problem’ speech, the speech that made Shaw squirm, is vital to Kate’s evolution and awareness for several reasons. Principally, she has words. She has lots of them – 49 verse lines filled with clearly articulated thoughts, rhythm, grace and rhetoric. She also has an audience. People, her husband foremost among them, are listening to what she has to say. She is able to speak, to use her voice, while at the same time shrugging off the ugly and constraining label of shrew. Kate’s speech is not predicated on medieval arguments that women are intellectually and spiritually inferior to men; she compares the balance of power in marriage to that in a monarchy: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince / Even such a woman oweth to her husband” (5.2.155-56). If the bad prince may face rebellion, so may the bad husband. John Bean suggests that “Like Cordelia, Kate will love only according to her bond, no more, no less and the limits of her bond will be reached whenever Petruchio’s authority ceases to be loving” (Bean 68). Kate sees that men and women are responsible to one another in marriage, that she can have with Petruchio a marriage full of love, laughter, play and also trust. She can give herself to Petruchio now because she finally knows precisely what she has to offer.

Fiona Shaw suggests, “It’s freedom. It’s power. And it’s a wicked, terrible play because she’s got to render herself up before she gains herself. In losing her life she wins it. What a dilemma. What a gamble” (Rutter 20).

Works Cited

  • Bean, John C. “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.” The Woman’s Part. Ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely. Chicago, IL: U of Illinois Press, 1980.
  • Brooks, Charles. “Shakespeare’s Romantic Shrews.” Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. XI, #3 (1960).
  • Callaghan, Dympna, ed. A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
  • Eales, Jacqueline. Women in Early Modern England, 1500-1700. London: UC London Press, 1998.
  • Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press Ltd., 1983.
  • Rutter, Carol with Sinead Cusack, Paola Dionisotti, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson and Harriet Walter. Clamorous Voices. Ed. Faith Evans. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Ed. Anne Thompson. Cambridge: Cambrige UP, 1984.

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You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
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--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i