Welcome to act IV of The Taming of the Shrew!
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Having skipped the wedding feast, Kate and Petruchio make their way to Petruchio’s estate at the start of act IV. In the first scene, Grumio arrives at Petruchio’s estate ahead of the new couple in order to ensure that everything is in order to welcome them home. He gives a short account of their trip and concludes that Petruchio is far more shrewish than Kate ever was. Petruchio and Kate arrive and dinner is served. However, Petruchio pretends to take issue with the supper because it’s not good enough for his new wife and he sends her off to bed. Petruchio then confides in the audience how he plans to break Kate: he’ll starve her and deprive her of sleep so that she’ll have no choice but to bow to his wishes.
We return to Bianca and her suitors in scene 2. Lucentio (disguised as Cambio of course) professes to teach Bianca about the Art of Love, most likely a reference to Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. Ovid’s book is basically a handbook for managing relationships, one of the main themes of The Taming of the Shrew. When Bianca wishes ‘Cambio’ good luck in his courtship, Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) pretends to be deeply offended by her lack of constancy: she swore to love only Lucentio and now here she is wishing ‘Cambio’ good luck. This convinces Hortensio to drop his disguise and both he and Tranio swear to give up their pursuit of Bianca. Hortensio will instead marry a rich widow. Once he leaves, the three conspirators – Bianca, Tranio and Lucentio – realise that all they need now is an old man to play the role of Lucentio’s father so he can give his consent to the terms of the marriage. Biondello points out a suitable pedant (a merchant, basically) and Tranio quickly convinces him to play the role of Vincetio, Lucentio’s father.
Scene 3 picks up where Petruchio left off. Kate is begging Grumio for food who keeps offering up alternatives then shooting them down as inappropriate to his new mistress. She bets him for toying with her. Petruchio (and Hortensio who has come to Petruchio’s ‘Taming School’) walks in and offers Kate some food. He threatens to take it away when she fails to thank him for his kindness. He then calls in a tailor and a haberdasher who he had commissioned to make new clothes for Kate. He claims that none of these outfits are good enough for his precious Kate and turns the clothiers out despite Kate’s protests. He decides they’ll head back to Baptista’s house dressed as they are. He thinks they can make it in time for supper but Kate points out that it’s later than he thinks. He responds that it will be whatever time he says it is.
Now that Tranio, Lucentio and Bianca have beaten away the other suitors and found a stand-in for Vincentio, it time in scene 4 for Lucentio and Bianca to sneak away to get married in secret while Tranio and the pedant secure Baptista’s final blessing for the union of Bianca and Lucentio. Tranio brings Baptista inside to finish the paperwork freeing the way for the lovers to slink off in secret. The hope is that once they are legally married, and have a document singed by Baptista’s hand stating that he consents to the marriage, it will be too late for him to do anything about it and he’ll have to abide by the letter of his contract.
In scene 5 Petruchio finishes his taming of Kate: he argues that it is night but Kate points out that the sun is shining. He says that it will be whatever time of day or night he says. When they come across a traveller, Kate greets him only to be told by Petruchio that he is actually a young maiden. She address the old man as a woman but Petruchio mocks her for doing so. She apologizes to the old man. This must be the point at which Petruchio decides he’s won because he doesn’t toy with her any further. They offer to have the old man travel to Padua with them and they discover that they are going to the same place: this is Vicentio, Lucentio’s father.
What are we supposed to make of a play in which one of the main plot points revolves around starving and mentally abusing a woman? This is the main objection of contemporary audiences to The Taming of the Shrew.
Petruchio essentially tortures Kate into submission. He begins by denying her sleep and food. Then, once she’s hungry and exhausted, he bullies her into compliance by contradicting her at every turn. At last, exhausted and exasperated, she has no choice but to agree to whatever inane statements and commandments he feels like making.
One thing which Miki pointed out during our recording of this act is that Shakespeare is adapting a story motif which was very popular in folk tales and fabliaux which, by Shakespeare’s time, had long circulated in England. In many of these stories, the violence done to the shrew is taken to much further extremes, with the very few acts beyond the scope of what was acceptable for a man to use when matched with a shrewish wife.
I said on air that a shrew was a type of bird similar to a small hawk which was used by huntsmen in late 16th century England. In fact, I made a case that the title Taming of the Shrew puns on the notion of training birds of prey. The method most often used to break the bird to the falconer, as described in late medieval and early Renaissance falconry manual, is very much like what is done to Kate. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any etymological evidence to support my claim. So, while I might be wrong about the title and the word “shrew” itself (which actually describes a small rodent), that parallel still exists in the play. In fact, it might partially explain why the whole thing is set up in this way by the prelude’s lord and his huntsmen. This would suggest that Kate is a wild beast – specifically a small rodent thought at the time to possess as venomous bite – that needs to be broken in and civilized by Petruchio. It also suggests that Christopher Sly (and maybe even the audience?) is no better than an animal who the lord sees as his responsibility to tame.
Is that really the purpose of the play? Who is learning what in the end? And does Shakespeare somehow manage to elevate The Taming of the Shrew above the level of misogynist farce?
I’ll let you decide.
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