This play, categorized as a comedy, and presented as part of an elaborate ruse to confuse the “drunkard Sly” (Induction,ii,set direction), is anything but amusing. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s on-screen chemistry as Katherina and Petruchio (1967) might have electrified the audience, but the words as written are more like an execution via electroshock therapy to lobotomize the “fairer sex.” It is a tale of misogyny, abuse, and mind control. It evokes The Stepford Wives, Equus, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest more than a roiling Rom-Com. In all those works, as in this one, the protagonists are beaten and broken to comply with others’ molds and to meet others’ needs at the expense of themselves.
The title refers, ostensibly and derogatorily, to Katherina, but it is a miscue. One of Petruchio’s servants, Curtis, gets it right when he asserts: “By this reck’ning he is more shrew than she.” (IV,i,85)
Jumping at the chance to marry Katherina to assuage his dismal financial condition, Petruchio sees her as property and proceeds to suppress and subdue her to the other men’s delight. Yes, Katherina is assertive and expressive. Admittedly, perhaps, excessively so. But like in modern times, when a strong woman is called a “bitch,” Gremio exaggerates in calling her a “fiend of hell”(I,i,88). I suspect that the men resent her willingness to buck against the patriarchal minimization of the female sex. Yes, she acts inappropriately at times, but she’s more little child than criminal.
Perhaps, as the eldest daughter, Katherina suffered the unexplained loss and absence of her mother more acutely than her younger sister Bianca. Perhaps she has unresolved grief. Perhaps she never learned compassion from a distant and disinterested father struggling with his own grief. While Bianca may be more superficially compliant and gracious, Shakespeare firmly puts them on equal footing in naming them. Bianca means ‘white;’ Katherina means ‘pure.’ He tells us that beneath their very different veneers, they both have unique but equal value.
Baptista, their frustrated father, has thrown up his hands as his own misguided and ineffective attempts to quell Katherina repeatedly fail. He just wants to hand her off to a husband, and the stakes rise when two suitors present themselves to vie for Bianca’s hand. Baptista can kill both of his birds with one stone by pawning off his problem child on someone else.
When Petruchio presents himself and treats Katherina like a coveted prize, Baptista is thrilled. He relinquishes her to this predator with less vetting than John McCain did of Sarah Palin. As soon as they are betrothed, Petruchio proves that it is really he who needs taming. He flaunts his true colors with Monty Python-like absurdity (in fact, John Cleese portrays him in a 1980 BBC production). A wolf in sheep’s clothing while wooing, he shows up as a cad in fool’s clothing to wed. Gremio gets it right this time: “Such a mad marriage was never before.” (III,ii,182)
Thus begins his systematic and increasingly egregious offenses against his new bride. He disrespects her and her family by virtually kidnapping her directly after the ceremony, depriving all of them of the opportunity to celebrate the nuptials. Although if they knew what was in store for her, no celebration would have been warranted. He asserts to the befuddled Baptista: “I will be master of what is mine own./She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,/My household stuff, my field, my barn,/My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.”(III,ii,229-232) Petruchio absconds with her to his unkempt home; there is no stage direction for the carrying of the new bride over the threshold. I imagine Petruchio dispensed with that and any other niceties as he, by any civilized standards tortures her.
To subjugate her, he refuses her food and sleep: “She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;/Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not;” (IV,i,197-8). In her depleted state he taunts with nourishment, rest, and clothing. He verbally abuses her: He “rails, and swears, and rates, that she, poor soul,/Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak,” (IV,i,184-5).
He argues and disagrees with her over the time of day and celestial bodies to confuse her and impose his will over even her thoughts; he is the master of the universe. “It shall be what a’clock I say it is,” and “It shall be moon, or star, or what I list.” (IV,iii,195 and IV,v,7).
In triumphant return to her father’s (to celebrate Bianca’s wedding) he continues to mind-fuck her in her weakened state as if she were a terrorist enemy combatant under interrogation. At the banquet (which he permits her to attend, unlike her own, to show off his handiwork) he parades her and forces her to perform like a trained organ grinder’s monkey. She is brainwashed. Far from an amusing phrase of endearment, his refrain of “Kiss me, Kate,” (II,i,324 and IV,v,143) takes on the ominous tone of a sadomasochistic command to which he expects her to respond like a Pavlovian dog.
In addition to subjugating and humiliating his own wife into being a shell of her former self, he commands that she drag the other new brides into the shadows of themselves, like Dracula directing his brides to suck the lifeblood out of others. “Katherine, I charge thee tell these head-strong women/What duty they owe their lords and husbands.” (V,ii,130-1) She ends up literally and figuratively where he wants her: “you mean to make a puppet of me.”(IV,iii,104). Reversing the story of Pinocchio, she drinks the Kool-Aid and complies, telling her sister and the widow, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign.” (V,ii,146-7) Petruchio “kills her” (IV,i,180), squishing her spirit like a bug under his foot, as she tells us “place your hands below your husband’s foot.”(I,ii,177)
There is nothing either Rom or Com about this play. Katherina is McMurphy to Petruchio’s Nurse Ratched. Alan to his Dr. Dysart. Joanna Eberhart to his Walter. Her brain is replaced by gruel, for which she will continually have to ask her master, “please, sir, I want some more.” Henceforth, Petruchio will even think for her, “For I am born to tame you, Kate,/And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate/Comfortable as other household Kates.” (II,i,276-78) Petruchio goes way beyond what was acceptable male domination in Elizabethan England and models every abhorrent aspect of the abusive husband.