Civilizing Katherina: A Modern Critique of Shakespeare’s The Taming if the Shrew

Amorie Rivera

Within the last twenty years, critiques of William Shakespeare’s first comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, have undoubtedly focused on the “taming” of the play’s main character, Katherina. With the Renaissance shift towards reason and logic, civilizing citizens becomes a major concern in Shakespeare’s play. Katherina’s civilization thereby comes to serve as a model not only for the other women of the play, but audience members as well. The play becomes a model for analyzing Renaissance changes in society concerning not only gender roles but also the appearance of those roles in public.

Recent critiques of the play have stemmed from the ideas found in Emily Detmer’s 1997 essay “Civilizing Subordination: Domestic Violence and The Taming if the Shrew” which expounds a newer feminist perspective that recognizes Katherina’s “taming” as domestic abuse. Detmer redefines the domestic abuse of women, including any tactics used to oppress or threaten its victim with the intention of dominance and oppression (284). Losing some its original comedy, The Taming of the Shrew has become a grossly exaggerated, Renaissance guide to a patriarchal society and the role of women in that society. Gary Schneider draws from this assumption in his essay “The Public, the Private, and the Shaming of the Shrew” which relates the abusive methods used by Petruchio to the demarcation of public and private space in Renaissance society. Katherina must be “tamed” both publically and privately in order to mold to the new patriarchal model set for women, though the roles between the two remain unclear. While Katherina is clearly tamed publically, shown through her final speech imploring women to obey their husbands, it remains unclear whether her new found civility will continue in the privacy of Petruchio’s home. Both essays recognize the play as a sign of shifting attitudes in Renaissance society. The play focuses on the civilization of women in particular by imposing a new form of wife taming that is not wife- beating, but extends to the civilization process as a whole by then flaunting its success in a public space. However, whether or not Katherina is truly tamed or civilized remains a question by the end.

The beginning of Detmer’s essay explains basic Renaissance attitudes towards taming unruly wives. The issues surrounding rebellious women during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries continued, but had begun to lean away from promoting physical violence. Men were assumed control over their wives, but the means to that end were shifting towards a new method (Detmer 273). “Falcon- taming”, as Detmer describes it, was a method which promoted policy and not violence. Policy was then associated with reasoning as opposed to the impulsive violence of wife beating (277). Gentlemen did not beat their wives, but used more logical tactics to assert control. As seen in Petruchio’s case, policy was used to assume complete control over Katherina and included threatening and isolation. When Katherina slaps Petruchio in Act 2 Scene 1, Petruchio’s immediate response is the threat of violence though not violence itself. “I’ll swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again,” he says (21). He then physically withholds Katherina assuming total control of her body. This would have promoted the new methods, policy, of assuming control over wives that were acceptable in Renaissance society.

However, Katherina’s civilization or taming does not truly begin until her wedding day. When Katherina is shamed by Petruchio’s unruly behavior, it is the first sign the audience sees of Katherina’s vulnerability on a personal level. Her tears mark the breaking down of her wild spirit. Instead of a sharp toque she “exits weeping” (3.2.26). Schneider explains this response as a part of the shaming method in the civilization process. Public shame is the first step in civilizing Katherina (Schneider 4). Weddings are public ceremonies that uphold a women’s status in particular; shaming Kate in public is thereby used as a taming tool to civilize her (2). Though her reputation is of a shrew, her wedding day is the first time her status as a woman has been shamed publically by the late and embarrassing arrival of the man she is to marry. It is a shaming of her role in society and also her role as women.

The next step the play gives in taming the shrewish Kate is in a private space. It is in this space that both Schneider’s essay and Detmer’s essay compliment one another. The private space, considered the domestic or feminine space, is where Petruchio employs his tactics of policy to control Katherine’s behavior. He employs the tactics of asceticism which are also commonly related to monasteries. Kate is isolated from others and denied food or sleep. This helps him to gain control over Kate’s behavior without having to physically abuse her. Though Petruchio calls his behavior a special kindness, as Detmer explains:

“Rather than beat Kate into submission, he threatens her in a manner that recalls the Stockholm syndrome, coercing her into internalizing his wishes if she is to eat or sleep or escape isolation: ‘She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat:/ Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not’ (4.1.168-69)” (285).

Treating Kate in private produces even more connections when recognizing the Renaissance views of the private life. As Schneider explains in his essay, civility and asceticism are still closely related in the Renaissance. Though the monastic life became less popular in the context of the new Renaissance spirit, the values associated with it remained. (7)

“The ethic of asceticism, which included chastity, vigilance, silence, and temperance (fasting and, in IV.iii, moderation in dress) in Petruchio’s catalog, is engineered by him. Although here is undoubtedly much anti-Catholic satire in this portion of the play, there is also the inference that these are extremely useful civilizing techniques” (7).

Abstaining, or in Kate’s circumstance being forced to abstain, was still a guide to becoming a civilized member of society in the ideals of a patriarchal society. While Detmer’s explanation uses a modern explanation intended for a modern reader, Schneider then helps to explain a more Renaissance response to Kate’s taming process. Kate’s treatment may not be seen as comical today, but its exaggeration would have been to a Renaissance audience holding these assumptions and ideals.

At this point in the play it is clear that Kate must conform to societal roles in order to survive. Through Petruchio’s tactics, Kate is hungry, tired and alone. In order to re-enter civilization and the public space she must submit her will to Petruchio. Petruchio has dominated Kate’s spirit and a gentler Kate begins to emerge. As she watches Petruchio abuse his servant Grumio for the first time in Act 4 Scene 1, Grumio describes a Kate that “..waded through the dirt to/ pluck him [Petruchio] off me…[and] prayed that/ never prayed before..” (69-71). This is the first time Katherina has shown sympathy towards other in society, all by the way of beginning to assume the victim role herself. Shakespeare is playing with the clearly patriarchal assumptions of the woman as weaker, more sympathetic, and a victim while civilizing her at the same time.

The reader or audience gets a first taste of Petruchio success on the way from the domestic space, home, to another wedding, Bianca and Lucentio’s. It will be the first taste of civilization since Kate’s treatment at home. In Act 4 Scene 5 Petruchio claims the moon is the sun as a test of Kate’s subservience. Katherina is correct when she says it is sun since they are traveling in daylight. By threatening to turn around and go back home, Petruchio is able to make Katherina say it is the moon because he says it is. The use of threatening refers back to a new model of domestic abuse as promoted by Detmer. Kate’s willingness to accept her new social role as a wife marks her success as a civilized member of society at least in public.

The ending of the play marks Katherine’s official reemergence in a public space since her shaming at the wedding. She ends her role in the play in Act 5 Scene 2 with a monologue about wives obeying their husbands. Earlier critics had marked this as proof of Renaissance romanticism, proof that Kate had fallen in love with her dominant husband. However, seen through the light of Schneider and Detmer’s essays, it is the completion of Katherina’s taming process and civilization. The ideals of the private life in the Renaissance, marriage, are demonstrated in the public space by the end of the play. Thus, Kate is tamed publically. However, as she speaks less and her tongue is tamed, whether or not Kate believes in her newly imposed role is up for question. Also, for the modern reader, the way this civilization is attained is clearly abusive despite being non-physical. By the end, the comedy of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew becomes dark in nature and is only recognized as comedic by the exaggeration of social issues concerning Renaissance life. What may seem to be slap stick and witty dialogue in Shakespeare’s play has been exposed by modern critiques as satirical of civilization and a gross exaggeration of gender roles in Renaissance society.

Works Cited

Detmer, Emily. “Civilizing Subordination: Domestic Violence and The Taming of the Shrew.” Shakespeare Quartery 48 3 (Fall 1997). 273-294.

Schneider, Gary. “The Public, the Private, and the Shaming of the Shrew.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42 2 (Spring 2002). 235-258. Cedar Crest College Library. Oct 16 2007 <>

Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew”. The Necessary Shakepeare. 2nd ed. Ed. David Bevington. New York: The University of Chicago, 2005. 2-41.