Deceptions of the Tongue in the Tale:
Reality and Dominance in The Taming of the Shrew

In William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, much of the action is taken up by plots, insults and deceptions. Two of Bianca’s suitors, Lucentio and Hortensio, disguise themselves, Tranio masquerades as his master and promises Baptista nonexistent riches, Christopher Sly is made to think himself a lord, and Kate’s husband Petruchio puts on an elaborate show of madness and rage in order to subdue his sharp-tongued bride. All of this playacting lets us draw conclusions about the characters’ moralities, motivations, and relative intelligences. The lying and rudeness we see throughout the play is, however, more than a plot device to advance events or a filter through which to see the characters. It is a method used within the play by the inhabitants of Padua that allows them to establish positions of power and dominance: whoever is best able to recreate reality and impose it on others becomes the one who is dominant in any given situation. It is this ability to establish a new reality, learned through dispensing and receiving insults and falsehoods, that saves Katherine from being, at the end of the play, merely Petruchio’s submissive wife.

When we meet Katherine in the beginning of the play, she is in complete control of her status and surroundings. She does not wish to marry, and so she has made herself unmarriageable by using her tongue to transform the men around her into fools, using her father’s decision to make Gremio and Hortensio the stymied idiots she portrays them as: she does, as she threatens, use them like fools(I.1.65). Versatile in this power, she refuses to allow others’ perceptions to shape her, instead turning them into her own characterizations of them - when Hortensio informs her that her musical skills leave something to be desired, she turns fiercely on him and ruins his instrument, making him into a “rascal, fiddler, / And twangling Jack”(II.1.155-156). Bianca, styled by Katherine as “A pretty peat”(I.1.78), seems to become, in act 2, scene 1, the sort of helpless, soft, spoiled child Katherine calls her, passively tied and dependent on her father for release. Faced with a persistent suitor in Petruchio, Katherine uses every weapon in her inventory in her attempts to transform him: she calls him “a movable,” “a buzzard,” “a crab,” and other similarly uncomplimentary names. In this case, however, she fails to control Petruchio with the same infallible methods she has used with her tutors, her sister, her sister’s suitors, and, it would seem by her reputation, the world at large. Why is this?

Petruchio is able to defeat Kate in their battle of wits and words largely because he is more willing than she to reject and redefine reality. During the banter they exchange, Katherine is able to best every pun; she merely fails when Petruchio departs entirely from the truth. Where Katherine uses mischaracterization and exaggeration to try and control the situation, Petruchio is not ashamed to simply lie, to create a new world around him without regard for the consequences. He tells Katherine, “Hearing thy mildness praised in every town, / Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded - / Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs - / Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife”(II.1.192-195). As Katherine must know that she has a reputation as being the worst shrew in the city, she is unable to directly counter this comment, seizing instead upon a pun for “moved.” Katherine entirely loses her ability to battle with him when Petruchio tells her, falsely, that “your father hath consented / That you shall be “my wife, your dowry ‘greed on, / And will you, nill you, I will marry you”(II.1.271-273). Her description of him to her father as a “one-half lunatic, / A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack”(II.1.289-290), is drowned out in the face of Petruchio’s catalogue of lies:

‘Tis bargained ‘twixt us twain, being alone, That she shall still be curst in company. I tell you, ‘tis incredible to believe How much she loves me. O, the kindest Kate! She hung about my neck, and kiss on kiss She vied so fast, protesting oath on oath, That in a twink she won me to her love. (II.1.306-312)

Baptista is used to Katherine’s transformative insults, which have some basis in reality; nothing could prepare him for such a bald lie. If Petruchio claims that Katherine loves him, there must be some truth in it. Similarly, Katherine cannot use her use her catalog of insults to assert dominance over Petruchio’s version of reality: it is simply too much.

This same system of superior lying leading to victory is found throughout the play. Tranio wins the bidding war for Bianca’s hand because he is not / ashamed to create a fortune that does not exist, far outpacing Gremio - who is either honest or only willing to exaggerate his holdings within certain bounds. Though both Lucentio and Hortensio disguise themselves as tutors to gain access to Bianca, it is Lucentio who has the more successful courtship, because he is better able to dictate reality. As Hortensio tries in vain to talk to Bianca, Lucentio prevents him by repeatedly insisting that Hortensio’s instrument is out of tune. Hortensio is unable to match Lucentio’s command over reality, returning each time he is challenged to his lute and retightening the strings. He is outmatched in that he feels the need to truly demonstrate his claim of being tuned, whereas Lucentio is confident in dictating “facts” which mayor may not have anything to do with the actual state of Hortensio’s instrument. And, of course, there is Petruchio’s epic pretense for the rest of the play, pretending to be mad, finding imaginary fault with his household, and claiming that the sun is the moon in his successful battle to tame Katherine.

There is a major difference between Katherine and the other characters who use misrepresentation to gain their ends, however. None of the other characters’ status as a shaper of reality ever changes: Hortensio remains overpowered by Lucentio; Tremio’s lies are continually half-successful, first being threatened by the falsity of his fortune and then by the arrival of Petruchio’s father; Bianca never rises above her coy manipulation of her lessons to bend others to her will. Even Petruchio, who starts out with a glorious disregard for and power to create facts, never swerves from his impressive level of manipulation, and his reconciliation with Katherine end of the play seems to suggest that he is prepared to end his outrageous claims entirely.

Katherine, however, does change. At the beginning of the play, as we have seen, she uses her own reactions to the world and her wide knowledge base of insults to make things go her way; to force reality to assume the form she chooses. But her brief courtship and married life with Petruchio show her that her previously successful control over her life is no longer adequate. His fantastical claims and outrageous behavior will forever dictate how she lives, unless she is able to once again control her own status and manipulate her circumstances. This brings us to Katherine’s final speech. Sent for by Petruchio as part of a bet to test wifely obedience, she comes quickly, fetches (and presumably beats her sister and Hortensio’s widow, and throws her cap on the ground, all as commanded by her husband. Are these the actions of a woman subdued? It would seem so, except for Katherine’s final speech. Petruchio tells her to inform the other two women of their duties as wives, and Katherine complies with a vengeance.

Katherine’s speech is a litany of the duties and abilities of men and women unparalleled elsewhere in the play: in other words, no one has, in our sight, instructed her to speak precisely these lines, to have precisely these thoughts. Katherine defines universally what a woman’s role should be:

I am ashamed that women are so simple To offer war where they should kneel for peace, Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway Where they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (V.2.161-164)

On a basic level, it does not matter if Katherine believes her own words or not: what she is doing is recreating reality, with claims just as broad, if more socially acceptable, as any wild statement of Petruchio’s. As long as she is able to do so, to offer her hand before it is asked, to create the role that she will fill, Katherine will remain a strong woman. As we know she is an intelligent and resourceful person, the only character in the play who effectively changes her ability to shape reality, it seems likely that she will do so.

Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: Norton, 1997.

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