Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew raises some controversial issues about the roles of spouses and wives, the place of women in society, the expectations of marriage and more. A main topic throughout the play is Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherina and her eventual submission. Petruchio can be looked at in one of two ways- as a “cruel, unfeeling bully” or a “man who brings Katherina self-knowledge and contentment”. The way in which Petruchio’s manner is viewed depends on the historical context. In the 16th century, Petruchio’s attitude toward Katherina was accepted and normal. This is because women were not seen as equal to men. In the 21st century, where women are equal to men, Petruchio’s method would not be tolerated. I will be using the historical context of the 21st century to contend that Petruchio was a “cruel, unfeeling bully” because I believe that the attitude toward women in the 21st century is the correct one of the two.
From the beginning, Petruchio does not see Kate as an opportunity to be happily married, but a chance to get rich and conquer her. When Hortensio tells Petruchio about Katherina, Petruchio says that it matters not how horrible she is, so long as she has money: “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua / If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (Act I; Scene 2; lines 72-73). Later, during his first meeting with Baptista, Petruchio is eager to settle financial matters with him, even before he meets Kate: “What dowry shall I have with her to wife” (Act II; Scene 1; lines 116) and
“Let specialties be therefore drawn before us, / That covenants may be kept on either hand.” (Act II; Scene 1; lines 122-123). Petruchio has no respect for any reasons that Katherina might have for getting married, such as love. He, therefore, fits the bill of a “cruel, unfeeling bully” by seeing marriage as a business opportunity with no consideration of Katherina’s wishes.
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The way that Petruchio acts toward Katherina is also indicative of his insensitive nature. When he and Katherina first meet, instead of being friendly and cordial, Petruchio is already scheming to tame her by being indirect and annoying: “Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain / She sings sweetly as a nightingale.” (Act II; Scene 1; lines 165-166) and “If she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day / When I shall ask the banns, and when be married.” (Act II; Scene 1; lines 175-176). During their discourse, Petruchio makes sexist remarks that reveal his sexist attitude toward women: “Women are made to bear, and so are you.” (Act II; Scene 1; line 196). Petruchio is again disrespectful of Kate in the attire and timing of when he appears for the wedding- he is both late and dressed in strange, old and tattered clothes: “Why, sir, you know this is your wedding-day. / First we were sad, fearing you would not come, / Now sadder that you come so unprovided.” (Act III; Scene 2; lines 87-89). Not only is Petruchio’s behaviour towards Katherina during the wedding disrespectful, he then forces her to leave the banquet with him, saying that she is his property: “I will be master of what is my own. / She is my goods, my chattels, my house, / She is my household-stuff, my field, my barn, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,” (Act III; Scene 2; lines 218-221). When they reach Petruchio’s house, he starves her and deprives her of sleep, as is she was his prisoner or a wild animal: “She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat; / Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not. /…This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, / And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.” (Act IV; Scene 1; lines 168-169 and 179-180). Petruchio wears Kate down by refusing her new clothes and forcing her to see the world as he says. On their way to Baptista’s house, Petruchio forces Katherina to believe what he says by threatening to make everyone return home from their journey, ““Now, by my mother’s son – and that’s myself – / It shall be moon or star or what I list / Or e’er I journey to your father’s house.” (Act IV; Scene 5; lines 6-8).
The way in which Petruchio “tames” Katherina gives her no choice but to obey or she will be deprived of clothing, food, shelter and being able to go to her father’s house. He gives her no chance to get to know him and makes no effort to get to know her, he just sees Katherina as a challenge and a financial gain.
From examples found throughout the text, it is evident that by 21st century standards, Petruchio is a “cruel, unfeeling bully”. He not only regards his marriage to Katherina as a way to become wealthy but also treats her with no respect, eventually forcing her to surrender. By crushing her spirit, Petruchio ruins the very thing that makes Kate unique and only reinforces the sexist beliefs of that era. Perhaps by depicting such a story in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare intended to bring to light the disparity between the right of men and women. Or perhaps Shakespeare simply sought to portray an existing situation today- the battle of the sexes.
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