I'm saving most of my $hakespeare for last, but I read this on Monday to prepare for a class I'll be teaching at the Young Actors' Theatre in Tallahassee. On Jan 30, I'll start teaching a weekly class to sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are studying $hakespeare on Broadway. The juniors and seniors are looking at Kiss Me, Kate so Taming is the natural pairing with that.
The play begins inside a frame story in which Christopher Sly, a drunken beggar, is brought off the streets and tricked to believe that he is a lord. He begins watching a play in bed, and the play he watches is the story of Katharina and Petruchio. The Christopher Sly story interrupts the play once as we discover how Sly is enjoying his entertainment, but it never finishes--we never even see him turn back into a beggar. So, in one sense, the play is an extended interlude to another story, presented (and meant to be taken as?) mere entertainment.
And an interest in acting, in transformation, in playing a part, marks both stories. In the frame story, Sly goes from speaking in prose to verse when he "discovers" that he is a lord. The young boy actor plays at wifeliness, tricking Sly into believing that "she" is his wife. In the play's main plot, Petruchio plays at all kinds of tricks--slovenliness, irrational anger, calling the sun the moon, etc., to trick Katharina into performing her role as good wife. Lucentio plays a tutor, and Tranio plays Lucentio, the servant the master now just as with Sly and his new lordship. And of course the big question about the play is: Is Katharina truly transformed from a shrew into an obedient wife, or is she just playing along, giving Petruchio what he wants in an effort to maintain real control in the marriage? It's all about who's in control, and most often who is in control has to do with "seeming," rather than "being."
In addition to being about role-playing, marriage is about money. Petruchio comes to find a rich wife, and doesn't care at all about her other qualities; and once he marries her, she is his "goods . . . chattels . . . house . . . field. . . barn." And Minola promises Bianca to whomever can provide the largest dowry, even if it is old Gremio, the pantaloon. He cannot really promise, as he does, that whoever "can assure my daughter greatest dower shall have my Bianca's love," though, any more than Petruchio can promise that, if the money is enough, no faults will be so large as to "remove . . . Affection's edge in [him]." What does money actually have to do with love or affection? But on the flip side, who could not feign affection if offered a large enough sum of money? But the men don't seem to learn this lesson, and they gamble on their wives' obedience and affection in the end.
And the play is about learning. "O this learning, what a thing it is!" Gremio says. The daughters are brought tutors; their education is important to their father and their suitors. And Katharina is "schooled," so to speak, in wifely duty; tamed, to use the rampant animal (horse, falcon, shrew) metaphor employed in this and other works. But Bianca spends her time with her tutors (who are disguised lovers) putting up with their romantic advances; we don't actually see her learn any Latin or music. And Katharina's schooling is effective on the surface . . . or maybe, as my students hope to do, she has just learned how to fool her teacher. So is learning good in this play? Or is it another tool of deception, a way to trick, a way to transform surface but not substance?
Blah blah blah, is this play feminist or not? It is definitely about taming, but does the taming "take"? It is certainly misogynist, but that doesn't mean it necessarily takes the part of the patriarchy in the woman debate, as Linda Woodbridge notes. I see it more on a spectrum, leaning towards the anti-woman side but with a few "Sly" winks towards the woman side, winks that Fletcher expands to bawdy and obscene hand gestures in his response, The Tamer Tamed. (I think that metaphor got away from me at the end.)