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The Taming of the Shrew:
The Affirmation of Affection

By Elaine P. Pilkington
From Midsummer Magazine, 1991

 

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio presents the supposedly shrewish Kate with a series of trials that so thoroughly confuse and frustrate her that she willingly re-examines and reconsiders who she is and what she expects from herself and those around her. Petruchio's tirades against his servants, his depriving Kate of food, sleep, and even the right to chose her own clothing, may seem to parallel the physical taming of shrewish wives in old folk tales, but passive submission is not Petruchio's goal. When Kate passes Petruchio's final test by emphatically pretending to believe that the old and wrinkled Vincentio is actually a budding virgin, her whole-hearted enthusiasm tells us that she cannot possibly be in earnest. Instead she has joined with Petruchio and learned to play his game with a thoroughness that delights him without sacrificing her dignity as a human being.

Consequently, Kate's initial refusal to kiss Petruchio later in the play is not a rebuff, nor is his request a further test of her obedience. Petruchio's request is in sharp contrast to his kisses earlier in the play, one to seal the bargain of betrothal and the other, artificially exaggerated, to show just how little the wedding ceremony betokened a nuptial. Petruchio asks for a kiss just after he and Kate have watched the plight of Vincentio who discovers upon his arrival in Padua that he is being impersonated by a stranger, that his own servants refuse to recognize his authority over them, and that the citizens of Padua think he is mad.

Vincentio's anger and confusion is framed by Petruchio's "Prithee, Kate, let's stand aside and see the end of this controversy" (5.l.6l-62) and Kate's "Husband, let's follow to see the end of this ado" (5.l.l42). Here Kate and Petruchio join together as audience for other people's manipulations of reality, abandoning their other dramatic spectacle in favor of a shared laugh at the poses of others, and in the very next line Petruchio requests the kiss, "First, kiss me, Kate, and we will" (5.l.l43).

Kate does not reject Petruchio by initially refusing to kiss him; she simply affirms her newfound commitment to social propriety. But Petruchio has already shown himself a man of independent character who refuses to be bound by mere conventions that conceal rather than express inner truths. His request for a kiss is a lesson, not a test. Petruchio shows Kate that breaking the rules can be even more important than following them, and her kiss signals her delight in the knowledge. They have become one, forming a true marriage. And the kiss they share is the consummation of their new unity.

The wedding feast in Act 5 is a continuation of the couple's unity that demonstrates the differences between their marriage and the marriages of Bianca and Lucentio and of the widow and Hortensio. The seeming harmony in the courtship game of Bianca and Lucentio ends with their wedding. Lucentio has moved from romantically idealized visions of Bianca to concern for the money that he believes she has lost him when she did not respond to his bidding. Hortensio and his widow are on no better terms. These two couples may join in the festivities of chatting and eating, but what should be for them a rite of integration ends in discord. The wedding feast more truly belongs to Kate and Petruchio, for Petruchio puts his trust in Kate, depending upon her not to destroy his public image of husband, and, in return, he gives her a chance to get back at her sister and the widow by telling "what duty they do owe their lords and husbands" (5.2.l3l).

Kate and Petruchio are the couple who have been united as one, replacing Bianca and Lucentio just as the two of them performed the roles of bride and groom at Kate and Petruchio's marriage feast. It may be late in coming, but it is, indeed, a celebration of requited love. Kate and Petruchio have established their own hierarchy of values–peace and love and quiet life–their own personal rituals for expressing those values, their own standards of propriety and impropriety. The rightness of their relationship, the affirmation of their affection, sets them apart from the other marriages of mismatched expectations. The two have formed a new, exclusive society, one that is better, more energetic than that which surrounds them, for each is now an "initiating yet cooperating center" for the other (Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, New York: Viking Press, l972, 47


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