Arriving in Padua, student Lucentio falls in love at first sight with Bianca, the younger daughter of the rich merchant Baptista. She is also courted by Gremio and Hortensio, but her father prohibits her marriage until her older sister, the shrewish Kate, is wed. To gain access to Bianca, Lucentio disguises himself as a Latin tutor, while his servant, Tranio, assumed his master’s identity, and Hortensio masquerades as a music tutor. Enter Petruchio, Hortensio’s friend from Verona, who has come to Padua to find a rich wife. Hortensio can’t imagine inflicting Kate on his friend, but hearing the value of her dowry, Petruchio doesn’t hesitate. A battle of wits ensues between Kate and Petruchio, and it seems she has met her match; he will marry her whether she likes it or not.
After arriving at his own wedding very late and ridiculously dressed, Petruchio proceeds to behave obnoxiously throughout the service, then carries Kate off before the banquet against her will. At his home, he treats Kate with a pretense of courtesy even as he deprives her of food, sleep or appropriate clothing.
Meanwhile, back at Baptista’s, after fierce competition, Hortensio and Gremio realize Bianca favors Lucentio and abandon their suits; Hortensio pledges to marry a rich widow. And Tranio persuades an old teacher to impersonate Lucentio’s father in order to affirm his “son’s” inheritance to Baptista.
Worn out, Kate finally consents to agree with anything Petruchio says, no matter how absurd, and makes a game of it. The two return for Bianca’s wedding, bringing with them Lucentio’s real father, who, upon arrival, encounters his impersonator. Confusion ensues. Tranio refuses to confirm his master’s father’s identity, and just as Vincentio is to be dragged off to prison, the eloped lovers, Lucentio and Bianca, return and set things straight. All is forgiven and everyone goes in to the reception to celebrate.
At the banquet, Petruchio and Kate are teased about her shrewishness, provoking him to propose a wager on which wife will prove most obedient. Much to everyone’s surprise, it is Kate. She delivers a sermon on the wifely duty to be submissive to a husband’s will, as he is her lord and sovereign. She demonstrates her commitment to this doctrine by offering to place her hand beneath her husband’s foot. Petruchio responds, “Kiss me Kate,” which, this time, seems more invitation than order.
e-Luminations: The Taming of the Shrew
The following edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
Kate’s Last Word
One of the great challenges of The Taming of the Shrew for a modern audience and a modern theatre company is Kate’s final speech. Having won for Petruchio the bet the husbands made on their wives’ obedience, she is ordered to tell the less compliant wives what duty they owe their husbands. Actors and directors through the years have made any number of choices with this speech: Seething Kate, Submissive Kate, Funny Kate. Ultimately, this moment creates the opportunity to sum up Kate and Petruchio’s relationship, putting a button on their journey throughout the play and leaving the audience with a powerful impression of the couple’s future.
Lucentio begins the final banquet scene by inviting his guests to relax and enjoy:
At last, though long, our jarring notes agree:
And time it is, when raging war is done,
To smile at scapes and perils overblown.
The raging war and jarring notes that he refers to are, of course, the wild ups and downs of wooing and wedding for all of the couples present. But immediately, his guests begin some jarring notes of their own—wrangling wordplay that the Widow quickly ramps up to outright insult of Kate. When the women leave the room and the men begin to send for them one after another, it is clear to the wives just what is happening; the Widow even sends back her answer that “you have some goodly jest in hand” and will not come. Kate is then free to choose her action, knowing all of the players in this game and able to guess not at the fiscal stakes but the emotional ones.
In an earlier scene, where Petruchio mocks and discards the offerings of the haberdasher and tailor, Kate tells her husband, “I will be free, / Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.” Her final speech is the longest of the play, and though her theme is given to her by Petruchio, it seems useful to begin by taking her at her earlier word. Even with the monologue’s focus on feminine weakness and submission, it is clear that by choosing to speak—and choosing what to speak—Kate is taking action and staking out a place for herself, as she has throughout the play.