One cannot read Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and not wonder about Petruchio and Katherina’s relationship and whether it is an attack on the idea of women’s independence. In short, is Taming of the Shrew anti-feminist?
In the second act, Petruchio has already decided to pursue Katherina, and breaks with her father about the match. During this conversation, Petruchio discusses how he will make Katherina “yield” to him. The idea that he will make her submit in itself seems like an attack on women, but Shakespeare does not have Petruchio use the fact that he is “rough and [woos] not like a babe” on just any woman, he has Petruchio use it on Katherina the shrew. Just before Petruchio enters, Shakespeare has Katherina drag Bianca on stage, bound, and being beaten by her sister. This is important because it makes it clear that Katherina is not just any woman that needs to be tamed, but showcases her as the “shrew” the title names her. Petruchio’s arrogance is dissipated some when one sees the violence Katherina enacts against Bianca and Hortensio as the music instructor.
Are Petruchio’s actions an attack on women? No, they are an attack on Katherina’s pride and temper. A woman who hits her musical tutor with his own instrument and beats her own sister is not a stable person. Petruchio appears to be the first person who offers any form of resistance to her. When he is first “wooing” her there is much banter between them. As their relationship continues, Petruchio challenges her temper and pushes her to patience. While the methods seem radical, possibly mental, they do work. Katherina learns not only to be nice to her husband, but also has a change in attitude to those around her.
In the end, Katherina proves to be the only one of the women that come when their men call. The whole play leads up to Katherina’s speech in the final act. Evidence of her previous shrewish nature are present, but they are directed at the other women, who act conversely to the way Petruchio “trained” Katherina. The other women’s ingratitude to their husbands is what forces Katherine to chastise them, saying “too little payment for so great a debt” and to admit that women only fight with lances that “are but straws.” Katherina’s final speech is not about her becoming subject to her man, it is about her understanding the role of wives and husbands, and showing she is not the woman that she was before. One could say her alteration was due to brute force, or Stockholm syndrome, but I believe the better argument lies in Petruchio’s role of giving her a taste of her own medicine.
It is easy to say that Taming of the Shrew is incredibly anti-women, and that Petruchio was a chauvinistic pig that systematically destroyed an independent woman, but I believe that interpretation to be narrow minded. Katherina was not an independent woman, she still lived under the rule of her father, and her shrewish behavior and actions before Petruchio’s arrival are more accurately described as those of a child, not a woman. However, her final speech on the nature of marriage between husbands and wives proves that Katherina has matured, and that her spirits have rather changed direction and not disappeared.