Shakespeare’s Kate, A Character in Camouflage: Taming the Shrew

The Shrew Katherina (1898) by Edward Robert Hughes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia )
The Shrew Katherina (1898) by Edward Robert Hughes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia )

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Well, come, my Kate; we will unto your father’s
Even in these honest mean habiliments:
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor;
For ’tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.

When I was working on my English degree, I was required to take two Shakespeare classes, and I’ve read almost all of his plays (well, only a few of the history plays!). I really came to love Shakespeare; with practice, he does get easier as you get more familiar with the language, but you definitely want to use an edition that has footnotes. It would be tough for me to say which is my favorite play – I have several, and The Taming of the Shrew is definitely one of them. I enjoy the slapstick elements, the bantering dialogue between the characters, the disguises and confused identities. But mostly I love the story itself, the story of a couple who unintentionally falls in love, and how love and respect can bring out the best in anyone. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare illustrates the Christian idea that internal character is more important than external character. Shakespeare was undoubtedly very familiar with the Bible; his plays often reference biblical ideas, and many of the themes can be interpreted from a Christian perspective. For example, the theme of transformation as seen in The Taming of the Shrew also appears in the Bible. In the Christian faith, an individual’s conversion occurs when Christ brings about a change within him. The inner conversion results in a change in the person’s choices, actions, and speech. The means by which this change takes place is through the hearing or reading of God’s Word. Similarly, in The Taming of the Shrew, language and words are the primary instruments Petruchio uses to teach Katherine to change her view of herself, and this internal change in turn affects her actions and her speech.

Shakespeare uses clothing and names throughout the play to reinforce the idea that external change, which is typically of a physical nature, is false and temporary. In his book Brightest Heaven of Invention, Peter Leithart points out that while names and clothing are used for identification, both can be easily counterfeited. In The Taming of the Shrew, many of the characters pretend to be someone else to advance their own purposes. The Induction introduces this idea, with Christopher Sly being deceived into believing he is someone different than he is. The Lord plays a trick on Sly, suggesting that if he is, “Wrapped in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers, /…Would not the beggar then forget himself?” In the play, other characters disguise themselves by changing their clothes. Both Lucentio and Hortensio disguise themselves as instructors for Baptista’s daughters so they can gain access to Bianca in order to court her. Tranio pretends to be Lucentio, and he later tricks an old scholar into playing the part of Vincentio. Likewise, as part of his disguise, each of these characters takes on a false name to hide his true identity. These changes are easy to make because they are superficial, and eventually all of these false identities are revealed.

Everyone knows that appearances can often be deceiving. External labels and physical appearance may inaccurately reflect of a person’s internal character. In the Induction, Christopher Sly is called a “lord,” but that does not change the fact that he is actually a drunken bum. In several ways, The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the truth, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” or label. For example, Bianca’s true nature is revealed to be different than what she first appears to be. When Lucentio first sees Bianca, he says, “…in the other’s silence do I see / Maid’s mild behavior and sobriety.” In fact, Bianca’s name, which means “white,” is significant. At first glance she looks sweet, lovely, and agreeable, but Bianca turns out to be strong-willed and defiant. When she is first introduced to her new tutors, she declares, “I’ll not be tied to hours nor ‘pointed times, / But learn my lessons as I please myself.” She goes behind her father’s back and marries Lucentio without his permission, and in Act V, when called by her husband, she answers that “she is busy and she cannot come.” People who pretend to be something they’re not are called hypocrites by Christ in the gospels. For example, He compares the Pharisees with white-washed tombs: “Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). Clearly not everything that is pretty on the outside is also pretty on the inside, and such is the case with Bianca.

To a certain extent, the nicknames or labels a person is given are linked with his or her reputation. For much of her life, Katherine has had a reputation for being a shrew, “renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue.” In the second scene of Act I, she is called other unflattering names, such as Katherine the Curst and wildcat, as well as a “fiend of hell.” The Bible says, “For as [a person] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). It appears that Katherine has become what everyone accuses her of and does not know how to be otherwise. However, when Petruchio first meets Katherine, he compliments her and is the first person to see her as something other than a shrew. He gives her his own nickname, Kate, and in doing this, suggests to her that she has the ability to change her reputation and gives her permission to do so (Leithart). Of course it will take more than simply changing her name to make the transformation a reality, but it is Petruchio’s first step in his plan to do so.

Petruchio never disguises himself, but he does use dress several times to make a point about outward appearance. When he leaves Kate after setting a wedding date, he claims, “I will unto Venice / To buy apparel ’gainst the wedding day.” When he arrives, he is dressed so bizarrely that Baptista tells him to “doff this habit, shame to your estate,” and Tranio urges him, “See not your bride in these unreverent robes.” In response to them, Petruchio makes a very significant statement:

To me she’s married, not unto my clothes.
Could I repair what she will wear in me
As I can change these poor accoutrements,
’Twere well for Kate and better for myself.

In this comment, he makes several points. First, he is saying that regardless of the clothes he is wearing, he is still the same person he was. Again, we find this idea in the Bible. When Samuel is looking for the new king of Israel, he is reminded that, “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). Actually, my daughter likes to remind me of this often. After changing her hair color (again), she’ll say, “It’s only hair; I’m still the same person!” Secondly, Petruchio is implying that while it is quite easy for him to change his clothes, changing Kate’s character will not be nearly as simple. He intends to teach Kate to correct her temper; he knows he has his work cut out for him and that it will not be easy on either of one them.

Petruchio uses the visual aid of clothing again in Act IV to instruct Kate. He teases her with clothes that he does not intend to let her wear, and when she expresses her desire for a cap, saying that it is the type gentlewomen are wearing, Petruchio responds with, “When you are gentle you shall have one too, / And not till then.” He is trying to make her understand that her first priority is to develop the inner beauty that she lacks. In the New Testament, Peter addresses this same issue:

…let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price (I Peter 3:3-4).

Just as Hortensio suspects, Kate never does get a new gown or cap, and Petruchio suggests they go to see her father just as they are.

[W]e will unto your father’s,
Even in these honest mean habiliments.
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,
For ’tis the mind that makes the body rich[.]

He then goes explains to her that it is not the outer covering of an animal that necessarily makes it beautiful. He uses two animals as examples — the raucous blue jay and the poisonous adder — which, although attractive to the eye, are still offensive. The degree of Kate’s understanding at this point is uncertain, but by the end of the play she certainly seems to have learned this lesson.

By the time the couple returns to Padua, Petruchio seems to have accomplished his goal.  Some people believe that in the final scene Kate is just playing along with Petruchio; she has not really changed her attitude and is still a shrew. However, her last speech expresses the traditional Christian view of marriage found in the Bible (Ephesians 5:21), as Shakespeare must have intended. Here, Kate publicly scolds her fellow wives for their lack of respect and obedience to their husbands:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.

The idea that Kate’s speech was insincere and merely an act I believe would defeat the whole point of the play, which is that a person can change. Kate’s father is so impressed with her reformed behavior that he offers Petruchio a second dowry sum for his new daughter, remarking, “For she is changed as she had never been.” If Katherine were just putting on an act but had not genuinely transformed, this statement would seem to be irrelevant, and in fact, so would Shakespeare’s title for the play.

In contrast to external change, internal change is genuine and long lasting. The Bible teaches that an individual can be inwardly transformed. Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, “…be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Some may say that Petruchio was playing with Kate’s mind, but through his words and disciplinary methods he taught her to think differently about herself. At the end of the play, it seems that Kate has become a “new creature”; “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (II Corinthians 5:17). Kate’s new inner beauty shines forth, bringing honor both to herself and her husband.

Frank Zeffirelli's 1967 adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew After reading The Taming of the Shrew (or even if you don’t read the play) consider watching Frank Zeffirelli’s 1967 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

(By the way, the old musical Kiss Me, Kate (1953) is based on this play.)

Source: Leithart, Peter J. Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide To Six Shakespeare Plays. Moscow, ID: Canon, 1996.
Which is  your favorite Shakespeare play or character?

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