Katherina

The stereotypical ‘shrew’

Kemble as Catherine, Garrick ProductionIn the creation of Katherina’s character, Shakespeare draws on the stock character of a shrew but goes beyond this to create a complex character which develops throughout the play. 
 
Katherina is presented as a ‘typical’ shrew in that she is unruly, uncontrollable and bad-tempered. She scolds the people around her and has no respect for their age or social standing. She is aggressive and abrasive both physically and verbally. 
 
Gremio and Hortensio describe her as an aggressive and irrational young woman, referring to her as a ‘fiend of hell’ and a devil (‘From all such devils, good Lord deliver us.’). Gremio also refers to the punishment for shrewish women when he says he would rather ‘cart’ her than ‘court her’ (‘To cart her rather: she's too rough for me.’) Social punishments for a shrewish woman in Shakespeare’s day included being carted through the streets while wearing a scold's bridle which had a metal bit inserted into the mouth which made speaking impossible. 
 
Within her family, Katherina is unruly and bad-tempered as well. She bullies her sister Bianca, tying her to a chair and whipping her so she will tell her which of her suitors she prefers at the beginning of Act 2 Scene 1. Their father, Baptista, is at his wits’ end and takes Bianca’s side in the disagreements that take place in the family. Katherina is continually compared to her angelic younger sister who is agreeable and obedient and pretty. See Themes > Family relationships

A product of her society

Shakespeare’s presentation of Katherina as a shrew is problematised by the fact that there are reasons for her behaviour which relate to her place in society and her future freedom. 

The constraints on females

As a woman, Katherina has hardly any autonomy regarding how she lives her life, since she is under the authority (legal and financial) of her father. She has little control over who she will marry and most probably resents the conversations taking place between Baptista, Gremio and Hortensio about her eligibility. 

Katherina’s reaction

The mesh of social conventions and family dynamics which shapes Katherina’s behaviour and identity is in part what causes this shrewish behaviour. In one sense, like any child’s naughty behaviour, her non-compliance is a bid to be noticed and recognised as an individual. There is surely a sense of painful rejection over the reality that all the men she meets overlook her for the sake of her sister. Yet in rebelling against social conventions and gender expectations, Katherina makes herself an ‘outsider’ within her family and immediate social sphere. By resorting to extreme behaviour (worthy of the moniker of ‘shrew’) she further alienates herself from a society which she does not respect yet by which she needs to be accepted.

Transformation

Katherina’s transformation throughout the play is a result both of her relationship with Petruchio and of the audience’s understanding of what is actually going on in the play. The assumptions made by audiences about the characters at the beginning of the play are challenged and the characters themselves change through the ‘education’ they receive while in Padua and, in Katherina’s case, outside it. 
 
Petruchio, for all his overt financial motivation, seems to recognise a like-minded spirit in Katherina. Both are astute, verbally dextrous, witty and not scared to challenge the constraints of conformity. He plays her at her own game, so that she can see the harmful consequences of belittling others, but also encourages her to be playful and admires her skills. He is the first male to see her as beautiful, rather than being just a poor comparison with her sister.

Freedom with safety

At the end of the play Katherina is still as headstrong and as intelligent as she was in the beginning. She engages in linguistic duels with the other ladies and is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she has learned the social and linguistic tools that allow her to channel her independence and intelligence. The understanding that develops between Petruchio and Katherina is what makes their marriage stand apart from the others and shows the transformation Katherina has undergone.
 
Katherina’s final speech demonstrates what she has discovered from her partnership with Petruchio and is couched in religious language and metaphors as well as allusions to contemporary sermons on marriage in early modern England. 
 
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,

Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty

Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.

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…
Act 5 Scene 2     
 
Shakespeare’s audience would understand their marital harmony as a fitting conclusion to Katherina’s story, since the ability to live in harmony with each other in marriage and in society is linked to broader ideas of national peace and social structures that are rooted in God’s divine order. See Themes > Marriage.

Differing interpretations

Ultimately, Shakespeare’s representation of Katherina is open to a wide array of interpretations. In performances she has been portrayed variously as:
  • A troubled outcast
  • A wild rebel
  • A social victim
  • A clever woman misunderstood by those around her. 
Actors’ interpretative choices and critics’ readings of The Taming of the Shrew explore the complexity of both this character and Shakespeare’s play and can provide more analysis to guide your own understanding.
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