Speech and silence

Vocal shrews

For a character after whom the play is named, Katherina has remarkably few lines in The Taming of the Shrew. Mammalian shrews were renowned for aggressive vocalisations to fend off rivals, and human ‘shrews’ were associated with a similar refusal to be silenced. In the early stages of the play, Katherina is ‘Renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue’ (Act 1 Scene 2) and desire to have the last word. Bianca’s learnt response is to retreat, which is exasperating to her sister for whom words are a way to assert dominance (‘Her silence flouts me,’ Act 2 Scene 1).
 
As Lucentio sums up, Bianca fits the social ideal for women:
 
In the other’s silence do I see
Maid’s mild behaviour and sobriety.
Act 1 Scene 1     
 
whereas Katherina is associated with unfeminine ‘loud alarums’. Yet speaking is one of the few ways in which Katherina can express her intelligence and strong sense of individuality within the repressive social expectations for women. That she is quick-witted and verbally dextrous is clear from her introduction to Petruchio, who jousts with her verbally and just about manages to evade her darts landing effectively by continually changing tack. 

Trapped by words

The problem for Katherina is that she has lost the ability to converse without scoring points and regarding her partner as a combatant. It becomes clear from Petruchio’s methods that he believes the best way to free Katherina is to expose her to the effect of such a web of words, and to teach her the art of listening to others with consideration, so that she can maintain ‘gentle conference, soft and affable.’ (Act 2 Scene 1)
 
Petruchio’s method of ‘taming’ deprives Katherina of her voice, either in terms of not allowing her space to talk, or in disregarding the meaning of whatever she says. Thus, even in the scenes in which she speaks, she is deliberately misunderstood or ignored. When the couple arrive at Petruchio’s house after a long journey, without having eaten for many hours, Petruchio insists that the food is not good enough for Katherina. He refuses to listen to her assertions to the contrary and in his comic, hyperbolic concern, silences her. In their bedroom, Petruchio ‘rails and swears and [be]rates’, usurping her usual routine of complaint. In public Petruchio puts into practice his plan to ‘kill a wife with kindness’. For Katherina, who is highly eloquent and proficient in verbal exchanges, there is no opportunity for engaging Petruchio in a battle of wits because he takes away this option. 

Repressed by silence

As Petruchio progresses in his method of taming, he increasingly silences Katherina and eventually she angrily confronts him when he will not listen to her opinion about the new fashionable hat a tailor has brought for her to view:
 
Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe.
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,
And, rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.
Act 4 Scene 3     
 
Petruchio continues to stubbornly misinterpret her and pretends to agree with her that the cap is ‘a paltry cap’ and a ‘custard-coffin’. However, Katherina insists on having her own way:
 
Love me or love me not, I like the cap
And it I will have, or I will have none.
Act 4 Scene 3     
 
Unfortunately, Petruchio has the economic authority to have the final word, as he is able to send the tailor away without paying for anything and Katherina retains neither the cap nor the gown that she likes. However, more important than the clothes is the lesson Petruchio is trying to teach her about the importance of communication and the ability to listen to each other. This is one aspect of typical shrewish behaviour which he is attempting to ‘tame’ in Katherina by giving her an experience of being on its receiving end.

A scold's bridleElizabethan punishments

Aspects of Petruchio’s ‘silencing’ of Katherina are reminiscent of the social punishments that silenced shrewish women, who were also known as ‘scolds’, in early modern England. The scold’s bridle or ‘brank’ was an iron helmet with a ‘bit’ that went in the mouth to hold the tongue still. This helmet was put on the scold’s head and the ‘bit’ put into her mouth. As a punishment for disturbing the peace with her unruly behaviour, she was led or carted round the streets with this on. Petruchio uses different methods of ‘silencing’ Katherina but the scold’s bridle may not have been far from an audience’s mind in much of The Taming of the Shrew.

Lost for words

In The Taming of the Shrew, most of the dialogue is declaimed by voluble men, who clearly enjoy expressing their views to an attentive audience, whether it be servants, women or their peers. Katherina has tried to gain attention in this social sphere, regarding herself as an equal, but has been pushed to the sidelines. It is interesting therefore to see that in the final scene of the play, the situation is reversed. When neither Bianca nor the Widow come at their husband’s bidding, both men are struck dumb. They remain lost for words when Katherina does appear as requested. 
 
The play ends with Katherina centre-stage, giving an authoritative and public speech, and putting firmly in their place not only her sister and the widow but their husbands as well. The voice denied her earlier, by both Petruchio and the men who labelled her a ‘shrew’, is restored to her and she uses it as an independent and articulate woman.
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