John Drew as Petruchio 1887The spiky outsider

Petruchio is a newcomer to Padua who quickly establishes for himself a reputation as a reckless adventurer. He is willing to woo the shrewish Katherina, from whom everyone else stays away, because he wants to find a rich wife in Padua. His wooing of her is funny and yet ruthless. In the ensuing battle of wits the audience discovers that Petruchio is more than a match for Katherina and the pair seem to be equally matched intellectually and linguistically. They also seem to be equal in terms of their social standing: neither of them fully fits into the conventional society of Padua and both are seen as outsiders. Katherina is an outsider because she does not conform to gender expectations and Petruchio is also, because he is new to Padua and has no money to support his status.

‘Mad’ Petruchio

Petruchio’s desire for action rather than endless talking suggests that he is impetuous, as does his impatient treatment of the servants and tailors who wait on him. When frustrated, he is not averse to expressing this physically, as Grumio knows to his cost. Yet his patient taming of his ‘bating’ wife demonstrates a man who is tactical rather than impetuous, thoughtful and patient in achieving his hopes. This is a side revealed more to the audience than to the men around him, in front of whom he keeps up a bluff façade.
Thus Petruchio’s wooing of Katherina, his arrival at his own wedding and his immediate return to his hometown with his new wife furthers his reputation as a ‘mad-brain rudesby’ and attracts ridicule from the people of Padua. Even his own servants, when they hear about his total disregard for his new wife while journeying home after the wedding, comment on his behaviour and say, ‘By this reckoning he is more shrew than she’ (Act 4 Scene 1).

A catalyst for change

Petruchio is the key instigator of the transformations that take place in Padua. When he sets out to woo and tame Katherina, he sets in motion a train of events that will reveal the true character of other people and challenge social stereotypes and local prejudices. 
He also involves himself in the ‘taming’ to which he subjects Katherina. The allusions to falconry are more than a source of rich imagery. They describe the extreme education that Katherina - and arguably Petruchio also - undergoes. The training of a falcon is as intense for the falconer as it is for the falcon: both experience extreme hunger, sleep deprivation, rejection and pain. 
By the end of the play, Petruchio has ‘tamed’ Katherina, as is evidenced in the way they work together to win the wager. Petruchio’s parting comment to Lucentio and Hortensio is both an insult as well as a comment on his successful marriage:
Come, Kate, we'll to bed.
We three are married, but you two are sped.
Act 5 Scene 2     

Varying interpretations

Shakespeare’s representation of Petruchio is open to a wide array of interpretations and in performances he has been portrayed variously as:
  • A social rebel
  • A violent misogynist
  • A harmless bully
  • A suitable opponent to Katherina
  • A sensitive man with a rough exterior. 
Actors’ interpretative choices and critics’ readings of The Taming of the Shrew explore the complexity of both this character and Shakespeare’s play and are worth exploring to guide your own understanding.
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