Food, feast and fast

Fulfilment postponed

Food and drink is associated with fulfilment. Although lavished on Sly (as part of the ruse that he is a gentleman), and frequently mentioned during The Taming of the Shrew, only at the play’s end is food finally consumed. Meanwhile, its absence is used symbolically by Shakespeare. 
Petruchio refuses to let Katherina eat at her own wedding feast, where food is a celebration, because she is not yet in a place that signifies a harmonious relationship. Instead, the couple set off on a journey, physical and metaphorical, where food will play a large part. Petruchio uses feeding as a tool of behaviour management to ensure Katherina is, like a hawk being tamed, controlled by the careful regulation of her hunger. Even when Hortensio arrives to have lunch with them, Petruchio devises plans to distract his wife from her food, as part of his plan to teach her to be less argumentative and aggressive. 

The significance of fasting

Petruchio’s monitoring of Katherina’s food has a religious aspect. Fasting is a Christian spiritual discipline designed to purify body and soul, signify repentance and aid religious devotion. Consequently, the feasting that follows is a form of spiritual celebration. (See Big ideas from the Bible > Fasting and feasting.) 
The wedding feast in Act 3 Scene 3, where others are invited to ‘Go to the feast, revel and domineer, / Carouse full measure’ is denied to Katherina until she has gone through the fasting process. As with religious fasting, Katherina’s fast, enforced by Petruchio, is intended to have benefits which effect both a spiritual transformation and a weakening of unhealthy appetites.

Food and power

Grumio also monitors Katherina’s fast on his master’s behalf, but in a more manipulative (and potentially humorous) manner. In Act 4 Scene 3 he teases her with references to food she is then denied, such as the cooked meat, which is ‘too choleric’. His alternative of ‘fat tripe finely broil’ed’ turns out to be just as bad for her angry temperament, whilst Grumio makes jokes about the effect food has on people with a fiery personality.
The final scene takes place at a banquet at Lucentio’s house and it is here where Katherina finally enjoys the food that is placed in front of her and where she shows the result of Petruchio’s taming which has turned her from a ‘shrew’ into an ‘obedient wife’ whose appetites have been tamed and whose intellect has been engaged.
Still life by Pieter Claesz 1627
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