Human worth

The dignity of humanity

Shakespeare’s audience would be familiar with the church teaching that human beings have innate dignity because they are precious to God. As the writer of the Psalms sums up in wonder:
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honour.
Psalms 8:4-5 ESVUK    
Human worth and intrinsic dignity is a recurring theme in The Taming of the Shrew which relates to a character’s social status as well as to issues of power and control. 

Belittled and sidelined

This theme is first explored through references to reason and madness in scenes where Katherina is either described as mad or is automatically treated as a mad shrew. In Jack Juggler (c.1553), an anonymous children’s interlude with which Shakespeare was probably familiar, there is a description of a shrewish woman by the name of Dame Coy: 
A very cursed shrew, by the blessed Trinity, and a very devil. She is an angry piece of flesh, and soon displeased, quickly moved, but not lightly appeased.     
Other popular representations of shrews depicted physically violent and aggressive women who needed to be restrained and who were often given harsh physical punishments. 
Katherina is never punished physically with blows or torture in Shakespeare’s script, but it appears that Petruchio does physically restrain her at their first meeting (P: ‘in sooth, you scape not so.’ / K: ‘I chafe you if I tarry’, Act 2 scene 1). Meanwhile, Katherina frequently resorts to physical chastisement of others, tying up and slapping her younger sister and hitting Petruchio. She shows a lack of respect for the dignity of all around her, inflicting on them the indifference with which she is discussed and treated, evident from her first words in Act 1 Scene 1: 
I pray you, sir, is it your will
To make a stale of me amongst these mates?     

The importance of honouring others

The theme of human worth and intrinsic dignity is also explored in other parts of the play. Lucentio’s father, Vincentio, highlights this theme when he is insulted and described as an imposter by his own servant, Tranio, who denounces him to the policeman and almost makes him believe he is going mad. He is denied the dignity a respected man and father would have expected from his son and servant. 

The Great Chain of BeingAbove the beasts

According to the Elizabethan worldview (see The world of Shakespeare > What is a human), humans are above beasts in the Chain of being; thus to equate a person with an animal is to denigrate their worth. There are many instances in The Taming of the Shrew where characters are described as animals or compared to animals:
  • Baptista makes references to marketing cattle when he makes negotiations about his daughters’ marriages
  • Petruchio refers to Kate with words that would describe a brown horse when he meets her for the first time to tell her they are going to be married
  • In Act 2 Scene 1, both Petruchio and Katherina insult the other using animalistic insults:
Katherina: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
Petruchio:  Women are made to bear, and so are you.
Katherina:  No such jade as you, if me you mean.     
Although the animal imagery is insulting and degrading, this linguistic battle is ultimately evidence of a mutual matching of intelligence and wit. Katherina finds an opponent who is not only able but also willing to engage with her as an equal. Although degrading, the imaginative use of imagery belies an equality of wit and humour which tests their characters and intellects.

Taming the hawk

In the rest of the play, Petruchio’s approach to ‘taming’ Katherina is based on understanding her as a wild hawk which needs to be tamed. Her shrewish behaviour is described with a range of hawking allusions and she is described as a falcon which ‘is sharp and passing empty’ and a kite which will ‘bate and beat and will not be obedient’ (Act 4 Scene 1). Petruchio applies all the methods of training a wild hawk, including isolation, starvation and sleep deprivation. 
To modern sensibilities, treating Katherina like an animal cannot be condoned, and Petruchio’s entire philosophy seems to bring into question her human worth and intrinsic dignity. This is an important objection, but Shakespearean audiences would not fail to appreciate that the process of taming a hawk is equally gruelling for the falconer as for the bird, whose high value was worth the effort.
In undergoing this training both Katherina and Petruchio face humiliations and challenges which change them and forge a common bond between them. A case can be made that, by the end of the play, Katherina and Petruchio are well matched and know how to curb each other’s excesses whilst ultimately bringing out the best in each other.
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