He Kills Her in Her Own Humor

The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV

In Shakespeare’s Philosophy, Colin McGinn makes it clear that epistemology (how we know what we know) was very much on Shakespeare’s mind.  Mr. McGinn did not mention Taming of the Shrew in his discourse, but his lesson has served me well and I find it anyway.  For such an understanding greatly aids my reading of the play – especially the formerly bewildering series of scenes in Act IV.

For it is in these scenes that Petruchio “tames” Kate by putting her through ordeals that seem like torture – or brainwashing at the very least.  He denies her food and sleep.  He flies off on unprovoked rages.  He denies her a perfectly lovely dress while upbraiding the tailor for what she judges to be commendable work.

The real question is why.  What is Petruchio after?  He states in a late-night soliloquy that there is a method to his madness.  But what exactly is his aim?

The simple reading would say: neither to be crossed, confronted nor contradicted in his authority as “the man” of the house.  This is what Kate herself believes at first, protesting that the worst part of Petruchio’s behavior is that he claims to be treating her this way out of “love.” 
Love?  Not any form of the word that she has ever known! And so she continues to resist him, asserting her independence in matters of taste and perception of objective fact.

It is precisely here that Petruchio applies the heat and pressure, insisting that Kate undermine her own logic to buttress his own.  Therefore, if it’s the middle of the day and the sun is shining, she must abandon what she knows and “agree” when Pertuchio praises the radiant moon.  When an old man approaches, she is bidden to acknowledge the lovely young maiden who makes her way towards them.  Her sense of reality thereby becomes unhinged from its independent track and gets hitched to his.  Just what sort of power-hungry lunatic is he?  Did he marry for simple-minded agreement to every whim and fancy?

It would certainly appear that way.  But I love what happens in the BBC production because it is at just this moment that Kate begins to laugh.  Not merely to giggle…but to split a gut. In fact, she finds it so funny that Lucentio calls her a “merry mistress” and wonders if his fellow travelers are telling him the truth or pulling pranks.

So why is Kate laughing?  Until now, she has consented to Petruchio’s whimsy only because it presents itself as the most expedient path to get what she wants: food, sleep, a hat, the trip to see her father.  At this point, though, something within her breaks.  And it’s because suddenly she grasps what Petruchio has been up to all the while, hitting upon the that fungible difference between reality and perception – and how it can be manipulated.

Her former “shrewishness” had served as a form of social protest.  Dwelling wholly in what is and what ought to be, she has acted out idealistically from a wronged sense of justice. Her father has preferred Bianca.  She has been labeled a shrew by the townspeople.  She has been locked inside a role that was only partly her own creation.

What Petruchio offers her is the chance to play with perception to her own advantage.  By acting a certain way or saying a particular thing, she can allow people to believe whatever they want; it will have no bearing over what she or Petruchio knows to be true.  By his willingness to flout convention, Petruchio has shown her that what they perceive doesn’t matter – he just needs her to see what he sees.

She gets that now.  Which is why we are so wrong when we accept the surface meaning to Petruchio’s behavior.  If we do, we fail the very lesson he tries so hard for Katherine to pass.  They are like two kids in a sandbox.  Until now, Kate has insisted that Petruchio’s imaginary friends aren’t real.  There are no unicorns or leprechauns.  No looking glasses or journeys down a rabbit hole.

Pay attention in Act V.  For that is where these lessons in misperception (the so-called “taming”) come to bear.


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