The Taming of the Shrewby William Shakespeare
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While The Taming of the Shrew is not one of the Shakespearean plays traditionally taught in English courses, the lively comic plot and appealing characters make it an excellent introduction to the Bard. Because the play deals with relationships between several different "courting" couples, it can capture the attention of adolescents and spark lively debate on the age-old "battle of the sexes."
Less able readers can enjoy the action and intrigue of the story. They will also be able to appreciate the theme of the play: the problems that arise when people are expected to conform to the roles society expects them to play. More able readers will understand the contradictions between plot and subplot and the role of deception. All students will be able to compare the play to modern versions of the story, while more able students can look for parallels in literature. Study of The Taming of the Shrew offers students the opportunity to compare social customs surrounding courtship and marriage from Elizabethan England to those of other countries and to modern America. The play can promote important discussions about the role of respect, deception, romance, caring, and violence in the relationships between men and women.
This teacher's guide is divided into several parts: (1) a brief literary overview, including a synopsis and commentary on the play; (2) suggestions for teaching the play, including activities, discussion questions, and writing topics to be used before, during, and after reading the play; (3) ideas to extend students' learning beyond the play, including ways to address its themes, ideas for teaching literary analysis, techniques for using the play as a bridge to other works, and ways to use the play in interdisciplinary study; (4) bibliographies, including additional pedagogical sources, other works of literature addressing similar themes, and interdisciplinary sources.
Throughout this study guide, attention will be given to the ability level of
the students, and specific activities, discussion questions, and topics will
be labeled as to
*Appropriate for all students.
+Most appropriate for nonacademic students.
#Most appropriate for above average students.
~Most appropriate for academic students.
The scene opens in an English country alehouse in the late 1500s. A nobleman discovers Christopher Sly, a drunken beggar, and decides to play a trick on him. He orders his men to take the passed out Sly to his own bedroom, dress the beggar in fine clothes, and tell him he is a nobleman who has been very ill for many years (Ind, i.) [pp. 45-50]. When Sly awakes, he proudly protests that he is no lord. Gradually, however, Sly comes to believe in his nobility and begins taking on lordly airs. He agrees to watch the performance of a wandering band of actors who have also been enlisted in the lord's plot (Ind, ii.) [pp. 50-56].
The action of The Taming of the Shrew, the play-within-a-play, begins in the Italian city of Padua. Lucentio, a young gentleman of Verona, arrives accompanied by his servant Tranio. Lucentio's discussion of his studies is interrupted by the appearance of Baptista Minola, his two daughters Katherina (Kate) and Bianca, and two would-be suitors for Bianca's hand-Gremio, an old man, and Hortensio, a gentleman of fashion. Baptista states that no one will be permitted to court Bianca until her older sister, Kate, has a husband. Gremio and Hortensio protest that no one wants to marry the bad-tempered Kate. Baptista intends to keep Bianca in seclusion and asks for tutors while she waits. While listening to this conversation, Lucentio has become totally smitten with Bianca. He plans to get to know Bianca by posing as a tutor while Tranio pretends to be Lucentio and joins the ranks of Bianca's "official" suitors (I, i.) [pp. 57-66].
Another young gentleman of Verona, the bold Petruchio, arrives at the home of his friend Hortensio proclaiming he has come to Padua to find a wealthy wife. Hortensio replies he knows a lady, Katherina Minola, who is both rich and beautiful, but unfortunately she is a terrible shrew. Petruchio does not care just as long as she is rich. Hortensio agrees to introduce Petruchio to Kate's father if Petruchio will help him gain access to the younger sister. The old suitor Gremio has found Cambio, a Latin tutor for Bianca. Cambio is really Lucentio. The ranks of the suitors for Bianca increase when Tranio makes his grand entrance posing as Lucentio. All three-Hortensio, Gremio, Tranio/Lucentio-agree to finance Petruchio's courtship of Kate since his success will open the way for them (I, ii.) [pp. 66-77].
Baptista must intervene in a fight between Kate and Bianca. When he chides Kate for her actions, she claims her father likes her younger sister best. Petruchio arrives, accompanied by various suitors and tutors. He immediately inquires about the hand of Baptista's daughter Kate, assuring Baptista he is from a good family. Petruchio presents Hortensio, now posing as the music tutor Litio. Not to be outdone, Gremio introduces the Latin tutor, Lucentio/Cambio. Baptista welcomes the tutors and sends them to meet their pupils while Tranio/Lucentio officially becomes a candidate for Bianca's hand. Baptista decides Petruchio's offer of marriage is a good one, but he must win Kate's love first. Petruchio is confident he can do so.
Petruchio's first encounter with Kate generates sparks as the two engage in rough-and-tumble verbal sparring. Petruchio announces that he is the perfect husband for Kate and tells Baptista and the others not to take note of her behavior; they have agreed she will still pretend to be shrewish in public even though she really loves him madly. Sunday is set for the wedding day. Since Kate now seems to be spoken for, Gremio and Tranio/Lucentio face off to negotiate for Bianca's hand. Baptista is impressed by Tranio/Lucentio's promises of enormous riches, but, to be on the safe side, he wants Tranio/Lucentio's father, Vincentio, to make good his son's offer. Tranio realizes the "supposed Lucentio" must now get busy and find a "supposed Vincentio" to pose as his father (II, i) [pp. 78-93].
In the garden of Baptista's home, the disguised suitors begin their covert courtship of Bianca. Lucentio/Cambio, between the lines of a Latin lesson, tells Bianca who he really is. Bianca is cautious, but does not discourage Lucentio's attentions. Their actions raise the suspicions of Hortensio/Litio (III, i.) [pp. 94-97].
Everyone but the groom gathers for the much anticipated wedding of Petruchio and Kate. Kate is humiliated to think she has been left standing at the altar. When Petruchio arrives both his dress and his behavior are outrageous. Baptista protests, and Petruchio replies that Kate is marrying him, not his clothes, and he drags her off to the church. Tranio meanwhile brings Lucentio up to date on his plan to find someone to pretend to be Vincentio. When the wedding party returns, Petruchio announces they have to leave right away and will not be staying for the wedding feast. Although everyone objects to his plan, Petruchio says he will be master of what is his, especially of his wife. He sweeps her up and carries her away from her father's house (III, i i.) [pp. 98-107].
The journey to Petruchio's home is not a pleasant one. Petruchio and Kate arrive cold, dirty, tired, and hungry. Petruchio, furthermore, is in a rage and declares the supper to be unfit. He decides he and Kate will fast, and he packs her off to bed. Petruchio announces his plan to tame Kate as he would a falcon, starving her into submission. But every time he denies her sleep or sends back her food, he will claim it to be done in loving care of her. Thus will he "kill a wife with kindness" (IV, i.) [pp. 108-116].
Hortensio/Litio and Tranio/Lucentio give up their quest for Bianca's hand when they discover her kissing Lucentio/Cambio, a common tutor. Hortensio decides instead to marry a wealthy widow. With one suitor now out of the way, Tranio finds an old man to pretend to be Vincentio and thus secure his "suit" (IV, ii.) [Pp. 116-120]. Kate, meanwhile, is showing signs of wear from Petruchio's "kindnesses." Petruchio surprises her by announcing they will go back to Padua for her sister's wedding. Kate's hopes for new clothes for the occasion are dashed because she has not mastered her temper. Petruchio decides they will go back to her father's dressed as they are. After all, clothes will not change who they are inside (IV, iii.) [Pp. 121-128].
The seesaw action returns to Padua where Lucentio and Bianca have run away to get married (IV, iv) [pp. 129-133]. Meanwhile on the road back to Padua, Petruchio is about to win the battle he has been waging with Kate. He declares the moon is shining brightly. When Kate disagrees with him, he announces they will return home. At last Kate sees the point and says it is the moon or the sun, or whatever he wants it to be. They are joined by an elderly man, the real Vincentio, on his way to Padua to check up on his son Lucentio (IV, v) [pp. 133-136].
While Lucentio and Bianca go to the church, the real Vincentio arrives at his lodgings. The poor man does not know what is going on because Lucentio's servants swear they have never seen him before. Vincentio is rescued by the real Lucentio who shocks everyone with the news he and Bianca are married. Everyone, but Petruchio and Kate, heads to Baptista's house to sort matters out. Petruchio demands a kiss from Kate. Kate balks at first, but at last grants his request. The battles appear to be over (V, i) [pp. 137-143].
The mood is festive at the wedding feast for the three newly married couples, but everyone agrees Petruchio has the worst of the wives. Petruchio suggests the three men wager to see whose wife is the most obedient. Bianca and the Widow refuse to come when summoned by their husbands. Kate, on the other hand, not only comes when summoned, but also lectures the other wives on the kind of duty each owes her husband-to make him a happy home while he works to take care of them both. The assembled crowd is amazed at Kate's transformation. Petruchio and Kate have won both the bet and the battle the other two couples are just now beginning. Or have they? (V, ii) [pp. 143-151].
The play contains three stories of deception. In the Induction, the drunkard Sly is tricked into believing he is a nobleman because he is dressed and treated as one. Later, in the play-within-a-play, Petruchio pretends to be a male counterpart to the shrew, beating and berating his servants and yet treating Kate with exaggerated kindness. His object is to give her a taste of her own medicine, while at the same time allowing her to take on the role of a gentlewoman. Deception and disguise are integral parts of the Lucentio-Bianca plot where four characters assume someone else's identity in order to gain access to Bianca. Bianca also pretends to be sweet and submissive, but in reality she shows signs of being self-centered and willful. While students may find the Lucentio-Bianca plot difficult to follow, they should see how the outcomes of the stories differ. Which man, Lucentio or Petruchio, will have the more suitable wife?
Modern audiences can laugh at the actions of Kate, especially when she is getting the better of the foppish suitors; however, her behavior toward her sister, Petruchio's treatment of her, and her last speech, pose problems. Students should understand that the play mirrors societal attitudes of Shakespeare's time. The shrew was a standard character in comedy. Noah's wife, for example, was often portrayed as shrewish in the cycle plays popular just before Shakespeare's time. A later example of the shrew is the character of Joe's wife in Dickens' novel Great Expectations. The shrew was a woman who was out of control, unreasonably angry, and sometimes cruel. In the comic convention, she usually got what she deserved. Shakespeare treats his shrew with a little more dignity. Kate is, after all, the title character of his play. Petruchio sets out to tame her much as the sportsman of his day tamed his falcon or the cowboy of this time breaks in a horse. Kate learns not only to play Petruchio's game but also to enjoy it. In the final analysis, it is left to the audience to interpret Kate's last speech: Has she truly been tamed or is she just playing the game?
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