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Taming of the Shrew - Critical Review

Updated on May 12, 2011

Petruccio: The Altruistic Husband, or Opprobrious Tyrant

Some would agree that since the first chronicle of time, men have felt, in fact embraced, their illusion of dominance over their women. This is distinguished constantly throughout history in many forms; through spoken word, imagery, and literature. The character Petruccio, from William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, is one such example. As referred to in his soliloquy at the end of Act IV scene I, Petruccio speaks on  his method towards taming young Katherine into submission of proper authority. He also briefly examines his task and compares it to the taming of the symbolic animal, the hawk.Petruccio, however, reveals himself to be a vile, grasping, delusional character lost in the clamber for his own gratification. His intentions, while perceived as good, compare finding favor in his wife to animal domestication, and ridicules female independence while eulogizing domestic abuse. Petruccio’s speech reveals his physical  intentions toward taming Katherine, while deducing his reasoning behind his approach and his self reconciliation toward said physical intentions, and thus, revealing a deeper understanding of the true nature his character as duplicitous. 

Petruccio first comments on his task by using a metaphor of a hawk, “My falcon, now is sharp and passing empty, / And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged / For then she never looks upon her lure.” (4.1.170-172).  The falcon itself is a bird of prey with great destructive power (OED),  and as such Petruccio remarks on the behavior of Katherine as strong-willed and powerful, but destructive in nature. Petruccio reiterates her nature by his description of the hawk as “sharp”. Sharp is a term used to describe a bird of prey’s craving for food, or hunger (OED). When a hawk is hungry, it is brash and irrational and will be looking desperately around for some animal to devour. Much in the same way, Katherine is said to be constantly trying to “devour” the suitors who come to woo her with rude comments and sometimes physical violence. Petruccio however, loses his metaphorical endeavor with his quite literal response. When he says of her to “stoop” before being “fully-gorged” he means of Katherine to capitulate to his authority before she can be well fed (OED). Petruccio actually starves her in some points throughout the play whereas he could have “fed” Katherine in ways other than the literal. By his initial meeting with her, Petruccio could have continued his method of treating curse and insult with praise and sincerity. Instead he will trick Katherine into not eating or sleeping because of his ironic fussing over their food and bed.

Petruccio continues in his metaphor by saying, “ Another way I have to man my haggard, / To make her come and know her keeper’s call / That is, to watch her as we watch these kites / That bate and beat, and will not be obedient.” (4.1.173-176). No matter how obnoxious and rude Katherine may be, this is quite an offensive manner to refer to his wife. To “man my haggard” simply implies another way for him to tame his hungry bird of prey (OED). When Petruccio refers to Katherine as the haggard, and for her to come and know her keeper’s call, he demeans her to simply answering to a higher master, in this case Petruccio, and answering to his every whim. A tyrant by definition is a person exercising power or control in a cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary way (OED). Here we have Petruccio, who by right has control and power over Katherine, and he plans to establish and keep that power by denying her food and sleep in a cruel and unreasonable way.

Petruccio explains this in the next lines when he says:

“She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat. 

Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not. 

As with the meat, some undeserved fault 

I’ll find about the making of the bed 

And here I’ll fling the pillow, there the bolster,  

This way the coverlet, another way the sheets, 

Ay, and amid this hurly intend 

That all is done in reverent care of her, 

And in conclusion she shall watch all night,  

And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl 

And with the clamour keep her still awake.”        (4.1.177-187)

Petruccio uses his kindness to blind Katherine of his true intentions. He describes how he’ll keep her awake all night by exclaiming how the bed she sleeps on is not worthy of her. All done in “reverent” care, which comes from the root word “revere” meaning in deep respect or admiration for something or someone, often related with divinity (OED). Thus Petruccio gives Katherine a false sense of divinity and power over her suitor, when in fact she is succumbing to Petruccio’s will. Within the same consequence, she grows submissive because of physical enervation and malnourishment. 

Petruccio ends finally in an interesting sense of reconciliation when he concludes, “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, / And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour. / He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak. ‘Tis charity to show.” (4.1.188-191). The key word being “charity” one would support in referring to the implication of it being giving voluntary help, but denies the other definition referring to “charity” as kindness and tolerance in judging others (OED). Petruccio is speaking to himself, or in context with the play, with the audience about seeking kindness and tolerance in judgement. Petruccio knows that his course of action is not favorable within his own eyes and the audience, otherwise he would not be seeking leniency in his course of action. Petruccio is speaking his thoughts as thoughts, which means he is not entirely sure if his intent is justified or not because he is in a brief moment of rebuttal. He says, “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak.” (4.1.190-191), when there is no one else to claim a logical appeal. This is only done in drama and in life when one is in knowledge of some wrong within their decision, but sees no other alternative, and thus reconciles their decision as reasonable. 

Petruccio’s decision to be deceitful and abusive toward his wife is often seen as kind and gentle in motive. He is however, seeking only to ensure Katherine’s obedience in the male dominated society of 16th century Italy. In correlation to animal domestication, men constantly feel a reward from taming dogs, horses and hawks. It’s an innate emotion that is fueled by testosterone and masculinity, much like fighting for a mate is in male animals. In a combined way, Petruccio seeks to ultimately dominant his wife’s control. Like an animal however, there are certain precise methods of accomplishing this, and in this case, through aggrandized benevolence and lack of proper health.

There is also a significance within the context of the use of “meat” and “bed” when Petruccio reveals his method to tame Katherine into obedience: “She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat. / Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not. / As with the meat, some undeserved fault / I’ll find about the making of the bed,” (4.1.177-180). Superficially “meat” is referred to as food of any kind, but it is also defined as the essence or chief part of something (OED). As well, through a similar phrase “be meat and drink to” it is to be a source of great pleasure to (OED). Likewise, the “bed” signifies a place of sexual desire and activity (OED). Often when two people were said to go to the same “bed”, it is presumed that intercourse was involved (OED). In other words, both “meat” and “bed” are primary objects of desire, and as such, the most primitive of desires: food and sex. Petruccio wishes to deny Katherine of those in a sense of role reversal. Predominantly within the period, women were the cooks, and men would have to fight over, and win the women’s flower of virginity. By denying Katherine of both, it is seen as humorous to male audiences and as a message to female audiences. The message to women is that men are the ones who should be in control and women should be submissive to their men. In a similar sense, the denial of basic necessities reverts a person to primal behavior. It suggests the the natural order of things, or primitive aspect of humanity, is to have the men in dominance over the women. 

To conclude, Petruccio began his soliloquy with, “Thus have I politicly begun my reign, / And ‘tis my hope to end successfully.” (4.1.168-169). The word “politicly” comes from the root word “politic” meaning, “seeming sensible and judicious under the circumstances (OED). In ancient Greece, a tyrant was a ruler who seized power without legal right (OED), but often did so because it seemed like the sensible and judicious course of action to take under the circumstances. The tyrant would usually find reconciliation in his ideals for those he promised to help. When in fact, his true motives lied in egomaniacal self-reverence. Likewise, Petruccio believed he sought to help Katherine become a productive and obedient member of society within his speech; when in fact, he was simply satisfying his own primal need for dominance.

Works Cited 

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, Second Edition Comedies (Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, Second Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 224. 


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