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Shakespeare's Characters: Katharina (The Taming of the Shrew)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 10. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

When the play commences, Katharina appears instated in the character of a shrew, rough, peevish, petulant, irritable, and therefore, however she obtained the character, in a false position which aggravates itself. Her younger and milder mannered sister is beset with suitors, and upon her she vents her petulance in terms which show how far her continued single state reacts upon the testiness that already deprives her of suitors, and the mischief reproduces itself. To such a state of things Petruchio was born to put an end; there is thus much sympathy between the two at starting, that well provided married state is their common object with secondary interest in the individual to be chosen. The simple difficulty to be apprehended of cross purposes, and repulsion at first encounter, is happily obviated by positive determination to take and admit of nothing other than as desired; and accordingly, after a scene of the strangest pertinacity, in which Petruchio mingles a fair proportion of flattery with banter and defiance, he makes such progress that my lady takes refuge in the sulks, and with protesting grumblings and compliant gestures she gives her hand when he asks for it for the ceremonious betrothal, nay without protesting or resisting so far gives a parting kiss when he asks it that he takes it without ceremony and then she withdraws silent, but by that very token not ill satisfied.

We may guess how far the pair are suited when we find her still more disappointed than piqued when he is unheard of on the day fixed for marriage. He arrives at last, and rough as he is and rudely accoutred she marries him notwithstanding, and no declared and obstinate opposition do we hear of until they are surely tied. Then for the first time resistance openly appears; she will stay for the bridal dinner will he or not, and now the true conflict and the taming begins. The moral of the contest proves merely this, that with equal spirit and determination on either side, the balance of physical power, of muscular strength, of capability of watching, of fasting, of enduring fatigue, so far preponderate on the side of the husband that the weaker sex has no chance in a protracted opposition and must ultimately be wearied and tired out. The matter however does not rest there; if we might apply the moral of the tale generally, Shakespeare would be an authority to back the adage: —
"A spaniel, a woman, and walnut tree,
The more you beat them the better they be."
Katharina at last does not remain in mere compelled obedience; her very spirit is subdued to the quality of natural subordination. With spaniel-like subservience she now turns on Hortensio's widow, when she hints that Petruchio is not absolute, and at last delivers a homily with no hint of insincerity, on the law of nature as illusrative of feminine subjugation : —
"Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world.
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?"
Lloyd: Critical Essays on the Plays of Shakespeare.


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