The Shift Of Power In The Taming Of The Shrew

William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew suggests that the ability to manipulate someone to change depends on one’s status. Shakespeare depicts power from a variety of different points of view, showcasing male dominance with privilege and rebellious women with agency.

Petruccio believes he is able to change Katherine from the shrew that she is, and wed her. He does not want to change her out of love, but out of greed because he wishes to inherit her family’s wealth, and her being pleasant would make it easier for him to wed her. He achieves this by acting more shrew-like than Katherine does herself, making her behave much more pleasantly to compensate for Petruccio’s awful behaviour.

“Thus have I politicly begun my reign/ And ‘tis my hope to end successfully. My Falcon now is sharp and passing empty/ And till she stoop she must not be full gorged/ For then She never looks upon lure. 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 bait and beat and will not be obedient. 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 making of the bed/ And here I’ll fling the pillow, there the bolster/ This way coverlet, another way the sheets. Ay and amid this hurly I intend/ That all is done in reverend 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 clamor keep her still awake. This is a way to kill a wife with kindness”.

Although Petruccio is not wealthy, he is a white male. He holds one of the most dominant power positions, therefore he is able to be so manipulative and essentially torture her and deprive her of basic human necessitites in his attempts to train her not to be a shrew. If he wishes to marry Katherine, and her father approves, she has no choice but to marry him, making his plan foolproof.

“To seek their fortunes farther than at home/ Where small experience grows/ But in a few/ Signor Hortensio/ thus it stands with me/ Antonio, my father, is deceased/ And I have thrust myself into this maze/ Haply to wife and thrive as best I may/ Crowns in my purse I have, and goods are home/ And so am come abroad to see the world.” 

When Hortensio asks Petruccio why he left Verona to visit Padua, Petruccio replies with how his father has passed and he now does not have much money/ his plan to find a woman to wed for her money is what has sent him on his journey.

As a female, Katherine has little to no say in the decision of if she is to wed any of the suitors that appear at her door, although Baptista says the suitors must be able to obtain Katherine’s love. This is why Katherine acts as a shrew, it is because one of the few power positions that she posses’ is to deter the men from marrying her by scaring them away. Katherine sees through Petruccio and his plan to marry her. She uses her shrewishness to her advantage, because her female opinion is overruled by male dominance, what she can do most is to repel Petruccio away from her. “‘Moved’, in good time. Let him that moved you hither/ Remove you hence. I knew you at first/ You were a moveable...A joint stool”. Katherine questions Petruccio’s statement on why he will not give up on marrying her, his statement that he is driven trying to make him feel insecure. She tells him to get whoever it was that drove him here and get them to drive him away and that he is about as useless as a stool, in attempts to push him away and get him to realize she wants nothing to do with him.

In all plays from the Elizabethian times, all the actors were men. This means that Katherine, Bianca and any other female role, is portrayed by a male actor.

“How would this material condition of Shakespeare's theatre have modified the audience's perception of the power structures represented in the fiction of The Taming of the Shrew.” 

In The Taming of the Shrew, power roles of male dominance are prevalent to the audience in characters such as Baptista, Petruccio and Lucentio, whom of which are all white men with a status of power. However their roles of power are also undermined and counterpointed by the heroine role of Kate that is played by a male apprentice actor. This provides a shift of power from when viewers are watching the play versus when they are reading the play, because this shift of gender creates a unique dynamic from how you perceive Katherine, to how she may be acting due to the male actor’s perception of the shrew. In the play it would be common for the male actors to over dramatize and put emphasis on the stereotypical girl character by making them annoying or poking fun at the thought of being a female. In scenes as simple as Katherine reacting to something with a gasp, in the theatre could be taken to a scream or a shrill noise of disgust. The actor’s body language takes a large part of this as well. Where they may walk a certain way, run a certain way, stand a certain way or emphasize differently than the male characters, often times women were portrayed very weak and unskilled.

Shakespeare takes human pedagogy as a form of training and applies it to Katherine and Bianca. By examining Shakespeare's use of human training we are able to argue that Petruccio’s qualitative research methods achieves success in the domestic sphere, of which are highlighted through discipline and education. Throughout the entire story, education is a prevailing theme, where Petruccio is so to say teaching Katherine how to behave, even if she is unaware that she is being taught. He does this by starving her one night saying the food is not good enough for her, then depriving her of sleep the next by saying the bed is not up to the standards she deserves, depriving her of basic human needs. He also begins to act like a shrew himself, resulting in Katherine acting like less of a shrew to compensate for his behaviour. Petruccio does all of this purposefully knowing that it will tame Katherine into being the good obedient wife that she is supposed to be.

“That is to say, if Petruccio makes Katherine subject to his will, she is so as the citizen is subject to the monarch, not as women are subject to men. A system originally developed for the education of boys works equally well to educate women”.

In spite of the fact that they are both educated, Petruccio’s status of male dominance still reigns over Katherine, in the sense that he is able to manipulate how she behaves by the way that he behaves. Much like during Katherine and Petruccio’s wedding when he demands he must leave, making Katherine desire for his attention and presence, Petruccio states “I am content you shall entreat me stay; But yet not stay, entreat me how you can”. Katherine responds desperately with “Now, if you love me, stay.” By Katherine stating this, she is begging for his attention but she is also trying to shift the power back to her. Katherine saying “If you love me” is almost a threat to Petruccio, which although he does not stay and it does not work, was still a manipulative statement on Katherine’s part by trying to tempt him not to leave.

Petruccio’s triumph in taming Katherine disturbingly implicates that in order for one to succeed, this must result in the total defeat of the other person rather than resulting in a compromise. The story displays multiple themes of power abuse through oppression. Husband over wife in Petruccio and Katherine’s case, abusive master over servant in Petruccio and Grumio’s case, and cruel parent over child in Baptista and Katherine’s case. In all situations the dominant person is the superior male prevalently displaying multiple views of status of power through a patriarchal society.

“The play represents the social practices and institutions of Shakespeare's time in a way that highlights their tyranny, despite foregrounding their success.”

These power structures are based on the social and patriarchal hierarchy. In spite of the fact that Petruccio has no money, and Katherine has plenty of wealth, Petruccio still has a higher title than Katherine due to his gender because of these patriarchal beliefs from the Elizabethan period.

Katherine over time slowly disperses of her shew-like characteristics due to Petruccio’s pedagogy in trying to tame her, but also because of her female submission due to her marriage to Petruccio and what her duties to him as a wife are. However, due to this drastically quick switch between Katherine’s shrewishness to submission, one could argue that her subservience is an act of rebellion, in attempts to throw off Petruccio and Katherine having the knowledge of him trying to tame her this whole time. She regains power with the fact that she is aware of Petruccio’s plot. In her final speech she states

“Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare/ That seeming to be most which indeed we least are. Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot/ And place your hands below your husband’s foot- / In a token of which duty, if he please.” 

After this surprising spiel from Katherine how you must be a loyal and obedient wife to your husband, she quickly runs off having everyone block Petruccio from reaching her. This short chase is an indication of Katherine’s knowledge of the pedagogy she was susceptible to on account of Petruccio’s plan. This knowledge then shifts the power to Katherine, insinuating that perhaps Katherine had been manipulating Petruccio this entire time, while well aware he was trying to manipulate her.

The diverse structures of power within this play are what make it so compelling, depicting power from a variety of different relationships, showcasing male dominance with privilege and rebellious women with agency.

Works cited

  • Dusinberre, Juliet. “The Taming of the Shrew: Women, Acting and Power.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 26, no. 1, Spring 1993, p. 67. EBSCOhost,
  • Hutcheon, Elizabeth. “From Shrew to Subject: Petruchio’s Humanist Education of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew.” Comparative Drama, vol. 45, no. 4, Winter 2011, pp. 315–337. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/cdr.2011.0029.
  • Sirluck, Katherine A. “Patriarchy, Pedagogy, and the Divided Self in ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 417–434. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3138/utq.60.4.417.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd Edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al, Vol.1, Norton, 2016, pp.343-414. 
16 August 2021
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