Perhaps The Taming of the Shrew was simply a jest, as Will Kemp claimed. “We men know that no woman can be well and truly tamed!” Chapter X, The Secret Player
Shrew-taming was the subject of joke and ballad in Shakespeare’s day. “The Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife, Lapped in Morel’s Skin,” originally printed in 1550 and reprinted in 1580, was no doubt a source for Shakespeare. The father, like Baptista Minola in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, has two daughters, one with a sharp tongue, one docile. Unlike Shakespeare’s widower Baptista, this father has a wife, a curst shrew who’s made his life a hell. He doesn’t wish such a wife on the young man who asks for his elder daughter’s hand, but the suitor is determined.
He hasn’t seen her in action, as Petruchio has Kate in Shakespeare’s play. After their wedding, he discovers that his new wife speaks loud and lewdly and wants to be the master of the house. After he tries again and again to soften her, he beats her with rods (no thicker than a thumb, according to the rule) and wraps her in the salted skin of his old horse Morel. This treatment brings about her capitulation. He frees her—with the threat that he’ll return her to the horse skin in the cellar if she doesn’t behave herself. When her parents come to visit and see the wonder her new husband has wrought, her mother starts mouthing off and he threatens her with the horse skin as well. This ballad was apparently taken as a merry jest . . . .
How similar is Petruchio’s taming of his bride Kate to this taming? After their wedding where he acts like a madman, Petruchio ‘tortures’ Kate by denying her food and being rude to his servants and to the tradesmen who bring her a new hat and gown, which he rips to bits. In the final act, Kate calls the sun the moon to please him and delivers a long speech advising wives to regard their husbands as their masters.
Audiences observe that Petruchio denies himself food and sleep as well, and his rudeness emulates Kate’s earlier behavior, unpleasant in man or woman. As for her submissiveness at the end of the play: Kate and Petruchio are in cahoots against the other two newlywed couples, where the wives, now won, have turned willful.
Maddy Costa in the Guardian, January 17, 2012, talks about the woman’s voice in Shrew, specifically in the RSC production of that year directed by Lucy Bailey
“There remains a difficulty in these ‘torture’ scenes: Katherine barely speaks, whereas Petruchio never shuts up. According to Lisa Dillon, playing Katherine in Bailey’s production, this contrasts with Katherine’s long final speech (in which she advises wives to be gentle to their husbands), showing how much she has changed. ‘If you look at the language she uses, all the way into the second half, it’s odd,’ says Dillon. ‘The verse is staccato, there’s lots of saying ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’ You get the feeling nobody ever listens to her. Petruchio gives her the power of speech and language: he gives her freedom to speak. That is not a woman being crushed.’”
Petruchio’s last speech in Taming of the Shrew: “Come Kate, we’ll to bed. We three are married but you two are sped.” [that is, the other two new husbands are done for.]
Kate and Petruchio go off for their postponed wedding night, having won a 100-crown bet from the other two husbands and an added dowry from Baptista of 20,000 crowns for Kate’s willing submission.
What kind of marriage will they have? Those who argue that Kate has been subdued can cite Petruchio’s reply to the question of what her obedience bodes:
“Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life, An aweful rule and right supremacy; And to be short, what’s not that’s sweet and happy.”
“Aweful” does not mean terrifying, but rather, respectful. Petruchio does not define ‘right supremacy,’ but absolute domination would not be ‘right.’ In some instances the woman may be right. ‘Obedience’ is the tough one—what sort of obedience is meant? Not domination in their case; Kate and Petruchio have found worthy mates and equals.
Kate has been socialized but her spirit has not been broken. Petruchio loves her spirit, but he cannot live with the bitter and angry woman he first encountered, nor can she live with herself. She’s miserable, as we see from her grief when Petruchio seems to have stood her up at the altar. She wants love and a sweet and happy life, out of reach for her in Padua until Petruchio arrived.
The Renaissance concept of companionate marriage was a union of equals with mutual respect. Stage comedies end with marriages, and surely not all those strong female characters will lose their voices when married. Rosalind delights Orlando in As You Like It. He learned to enjoy listening to her when she was disguised as a boy, and he can hardly think of taming her afterwards! Indeed, she gets the last word in the play.