Concepts of love in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

Concepts of love in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

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1.     Introduction

In Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew”, the audience becomes aware of a variety of different love concepts. Such as romantic and rational love, mature and immature love, intimate and reserved love, paternal love and the love of a daughter. These concepts are represented by the different characters and are contrasted with each other.
I will sum up the play and furthermore elaborate on the contrast between the conventional and social accepted love and the unconventional love, which is looked down upon by society.

2.     Summary of the play

The comedy consists of an induction and five acts. The play ends with a short scene, which one might call an epilogue. The induction and the “epilogue” serve as frame for the real comedy.

2.1     The induction

Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker, is turned out of an alehouse by the hostess. A lord and his train, who return from hunting, find Sly sleeping. For his own amusement the lord has sly taken to his castle. There the tinker shall awake and be told and treated as if he is the lord of that household. Along coming actors are invited to come to the castle and play in front of the “new” lord Sly, who does not really find his way around in his new situation, in order to cheer him up.

2.2     The comedy

The young Lucentio, son of the rich Vincentio from Pisa, arrived at Padua to start his studies. At first sight he falls in love with Bianca, the daughter of the old Baptista, who looks for a wealthy son-in-law. Before Bianca can marry, Baptitsta wants to find a husband for his older daughter Katherina. But Katherina has no admirers, or better, men get out of her way, because she is rebellious and high-spirited.
Petruchio, a nobleman from Verona, is interested in Katherina, to whom it seems as a task to tame her. By reacting fundamentally cruder than Katherina and repaying her doubly for what she says or does, he enforces in a quite short time the marriage with her. To which he not only comes late but also in ragged clothes. He also takes her immediately after the ceremony with him to his country house, where he has her go without food and sleep. By spoiling everything for Katherina, Petruchio achieves that she gives in everything, even that she leaves it to him if the sun or the moon shines.
In the meantime several suitors courted Bianca and Lucentio won the day over the others.

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But before they get engaged, Baptista makes it a condition that Lucentio’s whole property falls to Bianca, even if he dies before his father Vincentio. A pedant shall play the role of Lucentio’s father and agree with this condition. But in the counting moment Vincentio arrives at Padua and he forgives his son. In the end everybody meets at Baptista’s banquet, at which Bianca and a widow prove to be stubborn, while Katherina, who was regarded as the rebellious among them, explains to them that “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign” and that women have to respect him and do whatever he demands.

3.     Convential and unconvential love in “The Taming of the Shrew

3.1     The induction

The induction contrasts the two different concepts of love relationships quite sharply.

3.1.1     The lord and the page
The conventional concept of love is represented by the lord and the page. This concept is presented as the one of love, which is predominant in the upper class. In Ind.i. 103-128 , the lord depicts the wife of a nobleman as her husband’s humble servant, who is loyal and obedient to him as she is to her king.
The encounter between the page, which Hehl calls “das ironisch verzerrte Spiegelbild der gehorsamen Ehefrau” , and Sly shows another aspect of this concept of love, that is that of distance. Husband and wife call each other “lord” and “madam” (cf. Ind.ii. 103-112). Intimacy is nothing, which is desired, the partners treat each other with reserved politeness rather than with real affection.

3.1.2     Sly
Sly represents the socially less accepted concept of love which is more characteristic of the under class. He desires a certain amount of intimacy, mentally as well as physically. He wants to know his wife as an individual that is why he wishes to know her name. Sly does not understand that he is supposed to call his own wife “madam”, and therefore he asks:
     Alice madam, or Joan madam? (Ind.ii. 111)

His concept of sexuality is quite pragmatic, as soon as he believes that he has got a wife, he wants to consummate the marriage, which seems most natural to him.

3.2     The comedy itself

The play itself consists of two plots, which are “constantly and firmly interwoven” . The main plot deals with the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio; the sub-plot is about Bianca and her suitors. While conventional concepts of love dominate the sub-plot. The main plot deals with a relationship, which is very special and unconventional .

3.2.1     Conventional love: Bianca’s suitors
Bianca is wooed by Lucentio, Hortensio and Gremio, later also by Tranio, who takes on Lucentio’s role in society. Bianca’s suitors all represent the conventional, romantic concept of love, especially Lucentio does. He immediately falls in love when he sees her for the first time, without having spoken a single word to her; he falls in love with the picture of Bianca, as he wants to see her. While telling Tranio about his feelings (cf. I.i. 146-176), Lucentio uses about every cliché that love poetry offers him. He compares her to mythical women and praises her physical and mental beauty. Lines like

     Tranio, I saw her coral lips to move,
     And with her breath she did perfume the air;
     Sacred and sweet was all I saw in her. (I.i. 174-176)

Are purely Petrarchan and reveal his naïve and immature character. Rohrsen refers to Lucentio’s speech to Tranio and points out, “Mit den wenigen Lyrismen in glattem Zeilenstil ist Lucentio als typischer ‘romantischer Verliebter’ kenntlich gemacht; in dieser Rolle verbleibt er bis zum Ende des Stücks, …”
Hortensio and Gremio use equally poetic language when talking about their beloved Bianca. For example, Hortensio calls her “the jewel of my life” (I.ii.117), and Gremio uses the same imagery as Lucentio does. He says:

     For she is sweeter than perfume itself (I.ii.151).

Apart from Petrarchan language, the wooing of Bianca’s suitors is marked by another characteristic that is the fact that “In the courting of Bianca deception dominates.” Lucentio disguises as Cambio, Tranio as Lucentio and Hortensio pretends to be Litio. While Hortensio uses music to mask his wooing, Lucentio uses Latin. This shows that they neither wants to reveal their nature nor do the want know Bianca’s, that is why their love remains superficial and does not include real intimacy.
Bianca’s suitors’ reactions to Katherina’s assumed wildness (cf. I.i.105-133) show that they “prefer the compliant woman to the defiant one who seeks to preserve her individuality” . Although Bianca is not really as mild as she is said to b, she fits the conventional idea of a woman far better that Katherina does.
Schomburg criticises that all characters except for Katherina and Petruchio “sind von typischer Allgemeinheit und mit wenigen großen Strichen angedeutet” . However, a more detailed characterization of the other characters is not necessary, as the figures in the Bianca-plot merely serve as types in order to emphasize the contrast between the two concepts of love.
3.2.2     Unconventional love: Petruchio and Katherina
Petruchio and Katherina both are unconventional characters, therefore their relationship, too, is very unconventional.
When Petruchio hears about Katherina for the first time, he is attracted by two things, firstly by her money and secondly by “the challenge of capturing her” .
Petruchio’s wooing is very different from that of Bianca’s suitors. Rohrsen states, “Petruchio dagegen gibt sich als völlig unromantischer Freier.“ He uses plainer language and is far more open and frank about his intentions; he even tells Katherine directly that he is determined to tame her:
     For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
     And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
     Conformable as other household Kates. (II.i.269-271)

Already here he shows that he does not demand total submission; he only wants the “normal”, “sensible “ submission of a wife to her husband, the one that has its limits and is based on mutual love and respect. As he is very self-confident, he is convinced that he will easily achieve his aim of taming Katherina.
His Taming does not prove itself to be a training which is based on physical violence, although the lines

     …I’ll tell you what, sir, and she stand
     him but little, he will throw a figure in her face
     and disfigure her with it that she shall have no
     more eyes to see withal than a cat. … (I.ii.111-114),

spoken by his servant Grumio, suggest that he is capable of violent behaviour. He also refrains from forcing her to consummate the marriage on the wedding night and, like that, shows that he has a certain amount of respect for Katherina’s ownership of her own body. The taming occurs on another level; Petruchio shows Katherina the effects of behaviour similar to hers on those affected, for example by letting her wait on their wedding and by finally appearing there in a very unconventional attire. Most of his taming relies on words rather than actions, for example by deliberately misunderstanding Katherina (cf. II.i.182-272). However, Petruchio also uses some “traditional” methods of taming a Shrew; he deprives her of food and sleep. (cf. IV.i.184-194). In his speech to the audience he points out that he does not like doing all those things to her, but he does not know any other way to deal with her. (cf. IV.i.197f.)
In the course of the play it becomes evident that the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio is far more than that of the tamer and the tamed, it is that of a loving couple. Katherina notices that Petruchio appreciates her far more than her environment has done up that moment, and therefore she resigns herself up to a certain degree to the behaviour which is expected of her. Moreover, she is ready to show her affection to Petruchio because he does the same to her. This can be seen in the following lines:

     Pet.     First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
     Kath.     What, in the midst of the street?
     Pet.     What, art thou ashamed of me?
     Kath.     No, sir, God forbid; but ashamed to kiss.
     Pet.     Why, then, let’s go home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.
     Kath.     Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.
     Pet.     Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate.
          Better once than never, for never too late. (V.ii.131-138)

This passage does not show Katherina’s total submission, but it shows of the affectionate, intimate love, which has developed between her and Petruchio. Their love is based on more romantic attraction or blind submission of the wife; they are friends and companions.

4.     Conclusion

The final scene of The Taming of the Shrew shows ”the triumph of the unconventional over the conventional” , it shows that Katherina’s and Petruchio’s Marriage, which has started rather unconventionally, seems to have better chances of being a happy one than those of Lucentio and Hortensio, which are conventional.
By contrasting the two concepts of love throughout the play and by presenting the conventional love between Bianca and her suitors as deceptive and superficial, Shakespeare speaks out in clearly favour of the unconventional concept of love present in the relationship between Petruchio and Katherina.


I.     Primary Literature

Shakespeare, William, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. By Brian Morris (London, 1981), The Arden Shakespeare.

II.     Secondary Literature

II.1 Monographs

Hillegass, L. L., The Taming of the Shrew – Notes (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1971), Cliffs Notes.

Schomburg, Elias Hugo, The Taming of the Shrew – Eine Studie zu Shakespeares Kunst (Halle a. S., 1904).

II.2 Chapters

Dash, Irene G., “Challenging Patterns – The Taming of the Shrew”, in: Wooing, Wedding and Power: Women in Shakespeare’s Plays (New York, 1981), pp. 33-64.

Hehl, Ursula, “Die narzißtische Symptomatik als Reaktion auf die Diskriminierung der Frau in der patriarchalischen Gesellschaft – The Taming of the Shrew“, in: Manifestationen narzißtischer Persönlichkeitsstörungen in Shakespeares romantischen Komödien (Trier, 1995), pp. 213-224.

Rohrsen, Peter, “The Taming of the Shrew”, in: Die Preisrede auf die Geliebte in Shakespeares Komödien und Romanzen (Heidelberg, 1977), pp. 228-231.

Tillyard, E. M. W., “The Taming of the Shrew”, in: Shakespeare’s Early Comedies (London, 1965), pp. 73-111.
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