The Taming of the Shrew is without a doubt one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, especially as the centuries have passed and views on gender roles have adapted. The characters of Petruchio and Katherina and their bizarre relationship is the topic of many scholarly works and critiques because of the delicate social dynamics they address. Interpretation and treatment of the characters’ behaviors towards each other range from raucous to strangely affectionate and from outright abusive to sweet or playful. While many scholars have legitimate reason to find fault in The Taming of the Shrew’s chauvinistic approach to gender roles, the Judeo-Christian context against which the play was written must not be ignored lest an important component of the play be overlooked. Comparison of popular sacred text to Shakespeare’s script can illustrate the parallels between Christian viewpoints of Shakespeare’s day and his own characters’ convictions.
Western Christian tradition, including the Anglican Church to which Shakespeare belonged even if he did not devoutly practice, draws its views on gender roles and matrimony from numerous sections of the Bible. One of the most famous passages regarding relationships is the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s” (King James Bible, Exod. 20.17). Petruchio mirrors the language of this verse when describing Katherina in the third act: “She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, / my household stuff, my field, my barn, / my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” (Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, III. ii. 229-232). On one hand, Petruchio’s words can easily be construed as demeaning, equating Katherina to just an object he owns as the master. But on the other hand, he may be declaring that she is figuratively his whole world, worth more than all his material possessions combined. While most scholars favor the former interpretation, these parallels do nevertheless make Petruchio’s words more striking.
Petruchio is not alone in drawing similarities to scripture. Katherina’s famous speech at the end of the play can be likened to St. Paul’s advice regarding Christian marriage. The New Testament apostle writes: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (King James Bible, Eph. 5.22) and later, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5.25). In her speech, Katherina states emphatically, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” and continues to explain that since the husband works so hard to supply for his wife and family, the wife’s obedience is a proper display of her gratitude (Shakespeare, V. ii. 147-155). Like Petruchio’s statements earlier, the extent of Katharina’s meaning and sincerity is often disputed, but the Biblical comparison is quite clear.
Directors and performers over history have chosen different methods of portraying the nature and extent of Petruchio and Katherina’s relationship. Some have focused primarily on the play’s controversial social components while others have simply treated the characters and situations as comedy to dodge the dilemma. However, regardless of how any given group decides to address the subject matter, an understanding of the religious undertones pertaining to love and marriage is well-advised. Such a familiarization would offer an extra layer of analysis which the casual reader might inadvertently neglect.