Katherine and Disguise

In The Taming of the Shrew, there are plenty of examples of characters that disguise themselves as someone they’re not in order to defy their social class and accomplish their goals. The duplicity starts before the actual taming of the “shrew” even begins; the frame story that Shakespeare narrates sets the stage (both literally and figuratively) for all of the impending identity swapping that ensues, as Sly is tricked into believing he is a grand lord, with his “wife” being played by Barthol’mew, a young male page. The concept of this essentially being a play within a play within a play has a great effect on how the audience perceives the rest of the disguises throughout the story; the theme that, from the beginning, no one in this play is who they say they are leads the audience to question and evaluate the true intentions of all the characters, even if they are not explicitly disguised, such as Lucentio, Hortensi, and Tranio, among others, were.

Perhaps the best example of a character whose appearance, actions, and words, through this lens, may be called into question as possibly duplicitous (and certainly the most intriguing for me) is Kathrine. When analyzing the motif of duplicity and disguise from the surface, Kathrine would likely not be the first character to come under the microscope. During the play, she is not seen to explicitly don another character’s clothing or lie about who she is, and there are no monologues or asides that hint at any dubious or underlying intentions. However, her resulting personality change after being “tamed” by Petruchio does seem a bit unnatural, seeing her original disposition, and her willingness to conform to the desires of Petruchio, as well as the standards set for married women during this time period, begs the question of whether Kathrine was truly “transformed,” or if she was merely putting on an act and pretending to be tamed. For example, in Act I, scene I, she begins as an abrasive, yet independent, strong-willed woman, noted when she remarks to Hortensio, “But if it were doubt not her care should be/To comb your noodle with a three-legged stool, and paint your face and use you like a fool.” In response to her, the other characters refer to her as a “devil,” “curst and shrewed,” and even at one point a “fiend of hell.” Even after first meeting Petruchio, she remains defiant, and makes snarky comments at his attempts to “woo” her (“Too light for such a swain as you to catch, yet as heavy as my weight should be”) that imply she has no interest in marriage or conforming to the societal image of a “wife.” However, in Act IV, scene V, when Petruchio forces her to claim that the sun is the moon, and the moon is the sun, her stubborn demeanor seemingly shifts toward submissive (“And be it moon, or sun, or what you please. An if you please to call it a rush candle, Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me”) and by the end of the play when she is summoned by Petruchio in an effort to prove he has “tamed” her, she seems as though she has changed, even claiming in her ending speech that “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign…” While words like these seem to stem out of a true change of heart, given Katherine’s violent past nature, as well as the idea of doubt that anyone in this play acts honestly on their true intentions, her attitude change could be viewed as a passive-aggressive reaction to trying to be tamed; since she found Petruchio to be her equal in words and whit, and found she could not physically escape his persistent molding of her into what he wished her to be, she resorted to dressing like a bride on her wedding day, and saying whatever pleased her husband that he may quit pounding her further. In this light, it might be said that Kate is still a disgruntled  woman (just as she seemed in the beginning of the play) disguised as an overly obedient wife, using submission as deception so he would not question her true feelings.

The ambiguity of Kathrine’s actions seems unlikely to be coincidental; I believe Shakespeare purposefully left Kathrine’s true feelings about her “domestication” up for interpretation to add another depth to his play, to add an underlying layer of curiosity and doubt, that ties the whole work (both the outer and inner play) together from the beginning to the end. This woven thread of deception helps make The Taming of the Shrew into a rich Shakespearean piece, and although both his tragedies and comedies often contain elements of disguise, instead of searching to discover the real reason behind the murders, we are left searching for the real reason behind the marriage, a classic ending to Shakespeare’s comedic work.



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