Here's the story. Signior Baptista of Padua is a wealthy man with two beautiful daughters--but alas! Katherina, the elder, could be said to have a serious temper problem. She is wild, angry, and verbally abusive of everyone she comes into contact with. Her barbed wit sends everyone scrambling for cover, her father is universally commiserated on his ill-fortune in having such a diabolical daughter, and the ugliness of her temper ensures that she remains unloved and lonely. On the other hand, Bianca, the younger daughter, can't move without tripping over sighing suitors of every rank; because she knows how to act meek and obedient, she gets to do what she likes, and Signior Baptista makes no secret of the fact that he favours her. But, driven to despair by Katherina's behaviour, Baptista tells Bianca's three suitors (Gremio, a wealthy old man; Hortensio, a gentleman of Padua, and Lucentio, the son of a rich man who has just arrived in Padua to study) that he cannot allow any of them to have Bianca until Katherine has been married.
Fortunately for Bianca's suitors, an old friend of Hortensio's soon arrives in Padua. Bursting onto the stage in full cry, seeming nearly as mad as Katherina herself, comes Petruchio, a man in need of a wealthy wife and determined to get one however old, ugly, or unpleasant she might be. Understandably, he needs no added incentive when he hears about Katherine, who is wealthy (as required) and beautiful (excellent!), if shrewd (that can be fixed). He gets to the point briskly, wooing her in a storm of words, getting her father's consent for her marriage, and setting the date within half an hour of their first meeting. But Katherine is determined not be made a fool of by anyone. While Lucentio and Hortensio, in disguise, try to woo the yielding Bianca, Petruchio and Katherine engage in a series of titanic confrontations which she soon finds, to her surprise, that she is incapable of winning. Mocked, starved, and deprived of sleep, Katherine begins to bend under the strain.
No wonder this is the one Shakespeare play that makes feminists break out in a cold sweat and raise the cry of Abuse! But let me explain what is really going on here--what makes this play my favourite.
First, to set the scene. There are two things you must understand for this play to make any sense. The first thing is that it is not meant to be taken too seriously. This is a comedy, for heaven's sake, of the broadest possible nature--
Petruchio: Where is the foolish knave I sent before?--in which one of the few stage directions is
Grumio: Here, sir; as foolish as I was before.
[Throws the meat, &c., about the stage.]The word, I fancy, should be "slapstick". Many commentators have remarked that the play is firmly in the style of the original slapstick theatre--the Italian commedia dell'arte. Too many readers, appalled by the exaggerated comic tactics that Petruchio uses on Kate, treat the play like a tragedy. Banish this thought from your mind; think of The Taming of the Shrew as a kind of live-action cartoon.
The second thing to understand is that both Petruchio and Kate, throughout the play, are attracted to each other. Peter Leithart says:
We will misunderstand Kate completely if we do not see that she is falling in love with Petruchio. We will misunderstand Petruchio completely if we do not see a progression in his feelings toward Katherina: from seeing her as a means to wealth, to seeing her as a challenge to his masculine powers, to seeing her through eyes of admiration and love.Just hold that thought. There are a few more things to mention here at the beginning before I begin to analyse the play in more depth.