The typical Shakespeare comedy, in contrast to any modern comedy, has a strict structure: this begins with the Exposition where the main setting, characters and plotline are introduced. In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ we see this when Bianca’s suitors find out that Bianca can only marry once her sister, the ‘Shrew’, has. Baptista, surrounded by some of the major characters in the play, informs the audience that he is determined ‘not to bestow my youngest daughter/Before I have a husband for the elder. ‘ (I, 1, 50-51) Next is the Complication stage, where disorder prevails and events descend into apparent chaos.
In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ this becomes apparent through twists in the plot such as Petruchio’s decision to ‘take on’ Kate, and also by all the dressing up, and switching of identities – “Your fellow Tranio here, to save my life, / Puts my apparel and my countenance on… ” [I, i, 227-228]. The last stage is the Resolution, when problems are resolved, ending usually with a marriage or dance. In this play, the most obvious problems are resolved when Katherina is tamed, and she finally kisses Petruchio in front of everyone.
This is seen as a happy ending, although modern audiences may not view it this way, instead seeing someone forced into submission as more of a tragedy. Throughout these three stages, the central topic remains love – whether couples are in harmony or fighting each other. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, like most Shakespeare comedies, is full of eccentric, and interesting characters, some who challenge contemporary views, some flamboyant and irrepressible characters, and of course a spattering of dim yet rebellious servants.
Bianca typifies idealised Elizabethan womanhood, being polite, and subservient toward men in general especially her Father: ‘Sister, content you in my discontent. Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe, My books and instruments shall be my company, On them to look and practise by myself. ‘ (I, 1,80-83) Bianca’s first words of the play establish her as a familiar ‘type’ and, significantly, she says little throughout the rest of the play. By contrast, Katherina is rude, violent and an enthusiastic feminist, a character who may have interested Queen Elizabeth.
She treats men with no respect, often with disdain: “… comb your noddle with a three-legg’d stool… ” [I, i, 64], and whilst there is obvious sexual chemistry between her and Petruchio, stubbornly refuses him as a matter of pride. She challenges an Elizabethan belief in ‘The Great Chain of Being’, a universal hierarchy where God comes first, then the angels, kings and so on but where men are placed above women. Katherina’s rebellious stance and disrespect for men in general challenge this model, and so to an Elizabethan audience, this would have been an exaggeration of the recognisable, stereotypical ‘shrew’.
Shakespeare would make his audience laugh at the male characters’ reactions to Katherina, as in Act I, Scene 1: Hortensio: …. to labour and effect one thing specially. Gremio: What’s that, I pray? Hortensio: Marry, sir, to get a husband for her sister. Gremio: A husband? A devil. Hortensio: I say a husband. Gremio: I say a devil. Thinkest thou, Hortensio, though her father be very Rich, any man is so very a fool to be married to hell? (119-125) The quick pace of the witty dialogue here with its fiendish imagery about Katherina makes excellent comedy.
Katherina, from her first entrance, is an exaggerated ‘type’, loud and strong-willed, a character who may have interested the Queen! She treats men with little respect, often with disdain: ‘combe your noddle with a three-legg’d stool’ she tells Hortensio in Act I, Scene 1. Such a homely insult would have delighted the audience who would also have enjoyed the obvious sexual chemistry between her and Petruchio which, even today, provides actors with opportunities to entertain their audiences.
A good example of this is in Act II, Scene 1 where the two exchange insults and threats in more than fifty lines of brief, fast-paced dialogue, e. g. : Katherina: What is your crest, a coxcomb? Petruchio: A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen. Katherina: No cock of mine, you crow too like a craven. Petruchio: Nay, come, Kate, come; you must not look so sour. Katherina: It is my fashion when I see a crab. (223-227) The opportunities here for double-entendre and bawdy gesture are obvious!