by Wendy Doniger
Contemporary audiences who would rather not burn The Taming of the Shrew at the feminist stake must go beneath its apparent assumptions to unearth the romance of Kate and Petruchio. The play does indeed present what we would call gender stereotypes (guilty as charged), but it goes on to challenge them, play with them, make fun of them, and use them in a comedy of courtship. And male as well as female stereotypes are at stake: the talk is of taming, but the action is more properly the transformation of a woman who cannot love a man into one who can, and the simultaneous transformation of a man who is sexually stymied by a brilliant woman into one who finds that very brilliance exciting.
Kate and Petruchio do not take false names, as most of the other characters in the play do, but they masquerade in more serious ways, cutting down through their public personae, their gendered positions in the world, to find out who they really are. They must find their private love within the frame of their public hate. As the play progresses, Kate pretends that she does not love Petruchio, when she does; and he counters by pretending that she does love him, which is ultimately the truth, when he thinks he is lying. Peeling off the construction of their separate selves in other people's eyes, they reconstruct one another in their mutual gaze.
When they meet, both have found marriage to be corrupted by money. Kate sees that her father is trying to sell off his two daughters in marriage; and Petruchio is trying to sell himself as little better than a gigolo, a fortune-hunter marrying only for money. Kate's response to her mercenary father is a shrewish hatred of men, and Petruchio's reaction to his own self-mocking shame is a disregard for the qualities of women. Each must tame the other. He must help her to find out what she is really like, what she can be in the care of a better man than her father; and she must make an honest man of him by making his initial lies about his love for her, and hers for him, come true.
To effect this double transformation, each becomes the other; they play one another's roles, changing places, until at the end they can take off one another's masks to find that they have lost their own. She acts the part of the loving, submissive spouse that he, at first, merely pretends to be, and he acts the part of the male equivalent of a shrew, a domineering partner, as she at first appears to be. This is a kind of play within the play: Kate in the role of Petruchio, Petruchio as Kate. More than pretending, they are playing, trying it on for size. The outer layer, the sparring layer of antagonism, never vanishes, but another, inner layer of love emerges.
Their exchange of roles involves a gender switch. Grumio asserts that, "Petruchio is Kated." Kated in the literal sense of being married by Kate, but also Kated in the sense of being made like Kate, more precisely like what Kate seems to be, making a woman of himself: a shrew, Kate. Kate must also become Petruchio-like in a crucial way: she must want him sexually, as he wants her. At the start, she does not; she is a man-hater. She changes her clothes from the black of a sexless woman to the colors of an awakened woman, but on her this gay apparel appears almost like transvestite drag, for there is not yet a sensual heart beating within it. And so he will not allow her to wear it, remarking, in jest but also very much to the point, "'tis the mind that makes the body rich." Even at the end, she admits that she is "ashamed to kiss." He must awaken her from her dream of bitter celibacy.
In fact, there is a sexual stalemate, or perhaps a gridlock: she won't kiss him, but he won't bed her. Their reasons are different: she is loath to give up her freedom to a man, and he is afraid of climbing into bed with her until he has awakened her to him. It is Petruchio, not Kate, who postpones the actual consummation of the marriage, ostensibly to starve her out just as he denies her the pleasures of food, pretty clothes, and sleep, reversing Lysistrata's theme of the sexual strike of women against men. Only after her last, notorious, feminist-inciting speech of submission, when he for the last time asks her, "Kiss me, Kate," do they kiss, wordless at last. And only then does he say, "Come, Kate, we'll to bed."