Taming of the Shrew, Act 4

Kate’s third trial comes in Act 4 in the cold and comfortless house that Petruccio takes her to. And he quarrels with all the servants over its discomfort to Kate. He then starves her over what he represents as a badly cooked dinner. After they all leave the scene, Petruccio returns and explains his plan, which is “to kill a wife with kindness.” It seems he wants to appear concerned, but meanwhile scare her into supposing that his temper may always break out if he’s crossed. His therapeutic seems to be to wear away all her resistance and leave her with nothing but his will. It would of course be rather horrible, but the comedy in his performance must be what redeems, or almost redeems, it. He seems to let her eat, but only after she thanks him (4.3.45ff). But then the quarrel with the haberdasher and the tailor come as more underscoring
of his method. Finally, at the end of the scene, he quarrels with her about the time of day, which might be when Kate begins to see the method.

The enlisting of the Pedant to play Lucentio’s father takes up subplot space, though I’m not sure it’s entirely clear why the deception is necessary. Of course it will run right into the appearance of the real Vincentio. But then Vincentio can take a part in 4.6, where Kate finally figures out the “logic” of Petruccio’s method, first with the heavenly bodies, then with Vincentio. This scene is a comic set piece and one of the most effective scenes in the play. Does the play begin to soften in Petruccio’s discovery that Vincentio is now a kind of uncle-in-law, that they are all related?

I wonder why Grumio gets so much stage time in 4.1 when the only real purpose of this part of the scene is to get the report that Kate fell from her horse. The servants don’t know what to make of Petruchio. Even they think he is “more shrew than she.” Petruchio doesn’t tell the audience about his plot until later, so at first I wondered whether he was just pretending to be angry and rough, or whether he was not. Interesting that Kate tries to calm him down. Soon enough he learns in his soliloquy that his plan is to “curb her mad and headstrong humor” and thereby to “tame” her. In order for the scene to be acceptable to modern audiences, and maybe even to Elizabethan ones, you’d think he would somehow have to signal to the audience that he is putting on an act.

Act 4 alternates between Petruchio-Kate scenes and Lucentio-Bianca scenes, but I found the latter to be only mildly interesting, and wanted to get back to the main event. 4.3 is an important scene, and would presumably give the actors a lot of latitude, and also demand a lot of them. Petruchio can come off as a tyrant and a bully and an irrational and willful brute unless we are clear that he is playing. Kate seems really to suffer, and it would be tricky for an actress to play her here. Is she still a spitfire, or is her spirit broken? You suggest that at the close of the scene she catches on to his game, but I wonder about that. Hortensio’s aside, as the scene ends, suggests that he thinks Petruchio is still insisting on his control — of Kate and of the sun. In Petruchio’s acting out in 4.3 there is a lot of “collateral damage” — it’s not just Kate who is deprived of food and clothing but the haberdasher and tailor who are insulted and rushed off the
stage. Maybe in a modern production Petruchio would give them a wink, or slip them a fiver, so they know what Petruchio is up to, and don’t feel badly treated.

4.4 moves the Lucentio/Bianca plot along, with yet another disguised participant. Is there really a serious connection between the various disguised agents playing their parts and Kate being stuck in a role she adopted and can’t get out of? Why is Hortensio hanging around Petruchio and Kate in 4.5 and earlier? Is it so that he can learn from Petruchio how to tame a woman? Later in 4.5 I wonder how a director would have Kate play the sequence where Petruchio insists that the real Vincentio, an old man, is really a young woman. When she too addresses him as a woman, is she desperately trying to say the right thing to as not to anger Petruchio? Or is she just wearily pretending to play along? Or has she at last figured out his game and decided that she is ready to play it with him? A good actress could convey a lot by body language, tone, and her eyes. You seem to think it’s the last of the three.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell