The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is a play that is often described as a comedy, and this description is, of course, apt; however, comedy does not have to mean a genre that is frivolous and trivial. In other words, comedy can also possess a subversive element, challenging some of the social normativities and mores which we take as self-evident, thus providing a critical eye on some of our engrained discourses and rituals. The Taming of the Shrew, in this sense, can be viewed as precisely such a subversive play, and, particularly in the form of Petruchio, whose absurd behavior, while on the one hand could merely be viewed as crude, boorish and irrational, on the other hand, can be viewed as presenting precisely such a critical eye on the social mores of the time in which Shakespeare wrote. Petruchio is thus a character that I liked in this play precisely because of the use of comic “over the top”-ness to question these normativities.
Certainly, at first glance it could be argued that Petruchio’s character is a misogynistic, opportunistic and ultimately cruel character, one that is devoid of any basic ethical or moral stance. However, this would be overlooking the means by which a certain “anti-hero” can also serve a positive function, precisely by critiquing some of our social relationships and normativities, through an exposure of their absurdity. In this sense, the apparent absurdity of Petruchio’s character becomes a reflection of the absurdity of such normativities, for example, the patriarchal and male-dominated relationship towards women, materialist culture, and religious rituals that appear to be nothing more than superstitions without any positive content.
Petruchio’s character immediately demonstrates a materialist culture, while at once, to the attentive viewer and reader of the play, the exaggerated nature of his personage can be easily interpreted as a critique of this same culture: by exaggerating Petruchio’s materialism, Shakespeare provides a distorted and critical and even grotesque view of this culture. Hence, Petruchio arrives in Padua with the sole goal of marrying a wealthy woman: here, we see a clear separation between love and materialism that forces us to think about what kind of motives should structure our most intimate relationships. Petruchio’s negativity therefore does not exclude the positive aspect of such relationships: he is merely the negative image of an anti-materialist relationship and foundation for love.
In much the same light, Petruchio’s somewhat brutal treatment of his bride Katherina certainly can be viewed as an example of misogyny. But, looking at the character from an example, he becomes representative of a particular structure of gender relations, controlled by male patriarchy and the domination of women. This type of relationship is of course reprehensible, and has become archaic in the various human rights and civil rights’ discourse of the last few centuries. However, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Petruchio, in his cruelty and absurdity, can lead us to think of this exaggerated portrayal as a critique of this same type of relationship. Shakespeare is not endorsing patriarchy through Petruchio, in my interpretation, but showing its absurd and cruel side.
Petruchio’s performance during the wedding shows how humor can question some of our assumed rituals. Petruchio thus drinks the wine that is intended for communion, a clear violation of ritual, and also absurdly strikes the priest. This can be viewed as cruel and disrespectful behavior, certainly: however, can it not also let us question why we consider certain social rituals and norms to be sacred?
Accordingly, Petruchio is my favorite character, not so much because of the character itself, but rather because of the character’s socio-critical function. The reasons why Petruchio may be despised are clear, for example, his misogyny. But this perhaps overlooks the way in which a negative character can also make us think about some of our social assumptions and presuppositions that are also essentially negative.