“Brush Up Your Shakespeare”: An Overview of The Taming of the Shrew

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By HEIDI MCELRATH, Shakespearean and Dramaturg

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is all about role-playing, so it’s a perfect fit as a play-within-a-play. Bianca and Kate play the roles of perfect little sister and elder snake-tongued shrew. Lucentio plays the role of a tutor so he can woo Bianca while keeping Baptista Minola at bay. Swaggering Petruchio plays the wooer to trick Baptista into giving Kate away, then he plays the gentle husband to Kate as he cruelly keeps her from sleep, food, fresh clothes and her family home. Finally, in one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous endings, Kate is either tamed, and stops playing the shrew, or starts playing the dutiful wife, enjoying with Petruchio the shrewish game he creates for them.

The Taming of the Shrew is also, unbeknownst to many, already a play-within-a-play. The script opens with a drunk beggar, Christopher Sly, discovered unconscious by a local lord. The lord puts rings on Sly’s fingers, sets a banquet before him, and hires a troupe of traveling players to trick him into thinking he is the lord. The players and the lord’s servants then entertain the drunk by performing the story of Kate and Petruchio. Directors almost always cut this framing story for performance, preferring to focus on the main plot. What this framing does, however, is challenge the misogyny of the ending with a successful and gallant Petruchio and a Kate forced into submission. Is Sly Kate, humiliated? Or is he Petruchio, the fool who thinks himself a lord? Certainly, neither is a hero in this play within a play within a play.

Hostile, abusive and violent, Katherine, or Kate, is the titular Shrew. She wields her sharp tongue against her little sister, her father and every suitor who comes to call until she meets her match in Petruchio.


Petruchio: Wealthy, wild and with a tongue quick enough to match Kate’s, Petruchio has arrived in Padua to grow his fortune by marrying rich. A lover of games, he sets his sights on Kate (and her large dowry).


Bianca: Kate’s younger sister is her opposite—sweet, soft-spoken and well-loved. Her mild manner and wealth make her a target for all of Padua’s suitors.


Baptista Minola: Kate and Bianca’s father is one of the wealthiest men in Padua, making his daughters popular with suitors in search of a large dowry. Desperate to marry off strong-willed Kate, he rules that she must wed before desired Bianca does.


Lucentio: A young, sweet-tempered student from Pisa, Lucentio falls in love with Bianca at first sight, abandoning his studies to woo her with the help of his wily servant, Tranio.

Gremio and Hortensio: Gentlemen of Padua and suitors to Bianca. Bonded in the frustration of their wooing, they hire tutors as gifts to Bianca, not knowing their rival Lucentio has disguised himself as a tutor to win Bianca’s heart first-hand.

Grumio and Biondello: Petruchio’s servants, who provide comic relief and aid their master in his “taming.”

For tickets to Kiss Me, Kate at The 5th Avenue Theatre, click here.

Heidi McElrath is a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute and a staff member at Seattle Shakespeare Company. She is a founding member of The Collective at the Royal Shakespeare Company and has worked with Bootleg Puppets, Taproot Theatre Company, Seattle Public Theatre and Lamb’s Players Theatre. She recently had her professional playwriting debut at the Arcola Theatre in London.


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