10 July 2003
The Sun and the Moon
in The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew would be more appropriately titled The Training of the Shrew. The word "taming" implies that something about the shrew has been broken or altered. It seems better to use the word "training" because, in the play, the essence of Kate's personality is preserved through her taming. What she loses has much more to do with her public persona. Her husband Petruchio trains her to leave behind the violent and unpleasant public outbursts that characterize her in the first half of the play. His training helps her to demonstrate a public transition from shrew to loyal wife, while still maintaining her inner character.
The moment when Kate's outward transformation becomes clear is when she, Petruchio and Hortensio are on their way back to Baptista's house for Bianca's wedding celebration. Petruchio tests Kate by saying, "Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!" (IV.v.2). She corrects him at once, but he insists, "I say it is the moon that shines so bright" (IV.v.4). Again she disagrees with him. At this point he lectures her for a few lines about it being the moon and then threatens to turn back and miss the feast. She finally understands that it is all a test and acquiesces to his demand that she agree with him. The test works; he is able to coax her into saying that the sun is the moon. It is at this point that the circumstances change. Something seems to click in her mind, and she understands why he has been rough with her throughout the play. She not only agrees with him but exclaims,
Then God be blest, it is the blessed sun,If there is any point at which one could definitely say she is no longer a shrew, this would be it.
But the sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam'd, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.
Far from being entirely tamed, however, in this scene Kate seems to be simply redirected. To Petruchio's credit, he has helped her to learn to resolve tension and conflict without resorting to shrewish or violent behavior. The most obvious method of coping that she uses is to reverse Petruchio's creed. She learns to "kill ... with kindness" by agreeing with him insisting that he is correct in asserting that the sun is the moon and then the sun again (IV.i.208). The question she must ask herself is whether arguing about the sun or the moon is worth missing the trip to her sister's wedding. The answer, of course, is no, and she accepts that.
Even though she clearly must pretend to believe Petruchio blindly, she also allows herself to show her disapproval of his silly behavior. After giving in and going along with his obvious lies, she says, "But the sun it is not, when you say it is not; / And the moon changes even as your mind" (IV.v.19-21). It is immediately apparent that she is insulting him here. The phases of the moon are commonly associated with mental illness, and this is especially appropriate giving the ideas that Petruchio spouts in this scene. This also recalls the point earlier in the play when she yells at her father for trying to marry her off to "one half lunatic" (II.i.87). Clearly, the real Kate has not changed, but her true personality manifests itself in different ways now. The other implication of Kate's comment is that the trait of changing one's mind back and forth is commonly considered a feminine foible. When she says "the moon changes even as your mind," she is basically calling him a woman. In comparing his whims to the moon, an ever-changing fixture, she derides him for being no more constant than the moon's changing faces. Lastly, the entire tone of her short discourse is condescending. She treats him like a child with whom she is exasperated. She not only agrees with him, but also preemptively adds that she will agree with whatever he says. This would be extremely frustrating in any actual disagreement, because it indicates that his ideas bear no importance. In this response, though she submits to her husband on the surface, she has called him on his foolishness by implying that he is childish, feminine and insane.
In Petruchio's defense, however, his behavior is fairly measured in this scene. It might seem silly that he takes the time to force Kate to say that the sun is the moon, but then immediately switches back to calling it the sun again, but even this act has a purpose. In agreeing with him, Kate has become the wife that is acceptable in public, and has thus completed her training. In this way, it should be the sun that he sees, not the moon, which represents the night. When she agrees, the sun rises on their new life together.
As Kate and Petruchio spar here for the last time in the play, Hortensio impatiently participates in the duel. First, he prods Kate to just agree with Petruchio for the good of the trip. He asks her to "Say as he says, or we shall never go" (IV.v.11). Then, after she agrees with Petruchio's ridiculous claim that the sun is the moon, Hortensio prompts him to continue on the journey, telling him, "the field is won," as if to hurry him along and convince him to be satisfied with her agreement though it seemed double sided (IV.v.23). As this is the last time the two disagree, it seems significant that someone else might be there. This last glimpse of their real relationship is a neat transition between their private relationship and the relationship they put on in public. In this exchange, Hortensio seems to be Shakespeare's mouthpiece, telling both Petruchio and Kate that they need to give in a little in order to get what they want out of the relationship. When they take Hortensio's advice, the tension lifts, aided also by the comical release provided by the lunacy (excuse the pun) of the situation.
The scene that occurs on the way to Bianca's wedding feast is a necessary transition between the two ways of viewing Kate's public identity. The lesson that Shakespeare seems to give in this scene and throughout the play is that being true to oneself can take many forms. Kate was no more or less herself when she acted as a shrew then when she acted as an obedient wife. Both are shades of herself. It just happens that one of those representations makes life in society much easier. It seems doubtful that Shakespeare would advocate being untrue to oneself just to have an easier time navigating public life, but he might say, especially when interacting with the materialistic pretensions of Paduan culture, that society is not worth bearing your real self for. This seems considerably more likely.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. 142-175.