Aspects of Communication in The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

28 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Question of identity
2.1. Basis
2.2. Language creates categories
2.3. Non-verbal communication through costume
2.4. Figures of speech as communication

3. Communication and power struggle
3.1. Basis
3.2. Battle for definitions (Act IV, Scene I)
3.3. Taming the falcon (Act IV, Scenes I-III)
3.4. Submission? (Act IV, Scene V)

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In the following I am going to approach Shakespeare’s „The Taming of the Shrew,“ by analyzing selected dialogues according to their communication patterns.

Main focus here is it to look at relationship and gender structures and their manifestations. The question raised is whether language is specifically used to affirm polarities, or even if these polarities are only a result of defining language. To what extent is reality constructed through this language and for what reason? What positions do non-verbal communication signs, such as clothes and body-language have, and do they influence the interaction as well?

Working with a text always brings up questions and conclusions that may be subjective and just one possible interpretation. I have tried to show different approaches and have backed up my analysis with studies in communication sciences such as works by Watzlawick and Schultz von Thun.[1]

The main axiom on which I base this paper on is: “All behaviour is communication.”[2] I am going to present different aspects of language to picture communication as a whole, as a system with various elements, supporting each other.

2. Question of identity

2.1. Basis

Language influences our behaviour and creates cognitive categories. At the same time, language is determined by the society it is used within. This interdependence of society and language creates the world we live in and the world Shakespeare wrote his plays about and for. Problems that may occur by coming up against the limiting factors of such a system are presented in “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The mere title presents us with a dilemma. A “shrew” is a tiny mouselike animal with a quite undeserved reputation as venomous and ferocious. So why do we have to tame a shrew? Because it has a pointed nose, is not easy to catch and annoys people? In “The Taming of the Shrew,” Katherina’s “pointed nose” or rather her sharp tongue, is the bone of contention. That means that her language is the problem and defines her as a shrew that has to be tamed. It has to be tamed because it does not fit in the language patterns of her gender, society and the hierarchy within her family.

Stories of “Shrews” belong to general medieval tradition of bourgeois satire, as well as folk tales. In these plays “traditionally the shrew triumphed, (...) (it) was the oldest and indeed the only native comic rôle for women. If overcome, (...) (the shrew) submitted either to high theological argument or to a taste of the stick.”[3]

The taming of Katherina’s language becomes the central task for Petruchio by “wooing” her. The wooing of Katherina takes up rather less than half the play, and her part is quite surprisingly short; although she is on stage a good deal, she spends most of the time listening to Petruchio. As opposed to the traditional shrew-stories, here the play is his; that is its novelty. By the wooing in Act II, the wedding in Act III and the “taming school” in Act IV, Petruchio overpowers his shrew with her own weapons, combined with strong demonstrations of his natural authority. Only by closely looking at the scenes, we realize in what communicational dilemma Katherina finds herself in.

Katherina is stuck in the rôles of being a woman, a dependant, unloved daughter and a shrew. Petruchio at the beginning of the play gets a plain description of Katherina’s social rôle; she is “renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue” (1.2.99); but his behaviour is equally renowned among his own servants (1.2.106-114). The difference here is that he is male and his sharp tongue is characterised as a male temper, whereas she is solely a shrew. Her only way out of being a social outcast is through Petruchio; but at what expenses?

2.2. Language creates categories

As I have stated before, language creates cognitive categories by which we define our surroundings and our partner in an interaction. Meaning, as Saussure[4] argued, is an effect of difference. The problem with the meanings that we learn and learn to produce, is that they seem to define and delimit what is thinkable and imaginable, possible. So if the meaning depends on difference then the fixing of meaning is the fixing of difference as opposition. These oppositions are also values in which one term is always privileged.[5] It seems as if identification is only possible trough a judging distinguishing.

In “The Taming of the Shrew” the polarity between the fair Bianca and the shrewish Katherina is stressed. Not only are the women different in appearance, but also in language, thus in their whole behaviour. This contrast is used to define the “shrew.” In the Renaissance such definition was easy. A standard pattern existed. The blonde, fair, beautiful woman was considered the ideal and, because outer beauty was believed to reflect inner beauty, she was also believed to be the woman of greatest worth. In contrast to her was the dark, sharp-tongued, less “pretty” woman, often characterized as the shrew. As a result, the blonde Bianca, whose name – “white” and “fair” in Italian- reinforces the idea of purity, and the dark Katherina acts as the opposite.

Although the focus is on Katherina and her shrewish behaviour, in fact Bianca gets her way, even while she appears to comply with authority’s command. Bianca is presented as the sweet and submissive daughter. But Bianca’s actions are incongruent, do not match her words. In Act II Scene I she tells Katherina, while they are fighting, that she well knows her duty to her elders. But she is perfectly capable of asserting her own will, as she does when giving orders to the disguised Hortensio and Lucentio (3.1.16-23). She manipulates her suitors as to encourage Lucentio and discourage Hortensio. Bianca also has no scruples about the deception to a secret marriage with Lucentio. Maybe she gets away with this behaviour because it is a generally accepted way of conduct for women to flirt and play with men.

While Bianca’s words and actions go in totally different directions, Katherina’s behaviour is congruent, but leaves the socially accepted pattern. She openly expresses what she feels (4.3.2-16) and is confused about Petruchio’s behaviour to disguise his cruel intention behind beautiful words. At this point we realize another paradox: “although Shakespeare endows her (Katherina) with the outer characteristics of a shrew, he reveals her worth, forcing his audience to question the Renaissance formula of worth being equivalent to beauty.”[6] This is supported by the fact that “Katherine” means “white” and “pure” as well, but in Greek!

The polarity of the two women is also shown in their paralinguistic use of language. Katherina’s voice is described as loud and her speech is fast.[7] The mere fact that Katherina speaks up is classified as negative whereas Bianca is silent and as it says: “But in the other’s silence do I see Maid’s mild behaviours and sobriety.” (1.1.70).

In this first scene of the play, Shakespeare contrasts the behaviour of the two women to enhance the particular quality of each one. In this instance, the silent and modest Bianca attracts no less than three suitors while her outspoken older sister, Katherina, cannot attract even one. “And Shakespeare adds to the contrast between Kate and Bianca by having all three suitors compare the sisters’ personalities. Each man concludes that he is as attracted to Bianca’s modesty as he is repelled by Kate’s chatter.”[8] It is obvious that Katherina’s bad reputation predominantly derives from the fact that she speaks at all, not what exactly she has to say. It seems that silence is apart from beauty, the one and only virtue a woman has to have to be attractive to men.[9] In terms of gender this aspect becomes an important dimension. In our culture, may it be almost 400 years ago or today, we deal with stereotypical images of women who talk a lot but say little. These images are encoded in our language. We deal with descriptions of women as chatterboxes, blabbermouths, windbags or scandalmongers. What they produce is not only seen as trivial but also as unreliable. What is important is that there are no analogue descriptions of male verbal activities.[10]

Interesting is Katherina’s answer in Act II (2.1.29), to Baptista’s question whether Binaca did ever cross her with a bitter word: “Her silence flouts me, and I’ll be revenged” his daughter answers. This is expression of Watzlawick’s first axiom of communication that even no communication is communication. It shows that Katherina is able to sense the hidden meanings of interaction whereas her father is unable to lead an emphatic communication with his elder daughter and has no ability for meta-communication. This, to mention just one example, proves that for Katherina language and communication is much more important than for most of the other characters. Language is what defines her as a shrew and language is what she has to defend herself. It is obvious that she sees herself in a dilemma because everyone only communicates superficiously, according to social norms and does not give her a chance to prove her qualities.

The other counterpoising of characters can be seen between Petruchio and the suitors. Masculine confidence and strength characterize Petruchio in speech and action. He never voices any doubt that he can tame Katherina. So he says in Act II, (2.1.269ff.): “For I am he am born to tame you, Kate, and bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate conformable as other household Kates.”[11] Petruchio’s crude language, full of the often bawdy slang of the Elizabethan period, is the complete opposite of the romantic clichés with which Lucentio woos Bianca. (4.2.6-10).

Lucentio seems to be a stock character used to contrast with Petruchio. He is also not remarkable for his intelligence so that his servant Tranio does all the intriguing for him. Tranio’s superior thought and station is stressed by the fact that he speaks in verse, whereas the other servants speak in prose. Generally characters lower in the social order speak prose as opposed to aristocrats who speak in verse. Also Christopher Sly changes from prose to verse when he begins to think he is a lord.

Part of the difference between Petruchio’s and Lucentio’s manners of wooing is a matter of style. Lucentio uses many Roman and Greek references to describe Bianca. His language is very high-blown but with no really content. He uses cliché-ridden phrases that are polite but meaningless. In the scenes in which Petruchio uses common wooing-phrases such as “But though with mildness entertain’st thy wooers, with gentle conference, soft and affable.” (2.1.244f.) he uses them to provoke Katherina, knowing she wouldn’t take him seriously. Most of Petruchio’s speeches are filled with sexual connotations or animal metaphors. He is, besides Katherina, the only character who really gives attention to body language and other physical contents of communication. Not only do they refer to their bodies in various ways, they also comment on each other’s expression and looks:

Pet.: Nay come, Kate, come you must not look so sour.

Kat.: It is my fashion when I see a crab.

Pet.: Why, here’s no crab, and therefore look not sour.

Kat.: There is, there is.

Pet.: Then show it me.

Kat.: Had I a glass, I would.

Pet.: What, you mean my face?

Kat.: Well aimed of such a young one.

Pet.: Now, by Saint George, I am too young for you.

Kat.: Yet you are withered.

Pet.: ‘Tis with cares. (...)[12]

The characters in “The Taming of the Shrew” are masters in not openly expressing their emotions and aims. Supporting this pattern is the use of costume and disguises.


[1] Schultz von Thun, Friedemann (1981, 1989): Miteinander Reden 1. Störungen und Klärungen. Allgemeine Psychologie der Kommunikation. Hamburg; Miteinander Reden 2. Stile, Werte und Persönlichkeitsentwicklung. Differentielle Psychologie der Kommunikation. Hamburg.

Watzlawick, Paul / Beavin, Janet Helmick / Jackson, Don D., (1967): Pragmatics of Human Communication. A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxies. New York

[2] Watzlawick et al., ibid,

[3] Bradbrook, M.C. (1958): “Dramatic Rôle as social image; A Study of the Taming of the Shrew.” In: Shakespeare Jahrbuch 94: p. 132-150,

[4] Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983): A Course in General Linguistics. (Trans. Roy Harris), London

[5] cf. also: Drakakis, John (ed.) (1981): Alternative Shakespeare 1. London, New York: p. 177. He refers to Derrida, Jacques (1981): Dissemination. London

[6] Dash, Irene G. (1981): Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare’s Plays. New York:

[7] Act I, Scene I, line 125: “Though it pass your patience and mine to endure her loud alarms, why man there be good fellows in the world, an a man sold light on them, would take her with all faults, and money enough.”

[8] Rovine, Harvey (1987): Silence in Shakespeare. Drama, Power, and Gender. London:

[9] cf. Rovine, ibid,

[10] cf. Trömel-Plötz, Senta (1982): Frauensprache- Sprache der Veränderung. Frankfurt Main:

cf. also Kunsmann, Peter. (2000). “Gender, Status and Power in Discourse of Men and Women.” In: Fetzer Anita / Pittner Karin (ed.). Gesprächsforschung: neue Entwicklungen / Conversational Analysis: New Developments. Linguistik-online 5,1/00. ( Kunsmann states that in discussion, women are powerless regarding their social position. This is reflected in fewer interruptions in cross-sex conversation. Furthermore women tend to use linguistic devices that stress solidarity more often than men do.

[11] cf. also Act I, (1.2.196-208): “(...) Think you a little din can daunt mine ears? Have I not in my time heard lions roar? (...) And do you tell me of a woman’s tongue, that gives not half so great a blow to hear as will a chestnut in a farmer’s fire? (...).”

[12] Act II, (2.1.226-232).

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Aspects of Communication in The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Free University of Berlin  (Institute for English Philology)
HS Dialogue and Drama im WiSe00/01
1,3 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
529 KB
Aspects, Communication, Taming, Shrew, William, Shakespeare, Dialogue, Drama, WiSe00/01
Quote paper
Juliane von Heimendahl (Author), 2001, Aspects of Communication in The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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