The Character of Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew
Michael W. Shurgot has written that The Taming of the Shrew "may never be as intellectually stimulating as reading, say, The Merchant of Venice or Hamlet or The Winter's Tale" and that the characters that seem one-dimensional on the page can only become interesting on the stage (328). Shurgot would seem to imply that Shakespeare did not fully develop his characters, and that the play is only entertaining after a director has taken creative license with the stage directions. A close reading of the play itself will show it to be interesting enough indeed, for it reveals clues to the motivation of both Katharina's shrewishness and later submissiveness, and the manner in which her character is to be portrayed and viewed.
Agnes Mure Mackenzie would have audiences believe that "Katharina's revolt is temperamental apparently: at least we are given no reason for it in its beginnings," (24). Baptista says that his daughters will have "a good bringing up," (1.1.99), implying that he has always tried to raise the girls right. Katharina, he would have us believe, has turned out shrewish despite his best intentions. He also says that he intends to school his daughters. This does not necessarily mean that Katharina is intelligent, but she has probably been encouraged to think. Like it or not, Baptista has reared an independently thinking female.
An audience might assume that Katharina has always been shrewish; her reputation seems to have already been established, as is evidenced by Hortensio and Gremio's heckling in the first scene (1.1.55-61). This does not mean she is a shrew by nature, only that she had been exhibiting this behavior for some time, and probably had some other motivation sometime prior to the start of the play. To believe that the life of the characters and our knowledge of them exists only within the play itself is to ruin the suspension of disbelief.
We know of Katharina's resentment of her father for favoring Bianca, and for his unusual rule about the marriage of his daughters. Baptista not only makes Katharina out to be a laughingstock, but he assures that his daughters will never be united. Likewise, we see that Katharina is jealous of Bianca, because she has gained the affections of many suitors and-most enviable of all-their father. Katharina probably believes Bianca is a sell-out, simply giving in to the rules that only Katharina has the guts to speak out against. Katharina is also resentful of the society that would allow her to be trapped in such a demeaning position, and then ridicule and condemn her for her only means of response.
It seems rational, although too easy perhaps, to assume that these are the effects and not the causes of Katharina's ill temper. Simply because the play begins with the enforcement of Baptista's rule does not mean that the idea has not previously been...