Few characters in the Shakespearean canon have provoked as much violent debate and as many varied readings and theatrical and filmic interpretations as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. For one nineteenth century male critic he is
a madman in his senses, a very honest fellowa character which most husbands ought to study, unless perhaps the very audacity of Petruchios attempt might alarm them more than his success would encourage them.
William Hazlitt, The Characters of Shakespeares Plays (1817) cited in John Cook, William Hazlitt: Selected Writings (1999) p.323 ,
whilst for a late twentieth century feminist critic he
reinforces through comic means a patriarchal programme we all recognise because we live in the world and see its manipulations and consequencesif we are not offended by the tragedy of Shakespeares comedy, there is something wrong
Stevie Davies, Penguin Critical Studies: The Taming of the Shrew (1995) p.62
The question of viewing a pivotal character in a play that is undoubtedly concerned with gender relationships and conflict is also a difficult one, given the very obvious differences between the explicitly patriarchal culture of sixteenth century England, in which Shakespeare wrote, and todays culture which professedly, at least strives for gender equality. Shakespeare does manipulate audience response to the character through various linguistic and dramatic techniques though clearly it is possible to respond to Petruchio in very different ways.
Petruchios is doubtless the dominant voice for most of the play. His 586 lines are more than twice the number spoken by Katherina, and his mastery of language equates with his power as the driving force of the play and the tamer or re-moulder of Katherina. He is adept at rope-tricks (I. II. 111), at heroic bombast and hyperbole Have I not heard great ordnance in the field, / And heavens artillery thunder in the skies? (I. II. 201-202) at pun-laden stichomythia , as in his first encounter with Katherina (II. I. 198-235), and at extraordinary directness. Petruchio is able to manipulate language to an extraordinary degree, and through this manipulate other characters themselves, especially Katherina. He even changes her name at their first meeting:
PETRUCHIO: Good morrow, Kate, for thats your name, I hear.
KATHERINA: Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing;
They call me Katherine that do talk of me. (II. I. 183-185)
He then proceeds to go further, shaping his Kate through language into her absolute opposite, a pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous (II. I. 240) Bianca-like character. By punning on her name, he is even able to go so far as to dehumanise her, as Natasha Korda points out in Household Kates in New Casebooks: Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew, making her as conformable as other household Kates (II. I. 272), cates being an archaic word for household provisions purchased from a market. Petruchio is able, later, to control Katherina utterly, not only by denying her food, sleep and clothing, but robbing her of her power of speech, by wilfully misunderstanding and reinterpreting what she says:
PETRUCHIO: Draw forth thy weapon, we are beset with thieves,
Rescue thy mistress if thou be a man.
Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate. (III. II. 235-237).
Not only does Petruchio create imagined thieves as a pretext to deny Katherina the wedding feast, he even (with his fear notKate) suggests that she herself has asked for rescue, literally putting words into her mouth, just as Shakespeare will later show him taking the food from her mouth. He is able to use language in a way in which it was never intended to be used, paradoxically making a sermon of continency (IV. I. 168) whilst he rails, and swears and rates (IV. I. 169). Finally, Katherina will be left with no option other than to allow him total linguistic mastery: What you will have it named, even that it is (IV. V. 21).
Shakespeare gives Petruchio a wealth of imagery based on the aristocratic pastime of falconry, most explicitly where he outlines the techniques of depriving his haggard (IV. I. 181) of food and sleep in order to make her come and know her keepers call (IV. I. 182). The image is a powerful one, suggesting a natural hierarchy in which the bird must obey its master, as well as imbuing Petruchio with the degree of nobility attached to the real falconer, whilst the apparent metaphor is made reality by him in the succeeding scenes.
If Katherina is initially perceived as stark mad (I. I. 69), Petruchio is defined by the other characters in even more extreme terms of insanity and instability. Petruchios carefully described wedding costume builds audience anticipation before his entrance and makes him. Similarly, the description of his offstage violent excesses at the wedding is far more effective than an onstage presentation would be, allowing the minds of the audience to imagine his wild breaking of social norms, and whetting their appetite for his actual onstage antics later.
The entertainment Petruchio offers stems not only from the language and machinations of the plot Shakespeare gives him, but also from the sheer theatricality and audacity of the role on stage. Katherina is won over by Petruchio in exactly the same way he can win over an audience; the success of one predicating the success of the other. If he is unable to win over Katherina by manipulating her perception of the world around her , the play itself is also doomed to failure, but if the play wins over its audience, it must perforce legitimise to some degree outrageous and controlling behaviour.
Petruchio, like The Taming of the Shrew, will remain a bone of critical contention. What few modern critics have noted, though, is Shakespeares subtlest technique in shaping Petruchio: he may, as has been shown, control and dominate the action and the language of the play, but he himself is in performance terms, at least defined by Katherina. This goes beyond the remarks in the text that he is more shrew than she (IV. I. 85) and Petruchio is Kated (III. II. 245); the audience perception of Katherina ultimately controls which of Petruchios many potential qualities is emphasised. Whether he is misogynist bully or skittish suitor, whether the play is a black comedy of materialism or an astute study of the psychology of an ideally matched, if unconventional couples relationship, all depends on what Katherina has gained or lost by marrying him. Katherinas final speech may take as its subject wifely obedience, but it is her delivery of these words that determines ultimately for an audience whether the play has been a satire, lampoon, an indictment of social values or in praise of the humanizing processes of marriage. Above any other technique this is Shakespeares most effective: to create a character and play so open to re-interpretation by theatre practitioners and able to be received in so many different ways by an audience.