Using a Shakespeare Play as A Critical Thinking Exercise
Kate Minola was a “shrew” — an angry, man-hating, unmarriageable woman who railed against her father, her sister, indeed cursing and threatening anyone who approached her. Her younger sister, Bianca, was demure, beautiful, respectful and “properly feminine.” Naturally, she had many suitors. Kate had none.
One problem: Bianca could not marry, as Shakespeare tells it in “Taming of the Shrew,” until someone first married Kate and unburdened her beleaguered father. Lucky for her father, a rowdy chap named Petruchio had come to Padua looking for a wealthy wife. Beauty and charm were not among his requirements. She could have been “an old trot with ne’er a tooth in her head, though she had as many diseases as two-and-fifty horses. Why nothing comes amiss so money comes withal.”
Money talked and Kate walked … away … as Petruchio’s wife. Petruchio then subjected Kate to a boot camp regimen. She was deprived of food, sleep, decent clothing. His plan was to train her like a falcon, to break her and remake her as a pliant, obedient wife. He demanded she trust him alone, not to believe her eyes and ears. If he said it was night, when it was clearly day, she would have to agree. If he said an old man was a beautiful young maid, she would have to agree.
When she eventually comprehended the topsy-turvy rules of his game, she relented and was rewarded.
When Petruchio ultimately tested her obedience at a wedding feast, she uttered a speech about male supremacy, stating that a woman’s husband is her “lord … king … governor … keeper … sovereign.” Kate further stated that women should not war against their husbands but “kneel for peace … where they are bound to serve, love, and obey.”
In a final gesture, she knelt before Petruchio and offered her hand to his foot. He proudly lifts her to him: “Kiss me Kate!”
For ages, theatergoers and readers had seen this play as a kind of Punch and Judy, battle-of-the-sexes farce. Funny, yes, but reasserting the traditional, patriarchal order — an out-of-control woman is subdued by her husband, sees the light, and lives a subordinate, orderly life.
But this play has been re-examined in interesting ways by scholars and directors over the past 50 years. Greater sympathy for the discrete ambiguities in this play has opened new avenues of interpretation.
Ambiguity in “Taming of the Shrew” suggests layers of possible motives and meanings. For example, when Kate recites her final speech:
■ Is she happily reconciled to her new life as subordinate wife?
■ Is she a broken woman, her spirit suppressed by a dominant male?
■ Is she being ironic and pretending to believe her speech, leading Petruchio to believe he has the upper hand while she is now playing him?
■ Is she using the speech to exact revenge on the community that had historically demeaned her?
■ Is she playing a game in partnership with Petruchio in order to dupe the gullible wedding-goers, especially now that she understands “the game” herself?
Each separate interpretation requires a separate understanding of the main characters and their motives. Each interpretation requires a different staging, a different reading of the lines, different movements and gestures.
Choices must be made based on a careful reading of the text. Those choices can, and often do, affect a student’s entire response to the play. They may see things differently.
When I teach this play, I ask my students what they believe happens in the play, and why. Since the text of the play encourages multiple interpretations, students must make a critical choice based on what they see in the text that supports their view, then defend their position against those with different views. Multiple interpretations, when evidence-based, can open the mind to unexpected possibilities. Even change minds.
I employ this “Socratic Method” in my classes because it encourages “critical thinking.” The word “education” has two different Latin roots. “Educare” means to train or mold. “Educere” means to draw from or lead out. My method is “educere.”
Training and molding are best left to the churches, the trades, the military and primarily families. Colleges and universities have a different mission, what Francis Bacon called “the advancement of learning.” This does not happen in a closed, rigid, and dogmatic environment. Copernicus and Galileo discovered this to be true.
Socratic Method focuses on getting students to think — first, to do the foundational work, then to ask the tough questions, then to search for answers, however difficult. Ideally, this habit of “searching” lasts a lifetime. Human progress depends on the inquiring, “wisely doubting” mind.
As Socrates himself stated: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”