Character Study: Katherina Minola

since seeing the ballet last week of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, i’ve been thinking about Katherina Minola, the titular character. As i watched the simplified story unfold, I started thinking more and more WHY Kate would be so cruel, so heartless, even to her own sister. Why was she such a bitch?

So I tried to put myself in her shoes. I had to remind myself that the social attitude was much different towards women than it is now. They were property, chattell, bargaining chips. From a woman’s perspective, Kate’s behavior begins to make more sense. The common understanding is that she’s a shrew, therefore no one wants to marry her. But I think it’s the other way around, or at worst, a vicious cycle. I think she’s bitter because no one wants to marry her. She becomes less and less appealing as that continued rejection feeds her bitterness.

Since her father has dictated no one can marry her younger sister until Kate is hitched, she is stuck in this place of being pressured to get married by her father and sister, but the reality of no one wanting her. That pressure builds as her sister is constantly pursued by suitors but she isn’t. What woman The question here is her father’s edict.  Did he forbid Bianca’s marriage before Kate was mean? Or after?

I suspect it was before. To a man in his position, (and I believe it’s enforced in the actual text, but I can’t remember) if he dies and leaves Kate an old maid, she won’t be cared for. In a way, he is protecting her future, as well as the future of his estate. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, really. And he knows that Bianca will be snapped up quickly, so he doesn’t need to worry about her. Kate, however–as an aging woman in a time when people died young, does not have the luxury of time. At the risk of having BOTH daughters die spinsters, her father is avoiding the certainty of being stuck with at least one. 

But this edict probably came after a few years of no suitors, of hope slowly fading for both Kate and her father. As soon as boys started showing interest in Bianca, the wheels in his head probably started turning. That’s gotta hurt. Knowing your father sees you as unable to get a husband on your own. Thinking that he sees you as un-marry-able. Feeling an acknowledgement of something she’d long feared–men just don’t like her. This means Katherine’s been dealing with rejection from the world, and then her own family, for a long time. I can see that hardening anyone’s heart.

She’s learned to believe that no man will want her. In an effort to prove she’s not afraid or to show it doesn’t bother her, she clothes herself in spite and meanness. So she grows ever meaner, and in doing so builds an even thicker wall between herself and the world. She doesn’t want people to saw it’s because she doesn’t have much to offer a man–it’s easier to hear it’s because she’s a bitch. She’d rather be too much than not enough. She doesn’t want their pity, she wants their respect. And they’re not going to give it to a pathetic spinster.

But then I wondered why she’s so mean to her little sister. It isn’t Bianca’s fault no one wants to marry her. But if you think about it, it’s a little clearer. If both girls are still of marriageable age, they can’t be but a few years apart, both still in their teens. I don’t think it’s because she’s ugly or mean-spirited (at the start). It’s probable that every time a man sees Kate, he sees her prettier, younger sister standing behind her, waiting in the wings. And sure, Kate comes with a dowry, but so does Bianca, AND she’s hot to boot. Kate’s not stupid–she knows Bianca is the one men really want. Of course she’s jealous.  And hurt. The chasm between the sisters is only widened by their father’s creed of not-one-until-the-other. “That would hardly encourage sisterly affection”. (name that movie!)

Honestly, I can’t believe anyone is surprised by her behavior at this point. Everyone else in the play acts like they’re the victim of her rage, when she’s actually the victim of their shallowness. She’s hurting and lashing out and no one can see it. They only feed her frustration and fears with their continued rejection.

Once I sifted through the psychology behind it, my heart started to break for poor Kate (I know she’s fictitious, but she’s still a hurting woman). To feel so helpless in your own destiny, to know you’re forever condemned as the ugly older sister, to have no power and no say in a man’s world–well, those are themes any woman can relate to in today’s world. And I am not usually one to quibble over gender issues or slights to either sex, but honestly, this could only have been written by a man.

While Shakespeare may have developed and understood the sentiments behind the character of Katherina, he hardly allows his audience to feel empathy for her. Instead, a man is shown to “break her”. Not by gently wooing her. Not by attempting to understand her point-of-view. No, by domination. Refusing her food, drink, clothing, or contact with her family. Denied sleep or humanity, she finally admits that he’s got her and she was in the way of her own happiness. That true joy was only found in servitude to her husband.

I don’t buy it.

This play is absolutely the epitome of men not understanding women. Not knowing what’s going on in her head, swaggering about playing God with her sanity, denying her the basics in life.

Or maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way?

Did Petruchio remove all distractions, such as refreshment or sleep, so she could focus on other things? Did he need to show her that she truly had to let down her guard to survive? (In a literal sense–no food or drink equals death). I would like to believe so. I would like to see that he was showing her he was a man who could provide for her, who would out-stubborn her. That he was a man just as different as others as she. Was he truly intrigued by her? Did he wonder what went on underneath? Was he as barbarous to her as she was to others in order to show her what her cruelty looked truly like?

But this is a man robbed by whores. This is a man who humiliates her in front of her family and her new servants. I find myself confused by Petruchio. In the ballet, he is mostly shown as a laughing fool, making Kate look ridiculous whenever possible. How can their love be genuine when he makes no attempt to understand and empathize with her?

This weekend, I’m going to rewatch some of the older movies and recorded plays. I’d like to see how it plays out on the big screen, with Shakespeare’s wit come to life the way it was meant to. I’d like to understand Petruchio a little more. I’d like to find the human side of him. Perhaps he deserves his own character study.


One comment

  1. Em · November 7, 2013

    Awesome ideas and strong thought. I really enjoyed reading this 🙂

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