Like many other of Shakespeare's comedies, The Taming of the Shrew features a woman as one of the story's chief protagonists. Katherine Minola is a fiery, spirited woman, and as such, the male dominated world around her doesn't quite know what to do with her.
Much of what we know about Kate initially comes from what other people say about her. In Act I, for instance, we see her only briefly and hear her speak even less, yet our view of Katherine is fairly well established. Shakespeare, though, is setting up a clever teaching lesson, helping us later to see the errors of our own hasty judgment (just as characters in Shrew will also learn lessons about rushing to judgments). Right after Baptista announces that Kate must marry before Bianca may take suitors, Gremio colors our interpretation of the elder daughter by declaring "She's too rough for me" (1.1.55). Later in the scene, Gremio reiterates his dislike for Kate, demeaning her as a "fiend of hell" (88) and offering that "though her father be very rich, any man is so very a fool to be married to hell" (124-126). He finishes off with the declaration that to marry Kate is worse than to "take her dowry with this condition: to be whipped at the high cross every morning" (132-134). Hortensio, too, is quick to add to the foray, calling Kate a devil (66) and claiming that she is not likely to get a husband unless she is "of gentler, milder mold" (60). Tranio, Lucentio's servant, is perhaps the only man in this scene not to disparage Kate, diagnosing her as "stark mad or wonderful froward" (69).
Kate, in her own defense, offers telling commentary on her situation. Although other characters encourage us to see her as unmannerly and incorrigible, deserving of marginalization and abuse, looking more closely at what Kate actually says reveals she may not be as domineering as some characters would have us believe. For instance, the first lines we hear her speak are to her father, imploring him not to wed her to a fool (57-58). Although it is somewhat nervy for her to speak out against her father, the fact that she does so in order to make what seems to us to be a fairly reasonable demand helps us see her as reasonable rather than shrewish.
In Act II, we get another look at Katherine and learn a bit more about what motivates her seemingly outrageous behavior: She's responding to the favoritism she perceives Baptista holds toward her sister, Bianca. As Act II opens, Kate enters, dragging Bianca with her hands tied. On one level, the mere act of one sister roping the other and handling her roughly for a perceived injustice is comic, but when we stop and consider from Kate's perspective we can have a bit more empathy. Kate is venting her anger that Bianca should be indulged with suitors while she remains alone. Granted, she is an intelligent and spirited woman who wouldn't be satisfied with simpering men such as Gremio and Hortensio. Rather, she needs a strong man to compliment her own strong and powerful personality. When Baptista enters and comes to Bianca's rescue, we learn what's really underlying Kate's behavior: She's angry at the way Baptista favors her younger sister. She confronts her father, claiming Bianca is his "treasure" and "must have a husband" while she, humiliated, dances "barefoot on her wedding day" and leads "apes in hell" (II.1, 31-36).
Although Katherine, in the early acts of the play, seems reasonably well motivated in her actions, the manner in which she carries out her feelings is perhaps what most marks her as a shrew. Her actions are decidedly unladylike, revealing Kate's inability to deal in an adult manner with what she is feeling. In short, she comes across as a child who has learned that the best way to get what she wants is to cajole, bully, and lash out, whereas later she will reason and be able to contain her behavior. From early on, we see Kate is a scrapper, ready to enter into a physical brawl rather than risk not getting her way. No matter how justly motivated we may find her actions, the fact she is quick to lash out signals an immature approach to life.
By the time the play hits its midpoint, however, Kate begins her transformation, moving from egocentric misery to a decidedly more mature happiness found, in this case, through marriage. We see the beginning of Kate's change on the ride to Petruchio's house after the wedding. In Act IV, Scene 1, Grumio travels ahead of his master and mistress in order to prepare for their welcome. He recounts the horrors of their travels, including Katherine's slipping off her horse and the horse landing on her (64-75). Petruchio's response was to beat Grumio for letting the horse stumble. Kate, it would seem, would use this occasion to enter into a grand fight, but rather, she waded through the mire to pull Petruchio off Grumio. This simple act of defense signals that Kate is, in fact, capable of considering a perspective other than her own. Shortly after arriving at the house, Kate again shows her kindness in defending a servant who has accidentally spilled some water (141-145).
Kate's character continues to be revealed as the play progresses. As the couple travels back to old Baptista's house, for example, she begins to see how Petruchio's partnership works. She quickly learns that, if she gives in to what Petruchio says, even if she knows it to be false, she'll get something she wants (for example, they'll travel to her father's house). The test, of course, comes when they meet the real Vincentio on the road, and Petruchio questions Kate as to whether she has ever seen a finer young woman. Rather than arguing the contrary, Kate shows her incredible wit by not only agreeing with him, but also good-naturedly adding to the game! At this point, she has clearly come to understand that Petruchio has a method to his madness, and she begins to realize their relationship can be a partnership with a series of actions and rewards.
Perhaps in no place is Kate seen as more enigmatic than in her final speech. Although some readers' initial impulse is to take the ending at face value, the speech, like Kate herself, is far more rich and dynamic than that. Underlying the speech is Kate's awareness that she is in a partnership and that by advancing the power of her husband she advances her own power. In addition, she is clearly aware of the distinction between public and private behavior, and there is no indication that her assuming this temporary and very public role of suppliant means she will always be that way — especially in private. It shows, also, that Kate has come to a level of maturity, able to handle things in an adult manner (in which there is both give and take). Kate's speech does not reflect a tamed shrew, but rather a richer, more developed woman than the one seen at the story's beginning.