Character Analysis Petruchio


Although Kate is one of Shakespeare's most enigmatic heroines, she is not the only complicated character in The Taming of the Shrew. Her groom, Petruchio, has nearly as much mystery surrounding him as does Kate herself. Yet exploring Petruchio forces us to ask questions that can become difficult largely because, frankly, we want to like him. In a sense, it's initially hard to explore a side of him which may, in fact, make him less likable. Is he a man of honor or a mercenary seeking only to marry into money? Is he domineering and truly worthy of the title "tamer," or does the role he takes with Katherine constitute something less aggressive and ultimately more democratic? To be sure, in the end, it's clear Petruchio is not nearly as mercenary as we might initially think. In fact, when all is said and done, Petruchio is a successful match for the strong-willed and ebullient Kate.

The first difficult issue we must deal with if we are to look at Petruchio fairly is his early claim that he has "come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily then happily in Padua" (I.2, 74-75). Certainly this doesn't sound like a declaration from a man destined to marry for love. Rather, it sounds like a man who is following the common, traditional pattern for the time: making the best alliance he can for himself, elevating his status as much as possible through marriage. If we accept that Petruchio does indeed want to marry solely for financial gain, then another line of questioning arises: If all he wants is money, once he has Katherine's hand (and dowry), why then does he try to help her (and himself) to a better life? It would have been far simpler to treat her poorly, as most shrews in the literature of the time were treated.

It seems as if Petruchio surprises even himself when he realizes that although he outwardly wishes to marry for money, when it comes to it, he is motivated by something else: the desire to love and be loved. Petruchio, rather than being domineering and selfish, is an observant man who quickly senses in Katherine something more than her outward shrewishness. He sees beyond the superficial (unlike Lucentio who falls in love with Bianca based on what he has observed) and aptly recognizes that her behavior is a masquerade, a tough exterior intended to cover her inner desire to be loved and valued. On top of that, Petruchio becomes so attracted to her spirit and her non-conventional nature that when he accomplishes his initial desire to "wive it wealthily," he takes his involvement a step further, making a great effort to help Kate develop, sensing that the true Kate, when she can be brought out, will compliment him well.

Part of what makes Petruchio so likeable is his apparent disregard for social decorum, particularly when he works to get Kate to abandon her shrewish exterior. For instance, he doesn't buy into the notion of "birthright," as we see by his refusal to treat Katherine as a woman of her status traditionally expects to be treated. Rather, Petruchio's treatment of Kate is based on how she behaves. She has to earn her privileges. We see another good example of Petruchio's willingness to go against convention in an ends-justifying-the-means fashion when he arrives late for the wedding. To be sure, though, it is this exact willingness to go against convention that keeps Petruchio from being a paragon for the Elizabethan man (remember, class and social stratifications were encouraged by those in power during Shakespeare's time). Many of the ordinary people who initially viewed the plays (they made up the bulk of the audience) would likely have seen Petruchio as a hero, but to those in power, aspects of Petruchio's behavior would have been cause for concern.

Another aspect of Petruchio's nature that adds to his appeal is the way in which he grows to trust his wife — something none of the other characters do. The play's final scene provides the best example when, in the midst of the banquet, Petruchio eagerly puts his reputation in Kate's hands. For him, the initial twenty crown wager is an insult, causing him to exclaim "I'll venture so much of my hawk or hound, / But twenty times so much upon my wife" (V.2, 73-74). Kate comes when she is called, as Petruchio was sure she would, but in giving Kate the task of telling "these headstrong women / What duty they do owe their lords and husbands" (V.2, 144-145), he releases complete control of his reputation. At this point, whatever she says will reflect not only on her, but on him as well. At this point Petruchio is also giving Kate an unparalleled opportunity: to address and instruct the party. Clearly he trusts her — so much, in fact, that he is willing to share the public forum with her (an extraordinary occurrence for a woman). Kate's formidable speech leaves her own husband speechless, able to exclaim only "Why, there's a wench!" (184).

Although in many ways Petruchio is like his wife, admittedly he doesn't undergo the same sort of maturation and development as she does (after all, his tyranny is clearly a fiction, a parody created to help Kate see the senselessness of her behavior). It would be unfair, though, to claim he remains static. When we look back to the Petruchio of the early acts, he is determined to live solely for himself, intending to exist largely on the dowry of the wife he hopes to find. If this were his sole motivation, though, what point would there be in his taking the time to help his wife into a partnership? If money were his only goal, surely he wouldn't bother trying to help Kate to a different perspective. When it comes to it, it seems Petruchio does not, in fact, want merely to wive it wealthily. He wants someone who can spar wits with him, challenge him, and excite him intellectually, emotionally, and physically. By the wedding scene, Petruchio has come to this realization; hence, he willingly assumes the all-important role as the catalyst for Kate's change. For instance, purposely arriving late, wearing conspicuously inappropriate attire, and behaving in a completely improper manner at the wedding mark Petruchio's initial steps in getting a wife worth more than merely her money. By play's end his gamble to try and bring Kate to a higher level of understanding pays off. Petruchio gets the mate he desires — but he, too, is changed. He is no longer the mercenary man from the early acts; rather he is a man deserving of the extraordinary partner he has gained.