Summary and Analysis
The action switches to Petruchio's country house as the newlyweds approach. Grumio goes ahead to build a fire and, upon his arrival, tells Curtis, another of Petruchio's servants, of the adventures the couple has had while en route. Kate and Petruchio have been fighting the entire way, Grumio recounts. At one point, Katherine's horse stumbles and falls. She is thrown, and the horse lands on her. Petruchio, rather than assisting his bride, goes to Grumio and begins to beat him because Kate's horse stumbled. Katherine, covered in mud and mire, pulls Petruchio off Grumio, and the two begin to fight in earnest, scaring even the horses so much that they run away.
When Kate and Petruchio arrive, the servants line up to greet them. Petruchio wastes no opportunity to rant and rave at his serving men. The couple proceeds to dinner. As Kate's washes, a serving man accidentally spills water and in return receives a sound beating from Petruchio. Kate, in the servant's defense, claims it was an accident. When the long-awaited dinner is presented to the couple, Petruchio finds fault with it, begins a tirade, and throws the food at the servants. A hungry Kate declares "the meat was well" (157). Petruchio retorts the meat was burnt and therefore bad for their health. An evening's fast will serve them much better, and so they head to the bedchamber where Petruchio continues to censure his new bride. Returning to the stage, Petruchio explains his plan: to keep Kate hungry and uncomfortable until he successfully tames her wild behavior.
Act IV, Scene 1, when coupled with the wedding scene just prior, gives modern audiences a rather negative view of Petruchio. Elizabethan playgoers, on the other hand, would have had very little problem with the tactics Petruchio takes to tame his wife (and they are, in fact, tactics, rather than a reflection of his true self). For Elizabethans, few problems were worse than an unruly wife. A woman dominating a man was considered an affront to his masculinity, and therefore men were encouraged to keep women in tow by whatever means possible. Men, in fact, were sometimes punished for having an adulterous wife, for instance. As if her infidelity were not enough, the husband (or cuckold) would often be subjected to additional public humiliation for allowing his wife to be out of control.
Although Petruchio's tactics seem strong to our modern sensibilities, they are nowhere near as forceful and unpleasant as some of the sermons and stories of Shakespeare's day suggest. The Taming of the Shrew, based in part on A Merry Jest of a Shrew and Curst Wife, Lapped in Morel's Skin, thankfully does not employ the same sort of punishment recommended in A Merry Jest (where the wife is tamed by being whipped bloody with switches and then wrapped in the freshly salted skin of Morel, the plowhorse). (See the Critical Essay section for more on this and other sources.)
In keeping with the farcical tradition in which The Taming of the Shrew belongs, Shakespeare fills Act IV, Scene 1 with Petruchio's comic taming tactics. We can only laugh as Grumio recounts how Kate's horse slipped in the mud, throwing her and, to make matters worse, landing on her. Petruchio, with a touch of reverse psychology, berates Grumio for letting Kate's horse slip rather than helping Kate. Later, he sends back her much-anticipated dinner, claiming it was burned and therefore would be bad for her (by producing choler, the humor supposed to bring about ill temper. She has enough of that already, reasons Petruchio). Again, he couches his remarks, appearing to be acting in her best interest. We later learn his plan is to continue to deprive her of food, rest, and other necessities, hoping to bring her to the breaking point. He admits, too, "That all is done in reverent care of her" (192) and that he'll "curb her mad and headstrong humor" by killing her with (supposed) kindness (196-197).
Although Petruchio appears domineering and belligerent, we quickly see he is merely assuming a role. We know from our initial contact with Petruchio that he is a clever and generally good-spirited fellow whose greatest fault may be that he is out to win his fortune. What fortune can be made, we must ask ourselves, if his wife is brutally abused and tormented throughout their marriage? Very little can come from a long-term plan for abuse. We must suspect that he is, rather, assuming a role (the tamer) until the desired goal (Kate's taming) is achieved. Petruchio's final speech in this scene, in fact, confirms that is his plan. He assumes the role of tamer, treating Kate just as she has been treating those around her. He has "politicly begun [his] reign" (176), but we must wonder whether he will, in fact, be successful. In some regards, he seems to be gaining the upper hand, treating his wife no better than an animal, but by this point we know Kate well enough not to underestimate her.
Shakespeare, in fact, continues to build our sympathy for Kate the Curst. The tacit endearment which began in earnest in Act III, Scene 2 (Kate's disastrous wedding) continues in this scene. Much of the action is highly comic, but underneath it all remains a woman who is taken out of the only environment she has ever known and placed in an entirely foreign surrounding, married to a man who equates her in every way with his other worldly possessions. Baptista, although he may have favored Bianca, certainly never treated Katherine as she is now being treated. We cannot help but feel some emotion for a woman who is forced to endure humiliation and discomfort at her husband's hands. Of course, we may reason, as Petruchio does, that she deserves no special considerations because her behavior doesn't warrant it.
Throughout all the commotion of Act IV, Scene 1, we can begin to see a glimmer of change in Katherine. She is beginning to mature and see the world from a perspective other than her own. Our first indication of her growth comes from Grumio's account of the journey. After her horse slipped and Petruchio began to beat Grumio for the horse's fall, Kate, seeing the foolhardy injustice of Petruchio's action, comes to Grumio's defense, wading "through the dirt to pluck [Petruchio] off [Grumio]" (69-70). Later, when one of the servants is excessively punished for spilling water as Kate washes for dinner, she is quick to come to the man's defense, claiming "@'twas a fault unwilling" (144). Clearly she is beginning, ever so slowly, to see the world differently than she did in the opening acts of the play. Although it is satisfying to see Katherine mature somewhat, her change leads us to raise one of the more perplexing questions surrounding this play: Did she have to change? Critics are divided on this issue and, unfortunately, the answer becomes less and less clear as the play continues (this issue will be taken up more fully in Act IV, Scenes 3 and 5, and in Act V, Scene 2).
rayed (3) dirtied.
coney-catching (38) cheating, trickery.
fustian (42) a coarse cloth of cotton and linen.
jacks (43) servingmen; also, drinking vessels.
jills (44) maidservants; also "gills," drinking vessels.
fallen out (48) quarreling.
imprimis (59) in the first place.
foul (60) muddy.
miry (67) full of, or having the nature of, mire; swampy.
bemoiled (67) dirtied with mire.
countenance (89) to give support or sanction to; approve or tolerate.
credit (94) pay respects to.
cock's passion (107) by God's (Christ's) suffering.
drudge (117) a person who does hard, menial, or tedious work.
unpinked (121) lacking in eyelets or in ornamental tracing in the leather.
link (122) a torch made of tow and pitch.
soud (130) a nonsense expression of impatience.
unwilling (144) unintentional.
dresser (151) the person who dresses or prepares the food.
trenchers (153) wooden boards or platters on which to carve or serve meat.
jolt-heads (154) blockheads.
sermon of continency (171) lecture on self-restraint; moderation.
"man my haggard" (181) "tame my wild [female] hawk."
kites (183) any of various accipitrine birds with long, pointed wings and, usually, a forked tail: they prey especially on insects, reptiles, and small mammals.
hurly (191) uproar; turmoil.
humor (197) disposition or temperament.