William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a tale of spousal abuse and marital intrigue. Its main conflict is between Petruchio and Katherine, a suitor and an unwilling bride, respectively. While some of its observations remain pertinent, it is less than timeless. More updated representations of romance can be found in modern romantic comedies, like 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, which focuses on, yup, Harry and Sally. Their relationship is, for most of the movie, more nebulous than the one presented in The Taming, but by the end of the movie, the characters are married. Where they are separate are the ways in which those characters reach marriage, and those different ways reflect the time periods that both works were written in. The different ways that the main characters of The Taming of the Shrew and When Harry Met Sally approach marriage prove that power is more evenly spread in a modern romantic relationship than in a historic one.
Petruchio has rather low standards for marriage. In Act 1, Scene 2, lines 61-62, he explains this plainly. “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; If wealthily, then happily in Padua.”
Katherine’s father is rich, so Petruchio deems to court her. Katherine, who is known for her rude, violent behavior, is somehow not opposed to marriage, be it generally or personally. In fact, in Act 2, scene 1, line 33, Katherine worries that “I must dance barefoot on [my well-tempered, attractive, and therefore oft-courted sister’s] wedding day.” A wedding would seem mutually beneficial, then, but their first meeting leaves Katherine angered. She simply dislikes Petruchio. After a long argument in which Katherine tells Petruchio that, essentially, she’ll never marry him, Petruchio says to Katherine’s father:
“Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world,
That talk'd of her, have talk'd amiss of her...
And to conclude, we have 'greed so well together,
That upon Sunday is the wedding-day.”
Katherine says to Petruchio:
“I’ll see thee hang’d on Sunday first.”
(Act 2, Scene 2, lines 280-289)
Regardless of her prior interest in marriage, she has made something very clear. She can’t stand Petruchio. She would rather kill him than marry him, if one is to take her words literally. Marriage has historically been seen as the final goal for women, especially in an era where very limited options for work were available to them. For Katherine to refuse marriage, after acknowledging that she has basically succumbed to the societal pressures, means that she bears an impressive amount of hatred for Petruchio. Regardless of her wishes, though, Petruchio married her that Sunday.
Like Katherine, Sally wants marriage. When she informed her boyfriend Joe of this interest, he told her that he didn’t share that interest. Recognizing their different motivations for a relationship, Sally pragmatically broke it off with Joe. Sally recounts to Harry, “We wanted to live together, but we didn't want to get married because every time anyone we knew got married, it ruined their relationship… Joe and I used to talk about it, and we'd say we were so lucky we have this wonderful relationship, we can have sex on the kitchen floor and not worry about [kids] walking in. We can fly off to Rome on a moment's notice... And [at the circus, a] man had [a little kid] on his shoulders, and she said, ‘I spy a family.’ And I started to cry. You know, I just started crying. And I went home, and I said, ‘The thing is, Joe, we never do fly off to Rome on a moment's notice.’”
Where Katherine was married against her will, Sally was denied marriage. What’s different about these situations is that Sally was allowed to break up with her significant other when she wasn’t getting what she wanted from a relationship. Katherine got absolutely nothing she wanted from her relationship with Petruchio, but because renaissance-era Italy was less progressive than synthpop-era America, she was not allowed to end the relationship. The power of termination was in the hands of Petruchio, or even in the hands of her father. It certainly wasn’t in her own hands. Sally’s ability to end her relationship is a distinctly modern one.
After the wedding, Petruchio took it upon himself to make a more compliant, mild-mannered Katherine, through the time-honored traditions of gaslighting, torture, and just plenty of abuse. If one is to, again, believe that Katherine speaks without sarcasm, then it would appear that he was successful, as Katherine said to two insolent wives:
“I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.”
(Act 5, Scene 2, lines 170-185)
Strong women don’t last in this era. The odds are stacked too strongly against them. So, when Katherine, a once-defiant woman, goes on and on about the inferiority of the female gender, it is clear that all traces of her personality have all been replaced with the vision of her imagined by Petruchio. She not only accepts the marriage that she had once been so fully opposed to, she accepts her role, the woman’s role, as a servant.
Harry experienced a similar change in opinion regarding the dynamics of romance. In his youth, he confidently asserted that women and men can’t be friends due to the possibility of sex always hanging in the air. But after around a sexless friendship with Sally, his mind began to change. In reflection, he told her, “You know, you may be the first attractive woman I've not wanted to sleep with in my entire life.”
Sally managed to change Harry’s mind, and in a rather effortless way. She didn’t need to resort to such extreme measures as Petruchio did to get Harry to come over to her way of thinking. In fact, her friendly presence was all that was required to change Harry’s beliefs. That a woman could change the mind of a man is uniquely modern, especially considering Katherine’s conclusions about women’s inferiority.
Marriage was an apparent goal to Katherine and Sally. Katherine denied marriage with Petruchio; Joe denied with Sally. Katherine was too bold to do deny as she did, and so her personality was erased, whereas Sally managed to change her male friend’s personality quite passively. The differences in era, the dichotomy of “then and now,” make their situations quite different. Per old traditions, Katherine was stripped of self for having fight in her. In the modern case, Sally was actually able to change Harry. The gender reversal shows a greater equality in power among both genders in a heterosexual relationship. Sally was able to break up with Joe, while Katherine was forced to marry Petruchio. Sally’s freedom would not exist in that older era. The power granted to her by the passage of time put her on equal footing with all of her male counterparts. Her ability to remain independent, to date those she’d like to, and to express whatever opinion she has is an ability granted by modernity and its progressive tendencies.