Act Four of The Taming of the Shrew is the longest in the play (unless you count the 277-line “Induction” as part of Act One), with much ground to cover. So let’s get to it.
Scene One begins at Petruchio’s country estate, with the servants complaining of the bitter cold before the arrival of Petruchio and Kate (returning from the wedding). Again, we hear a report of the travels (this time from Grumio), and Petruchio’s harsh treatment of both Kate and Grumio (so bad that Curtis says, “By this reck’ning he is more shrew than she” [IV.i.76]). And again, like before his wedding day arrival and during the wedding, the reportage prepares us for the extremities of Petruchio’s behavior.
When they arrive, he strikes his servants, strikes another after he drops the dinner water (because Petruchio strikes him?), throws out the mutton, then tells Kate that they will not eat since the mutton
engenders choler, planteth anger,
And better 'twere that both of us did fast,
Since, of ourselves, ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such over-roasted flesh.
It’s ironic that Petruchio uses his foul mood to rationalize his throwing out of dinner (because of his foul mood). Beautiful circular logic (and all part of his plan to tame the shrew). He takes her to her chamber where (again through reportage we hear) he
rails, and swears, and rates, that she, poor soul,
Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak,
And sits as one new risen from a dream.
Petruchio’s (self-proclaimed) “reign” (IV.i.178) of terror has begun, and though Grumio understands the purpose and goal, it has left the other servants sympathizing with the “poor soul” of Kate. The servants scatter when Petruchio retakes the stage, and he delivers another soliloquy to outline his methodology. She hasn’t eaten, nor will she. She hasn’t slept, nor will she. He’s fighting a war of attrition. He’s quite proud of his plan, as he dares his audience: “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, // Now let him speak” (IV.i.200-201), and with no response, he grants that “’tis charity to show” (IV.i.201)… his charity to show us how to do it.
Proud? Disdainful? Both on the money, but it’s interesting that not only is he giving up his chase, but that he’s now using the same terminology to describe Bianca (haggard or “wild hawk”) as Petruchio uses to describe Kate (“falcon” [IV.i.180], “haggard” [IV.i.183]). Like big sister, like li’l sis’?
The second scene returns us to the Minola household, where we find Tranio/Lucentio and Hortensio/Litio bemoaning that Lucentio/Cambio seems to have won Bianca’s heart despite Baptista’s naming “Lucentio” and Gremio as the only two candidates for Bianca’s hand. Hortensio/Litio is so despondent that he reveals to Tranio/Lucentio his disguise and gives up the chase, saying that he will turn his attention to “a wealthy widow … which has long loved me // As I have loved this proud disdainful haggard” (IV.ii.37-39).
Once Hortensio leaves, Lucentio, Tranio, and Bianca are left to regroup. Enter Biondello who’s found a candidate for the role of “Vincentio”… a Pedant… a REAL schoolmaster/tutor (ironic, no?). Tranio convinces the Pedant to take on the role, especially since he scares the old man by telling him that anyone from the Pedant’s city of Mantua can be condemned to death in their town of Padua (if this sounds familiar, you were here two months ago for The Comedy of Errors)… in other words, another disguise is on the way.
Act Four, Scene Three begins with Kate begging Grumio for food. Grumio continues Petruchio’s methods and refuses… then enter Petruchio and his newly-arrived friend Hortensio, “with meat” (IV.iii.35 ff s.d.). Hortensio gets to eat the food while Petruchio regales Kate with a plan to attend her sister’s wedding,
With silken coats and caps, and golden rings,
With ruffs and cuffs and farthingales and things,
With scarfs and fans and double change of brav'ry,
With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knav'ry.
He brings in the hat-maker and dress-maker and rails on them for delivering sub-par goods. Sub-par for Petruchio (of course), but not to Kate, who “never saw a better fashion’d gown, // More quaint, more pleasing, nor more commendable” (IV.iii.101-102). The new clothes are tossed out, and the newlyweds will go back to Padua in “garments poor” (IV.iii.164). By the end of the scene, Petruchio is no longer satisfied with “thanks” (IV.iii.45), he now demands her total agreement: “It shall be what o’clock I say it is” (IV.iii.192)… those are his last words on the subject and his last words of the scene.
The fourth scene has Tranio/Lucentio about to present the Pedant off as “his” father Vincentio to Baptista. It all goes well, and the plan is set. Bianca will marry “Lucentio” but not before she can marry the “real” Lucentio in a secret ceremony.
The fifth and final scene of Act Four finds Petruchio and Kate (with Hortensio and servants) on the road to Padua.
sounds like a Hope/Crosby film, doesn’t it?
Petruchio is winning his war of wills with Kate. He now has her agreeing with him that the sun is the moon, and vice versa: “What you will have it nam’d, even that it is, // And so it shall be so for Katherine” (IV.v.21-22), she says. Enter an old man, who Petruchio instructs Kate to greet as a young woman. And… she does… the taming is seemingly complete. And that would be enough — seemingly — for the scene as well. But this being Shakespeare, and Shakespeare being Shakespeare, no disguise is worth anything if there’s neither confusion nor wackiness to ensue. And thus, we learn the old man’s identity. It’s the real Vincentio, on his way to Padua to surprise his son Lucentio. Well, fancy that… Kate and Petruchio are on their way to Padua for Kate’s sister’s wedding to… Lucentio.
The players are oblivious. But the audience isn’t… and we cannot wait to see how all this falls out.
But that‘s in Act Five.