Habitus in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew

By Abigail R. Marsch
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

Scholars have written a good deal about Shakespeare’s play, The Taming of the Shrew. They have presented many different interpretations of the relationship between the two main characters, Petruchio and Katherine. One interpretation states that Kate and Petruchio willingly take up accepted social roles in public to keep the peace in their culture, but have a different arrangement in the privacy of their marriage. But another intriguing idea applies anthropological and sociological ideas to this play and claims that this first interpretation is realistically impossible. While there is contextual evidence to support both ideas, a sociological reading of this play leaves Petruchio and Kate with only two options: they must either act consistently in both public and private life, or, if the first interpretation is correct, eventually their “marriage of equals” will become obvious to their cultural peers, and change the world they live in.

The first interpretation of Shakespeare’s play uses passages like the following to show that Petruchio had the ideal of a marriage of equals in mind when he wooed Katherine: In private they would banter back and forth, equal in wit, or intelligence:

Pet. Did ever Dian so become a grove
As Kate this chamber with her princely gait?
O, be thou Dian, and let her be Kate,
And then let Kate be chaste, and Dian sportful!
Kath. Where did you study all this goodly speech?
Pet. It is extempore, from my mother-wit.
Kath. A witty mother! Witless else her son.
Pet. Am I not wise?
Kath. Yes, keep you warm.
Pet. Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed. (154).

Here Petruchio expresses a firm intention of marrying Kate, but wants to keep his “wisdom” and “wit” warm and alive in Kate’s bed (a symbol of their marriage relationship). While this reading of the play makes contextual sense, some scholars feel that it is too ideal—in the real world that Shakespeare put Petruchio and Katherine in, they would not be able to keep up this farce. They would not be able to act one way in private, and another in public. This idea is known as the theory of habitus.

Pierre Bourdieu was a French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist of the last century who pioneered the idea of habitus. According to Bourdieu’s theory, habitus is a way of understanding the dynamics of power relationships in social life. In human culture Bourdieu states that the private and public spheres have always informed one another and are inextricably linked together in the process of determining societal norms of behavior:

The reason why submission to the collective rhythms is so rigorously demanded is that the temporal forms or the spatial structures structure not only the group’s representation of the world but the group itself, which orders itself in accordance with this representation. (158).

The Taming of the Shrew fits very well into this theory of human societal life. A common understanding of this play is that Petruchio has no desire to quell Katherine’s spirit, but merely goes through the “taming” process to render Kate as a socially acceptable wife. To do this he must publically bow to his society’s ideas of what a normal relationship between a husband and wife should be. Petruchio’s submission to this societal norm is necessary to keep society together and at peace within itself. Were he to step outside of this norm, habitus implies that Petruchio would risk severely injuring his society. The culture of Shakespeare’s day, and the culture he places Petruchio in, would be incapable of understanding or appreciating a marriage of like-minds such as Petruchio desires. As Bourdieu predicts, though, Petruchio cannot keep his public and private lives separate; through the process of Kate’s “taming” he inevitably ends up treating Kate as an inferior in their home as well as in public. Whether or not this is an acceptable arrangement for Kate is not the point—the couple must bow to their culture’s idea of what is appropriate. For Bourdieu, Petruchio’s “duty as a man means conforming to the social order, and this is fundamentally a question of respecting rhythms, keeping pace, not falling out of line” (157).

Kate’s duty as a woman is, by extension, the same as Petruchio’s duty as a man. Kate does need to learn the lesson in how to keep peace, for the sake of society, and Petruchio understands some of the stakes involved and decides it is his duty to tame and teach Kate this invaluable lesson.

Thou must be married to no man but me;
For I am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates. (Shakespeare 154).

Despite the current interpretation that Petruchio is playing a game, and does not want to break Kate’s spirit, in many scenes in this play, Petruchio is overbearing, patriarchal, and even sometimes seemingly brutal in his “taming” of Kate—both in the public and private sphere. He shames Kate in front of her family and townsfolk, and in private refuses to let her eat, sleep, or much of anything else. After the newly married couple arrives at his home, Petruchio has fits about the food his servants have prepared, and refuses to let Kate touch it. He sums up his plan of action in this soliloquy:

Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And ‘tis my hope to end successfully.
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And till she stoop, she must not be full-gorg’d,
. . .
She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;
Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not;
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I’ll find about the making of the bed,
And here I’ll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets.
. . .
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.

Despite all this, though, Coppélia Kahn argues alongside the current understanding of this play, writing,

"The degree to which Petruchio’s characterization is molded by a social, rather than a literary, stereotype has gone unnoticed. He is animated like a puppet by the idée fixe that a man must command absolute obedience from his wife"  (88).

Kahn goes on to say that she believes, unlike Bourdieu, that Kate and Petruchio can successfully play the roles society demands of them in public, and their own, independent roles in private.

Kahn, though, seems to be alone in this thinking that public and private life do not have to interfere with one another in reality. In his essay “The Public, the Private, and the Shaming of the Shrew,” Gary Schneider expresses a differing opinion on the matter—one more closely aligned with Bourdieu’s idea of the directly related relationship between public and private life. Tackling Kahn and another writer, Maguire, discussing the same topic, Schneider has this to say about the possibility of Kate and Petruchio living one life in public, and a different one in private:

Since private behavior is defined and engineered by social criteria, it is unlikely that Kate would be able to claim the type of independence Maguire asserts. . . . the very distinction between private and public behavior was a function of the internalization of "social norms"; "the 'private' is a product of the modern state." Such a "private" mutuality, in the sense that Maguire has it, is not possible between Petruccio and Kate. (239).

Similarly, Schneider discusses Kahn’s argument for a “rigid distinction between Kate's private and public personae: that Kate engages in ‘public display,’ yet that ‘her spirit remains mischievously free.’" Schneider argues—appropriately, I think—that in this interpretation Kahn has to read beyond the text itself to maintain her argument: Shakespeare simply does not show us a clearly demarcated line in this play betwixt a Kate in private and a Kate in public. Perhaps Kate is playing the game, but she is still, in her speech and actions, sticking within the bounds of propriety that her culture demands, and thus not taking on in private any observably different role from the one she takes in public.

It may be worthwhile at this point to compare Shakespeare’s play with that of another playwrite—Henrik Ibsen and his work A Doll’s House. This play, like The Taming of the Shrew, deals with some of the same issues of male-female relationships and how they must play out in their respective cultures. In Ibsen’s play he shows his audience an apparently happy home and perfect marriage, according to the culture of the day—yet all is not as it seems. At the beginning there is no distinction between public and private life. Nora is happy with her existence and content to let Torvald rule in the home. As their culture would expect, Nora is ignorant and carefree; she is her husband’s “doll,” his plaything. It is when this natural state of things is almost overturned that things begin to happen. Ibsen reveals that Nora is in debt to a scurrilous man for a large sum of money she borrowed to save Torvald’s life. Torvald finds out about this debt, and suddenly, not only is he in the position of owing his life to his wife, but is also, because of this debt, under the influence of the money-lender. The perfect, culturally-acceptable marriage relationship Torvald and Nora had is endangered, and he panics.

As in The Taming of the Shrew, the private and public spheres of Torvald and Nora’s relationship are inextricably linked together. While he knew nothing of the debt he owed to his wife, and she secretly and persistently scraped together what money she could to make payments on the debt, all was well—they played the parts culture had assigned them in their marriage. As soon as Torvald learns the truth he knows how it will dramatically affect his public life.  For Torvald there is no possibility that he and his wife can fight against culture and alter their relationship in public as it has been altered in private. He is shamed and angry and determines that the relationship must instead stay the same in public as it always was, and alter in private. “No, that is all over,” he says. “From this moment happiness is not the question; all that concerns us is to save the remains, the fragments, the appearance—” (124).

Torvald would agree with Bourdieu that public and private life are inextricably linked together. Unfortunately, though, Torvald’s pride blinds him to this fact in his next decision. He cannot bear to lose his cultural role as superior and protector of his wife, and he tries to force Nora into a sham marriage. The couple will continue as before in public, to keep the appearance of an appropriate marriage. In private, though, they would live as strangers in their house, and Nora could have nothing to do with their children. This, of course, is unrealistic—their relationship has profoundly altered and regardless of how they try to act in public, if they act differently in private, Nora knows that eventually the truth will out.

So what then of Petruchio and Kate? There seems to be evidence in the text that Petruchio did indeed have in mind a sort of merry game—to make Kate socially presentable for public appearances, but preserve her fiery spirit in private. Kahn interprets the play this way, as do many other critics, such as Marianne Novy. She adds something to Kahn’s interpretation, though, and makes the point that games—even diverting, bantering ones such as Shakespeare writes—have some relation to the world outside them:

Children re-enact threatening experiences to gain a sense of greater control over them, and they try out roles that they may use in their adult life. Likewise, the games in The Taming of the Shrew, almost always initiated by Petruchio, may have some relation to the patriarchal traditions of the world of the Shrew and of its audience. (264).

In this she agrees with Bourdieu and Ibsen—there is naturally going to be correlation between the public and private spheres of life; one will inform the other. Yet, as we see in Ibsen’s play, two people cannot pretend one thing in the public sphere, and have it unaffected by the truth in the private sphere, or vice versa.

There is evidence in-text in Shakespeare to support Kahn’s view that Kate and Petruchio can have a marriage of equals in private, and at the same time a culturally-accepted patriarchal marriage in public. On the other hand, there is also evidence to support Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, as it applies to The Taming of the Shrew. Schneider says that “there is a manifest danger when the private becomes public; private actions . . . inform public life; and the dynamic interaction between ostensibly separate spheres creates a politicization of the private” (235). It seems that if readers are going to apply real sociological theory to Shakespeare’s play, Kate and Petruchio must make a choice; if they have a marriage of equals they have two options. Either they must let the roles they take in public also dictate their behavior in private, or they will show their society the truth of their relationship, and, by so doing, change their culture forever.


Bourdrieu, Pierre. “Structure, Habitus, Power: Basis for the Theory of Symbolic Power.” Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory. Eds. Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, Sherry B. Ortner. Princeton University Press, 1993. 155-200. JSTOR.

Ibsen, Hendrik. “A Doll’s House.” A Doll’s House: and two other plays. Ed. Edmund Gosse. Boston: John W. Lovell and Co., 1917. 5-89. Print.

Kahn, Coppélia. "The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage.” Modern Language Studies Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), pp. 88-102. JSTOR.

Novy, Marianne L. “Patriarchy and Play in the Taming of the Shrew.” English Literary Renaissance Vol. 9, Issue 2, (March 1979), pp. 264–280. Electronic.

Schneider, Gary. “The Public, the Private, and the Shaming of the Shrew.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol 42, No. 2, Tudor and Stuart Drama (Spring, 2002), pp. 235-258. JSTOR.

Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans, J.J. M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. 138-175. Print.

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