The dinner table as classroom: Home-schooling gone wrong in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew, act 4, scene 1. Fr. Schwoerer, del. ; G. Goldberg, sc. 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART File S528t1 no.42 (size M)

Since schools closed in her area, a friend of mine has been posting her family’s new home-schooling courses on Facebook. They include “Loading the Dishwasher: An Introduction” and “Interactive Dog-Walking.” Welcome to home-schooling under quarantine. Here in our house we are focusing on “Bread-buttering 101.” A low bar, perhaps, but you can’t argue it’s not important.

Shakespeare too was greatly concerned with teaching in the domestic setting. In fact he more frequently dramatized pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching) in home environments than in places we traditionally associate with teaching, like the schoolroom.

Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew showcases one of the earliest and thorniest examples of teaching in a home environment—thorny both because of the way pedagogy in the play is full of cynicism and brutality, and because, on the surface at least, it seems to succeed.

Petruchio and Katherine: Quarantine “teaching”?

Although Shakespeare was no stranger to plague restrictions, the quarantine teaching in this play is imposed from within, not without. After Petruchio has married Katherine, he takes her back to his house and essentially locks her up, sealing her off from family and familiar faces. Katherine’s entire world over the ensuing days becomes bounded by the four walls of Petruchio’s rented villa.

Those of us in COVID quarantine have generally attempted to counter our narrowed physical circumstances by enriching our mental and emotional ones—through distant socializing with friends and family over Zoom or other platforms, distance learning of various kinds, and other means. Petruchio embarks on the opposite project, stripping away touchstones to leave Katherine as disoriented as possible. His chief weapon in this pedagogy is the dining table.

Scene from The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew, act IV, scene 1 (London : Jacob Tonson, 1709). Folger Shakespeare Library, ART File S528t1 no.36 (size XS).

Soon after Petruchio and Katherine arrive at his house, Petruchio announces, “Sit down, Kate,/ And welcome. Food, food, food, food!” (4.1.128-9). This apparent gesture of hospitality—of welcoming Kate to eat with him—is soon shown to be a cynical ruse. Under the pretense of scolding his servants for serving him poorly, and his cooks for burning the meat, Petruchio throws the food away, along with the “trenchers, cups, and all” (155).

When Kate avers that “The meat was well if you were so contented” (159), Petruchio insists not only that “’twas burnt and dried away,” but that neither of them should be eating it anyway, and are better off avoiding such food altogether, “Since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric,/ Than feed it with such overroasted flesh” (160-5). (Those who suffered from a choleric humor were thought to be easily driven to anger and were supposed to avoid burned and dried foods. They were not, however, supposed to fast, as Petruchio erroneously insists.) This exchange sets the tone for the quarantine, in which Petruchio and his servant Grumio withhold food from Katherine while insisting that it’s for her own health that they do so.

Representing the choleric temperament: A man dressed for war and a woman in classical dress are at the center of the image
“Cholericus” (Antwerp: M. de Vos and Raphael Sadler, 1583). Folger Shakespeare Library, ART 260931 no.3 (size M).

What does it mean that Petruchio delivers his first extended domestic lesson at the dining table, and what is he trying to teach? Unquestionably, by starving Katherine he is telling her to remember which side her bread is buttered on. Petruchio holds the power in the relationship and will use whatever means he can to bend Katherine forcibly to his marital will. (Whether he does in fact succeed—whether Katherine’s speech at the end of the play about wifely subservience demonstrates Petruchio’s victory, or Katherine’s resilience, or something else entirely—is the subject of much scholarly and theatrical debate.)

Teaching at the table: A humanist tradition

But there are other, more subtle pedagogical negotiations happening here. One of them is that in staging a showdown over dinner, Shakespeare is consciously revisiting the long and influential humanist tradition of what we might call gastro-pedagogy: the use of the dining table to impart both knowledge and morals. Sixteenth-century writers such as Sir Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, François Rabelais, and Michel de Montaigne—all of whom influenced Shakespeare—wrote passionately about the importance of inculcating not only proper table manners (a relatively new idea in the Renaissance), but also a general spirit of pleasure, happiness, and openness to knowledge through eating.

Evidence of this thoughtful attitude toward mealtimes abounds in humanist literature. In his hugely influential treatise of table manners, translated poetically into English as The Civility of Childhood, Erasmus counsels his young charges, “Thou must not be heavy at the table, nor make none other man sad nor heavy.”

Pantagruel’s meal, from ‘Pantagruel’ by Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), engraved by Paul Jonnard-Pacel (d.1902) Artist: Gustave Dore (1832-83) (after); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France

Likewise, in Rabelais’ epic novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel, the tutor Panocrates makes sure that every meal includes discourse “of the qualities, properties, efficacy and nature of all the things that had been served up at table.” In other words, every meal for Panocrates and his young student, the giant Gargantua, becomes a discussion of the food they are eating and how it got there. Their dessert rituals likewise fuse scholarly learning, fine food, and training in table manners: “Afterwards they would discuss the lessons read that morning, finishing off their meal with some quince jelly, picking their teeth with a sliver of mastic-wood, washing their hands and eyes in clear fresh water and rendering thanks to God.”

The Erasmian and Rabelasian visions of the ideal dining table might ring a bit optimistically in our ears, as who among us engages each evening with our children about the origins, politics, and ethics of the food on their plates? But the idea behind these visions is both reasonable and recognizably modern: that the occasion of eating together should be as happy and relaxed as possible, while also helping youngsters to learn the social and intellectual graces that will serve them as they grow into adulthood. Mealtimes are discovered as perfect opportunities to teach and experience the conviviality that forms the glue of positive social interaction.

Domestic education or domestic violence?

With the humanist ideals of table-teaching as a backdrop, Petruchio’s treatment of meals looks all the more grotesque. Not only does he use them as an occasion for patriarchal control and domestic violence—a threat that is particularly dangerous during a quarantine, in which there are fewer checks and balances on abusive behavior—but he does so by making a mockery of humanist values. He employs the language of hospitality and conviviality, but only in order to manipulate.

After a day of withholding food from his wife, Petruchio invites his friend Hortensio, who is himself a humanist tutor, to dine with them. Upon entering, Hortensio asks Katherine, “Mistress, what cheer?” To this echo of Erasmus’s concern for cheerfulness in eating, Kate responds, “Faith, as cold as can be.” Petruchio pretends to try to cheer her up, as a good humanist might, but when she does not thank him, he turns grim: “The poorest service is repaid with thanks,/ And so shall mine before you touch the meat” (4.3.46-7). He then whispers to Hortensio to eat all the food before Katherine can get to it. What is the lesson Petruchio is teaching here? He’s only serving up more of the same unpalatable gruel of hierarchy and dominance.

If Petruchio’s lesson is violence, however, Shakespeare’s is not. He is reminding us—by negative example, because he is a playwright, not a psychologist—that the dining table really does have the potential to be a locus of positive learning and human connection.

In a time of quarantine, eating becomes especially freighted. Are we worried about being able to afford enough food for our table? Are our food choices reduced as a result of shortages and supply chain disruptions? Are we afraid of contagion from grocery stores and delivery workers? Do we rely more on cooking than in normal periods? Have mealtimes become more or less regular, and more or less regimented, now that we are mostly at home?

Meals are once again charged opportunities for teaching, learning, and fellowship. Let us do what we can to attend to those opportunities in ways that help our children, and ourselves, learn resilience and wisdom. It won’t be hard to do better than Petruchio. But we can aim a lot higher than that.

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