Petruchio is a wealthy bachelor who is on the prowl for a rich wife. When he hears about Katherine Minola, he agrees to marry her despite (or, perhaps because of) her reputation as a shrew. You see, Petruchio sees himself as the ultimate shrew taming champion – he even tutors other men on how to get their wives in line. (Elizabethans were really worked up about all the shrewish wives running around making their husbands look like wimps. They came up with sermons about how women should be silent and obedient, and tons of little gadgets to keep overly talkative women quiet – ever heard of a scold's bridle?)
Petruchio's not a hard one to figure out – in fact, he's pretty honest throughout the play. He's the only guy who unabashedly admits that he loves money more than anything else.
Signior Hortensio, 'twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice. And therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio's wife
(As wealth is burden of my wooing dance),
Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates' Xanthippe, or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes at least
Affection's edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas.
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua. (1.2.66-77)
This is a long speech but stay with us – it pretty much sums up Petruchio as a character. Here, he says he doesn't care if a woman is ugly, old, or shrewish – as long as she's got a big bank account, he'll marry her because money makes him happy. (His references to Florentine, Sibyl, and Xanthippe also tell us he's well read and educated, just like the other upper-middle class characters in the play.)
This is also a great example of how Petruchio loves to use figures of speech. Even if Kate's as "rough" as the "seas," he's unfazed. This makes him an adventurer, a guy who's "man enough" to face a violent force of nature. (Elsewhere, he compares himself to a strong gust of wind that will blow out Kate's "fire.") What does Petruchio's little simile say about him? Well, he's full of bravado and he really likes to use language to convey his dominance and masculinity.
Being a big fan of language, it's no surprise that Kate's acid tongue and wit are appealing to Petruchio (he gets all hot and bothered when Kate cracks Hortensio over the head with a lute and there's a ton of sexual tension when they first meet and argue in Act 2, Scene 1). Still, Petruchio sees himself as a "manly man." As such, he always wants to appear in the dominant role, especially in public. Even after Petruchio has "tamed" Kate, he still enjoys her ability to slice and dice her opponents with her witty speech. Our evidence? We're glad you asked. When Kate argues with the Widow at the wedding banquet in Act 5, Scene 2, Petruchio says, "To her, Kate!" He likes Kate's temper and her acid tongue, just not when it's directed at him.
So, what about this whole "taming" thing? How does it work, exactly? First, Petruchio acts like a "shrew" on his wedding day and throughout the honeymoon so that Kate can see what her bad behavior looks like in another person. This involves a lot of yelling, swearing, the abuse of hapless servants, and erratic and cruel behavior toward Kate. Basically, Petruchio deploys some tried and true torture techniques – starvation, sleep deprivation, psychological manipulation, and good old fashioned humiliation – to get Kate to behave the way he wants.
One of the manipulative techniques Petruchio likes to use is a little game called "let's pretend everything I say is true, even when it's not." How does this work? Well, if the sun is shining in the middle of the afternoon and Petruchio says the moon is very pretty this evening, everybody has to agree that yes, the moon is very pretty indeed. Same goes for when Petruchio pretends an old man is really a "budding" virgin. What happens when Kate doesn't play along? Well, she's punished. Notice how getting his way involves controlling the names of things?
OK, so what do we make of this? Aside from the fact that Petruchio is a jerk, we should think about how his character speaks to the idea that social roles are performative – that is, the idea that getting along in the world requires one to do a lot of acting. Many critics point out that Petruchio teaches Kate how to play-act, to perform a role other than "shrew." This would make his "taming school" more of a nightmare theater boot camp than anything else. Are we letting Petruchio off the hook? Absolutely not. He's utterly abusive toward his wife and revels in his power over Kate.
At the same time that the play portrays domestic violence on stage, Big Willy Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that anyone who tries to follow Petruchio's advice and behavior is a total idiot. Hortensio, who spends a lot of his valuable time at Petruchio's so-called "taming school," winds up having absolutely no control over his wife, the Widow. In fact, she ends up humiliating him when she disses him in public and causes him to lose a bet. Also, while it appears that Kate has been tamed, her final speech is so over the top that we wonder if Petruchio has trained an obedient wife or just a woman who has learned how to pretend to be obedient. If the latter is true, is this what Petruchio intended?
Either way, we appreciate the way the characters' obsession with acting and performing allows the play to acknowledge that social stereotypes (shrews, good girls, manly men, etc.) are not innate characteristics and are perhaps best left on the stage.