Kill with kindness

Wordy Wednesday-“Kill With Kindness”

This week’s wordy Wednesday is “to kill with kindness”, uttered by Petrucio, in his speech revealing how he plans to tame Kate’s shrewish nature:

And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl,

And with the clamor keep her still awake.

This is a way to kill a wife with kindness.

Taming Of The Shrew: act 4, scene 1

In this speech Petrucio is revealing how he plans to tame Kate’s shrewish nature and make her into an obedient wife. He claims that the only way to make her truly obedient and get rid of her wild and feisty nature is to kill a wife with kindness. From Petrucio’s point of view “killing with kindness” involves depriving Kate of food and sleep for a period of time, until she willingly gives in to being his obedient wife.

According to dictionary.com killing with kindness is any action that involves overwhelming someone with mistaken or excessive kindness. This expression originated as a reference to something that fond apes do to their young: crushing them to death in a hug and was a proverb by the mid 1500s.

The usage of the phrase in Taming Of The Shrew is fascinating because of its ties to the word’s origins. Petrucio is like the ape crushing its young through an ignorantly and overwhelmingly aggressive act that he claims is an act of love. The usage of ‘kill with kindness’ strays away from our traditional notions of what overwhelming an individual with mistaken or excessive kindness really is. The one question we’re left with is the following: is this an excessive and mistaken act of kindness or is it straight-forward aggression and cruelty?

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Wordy Wednesday – “Kill with kindness”

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“Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come, and know her keeper’s call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat, and will not be obedient. 

[…]
This is a way to 
kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak; ’tis charity to show.” 

-William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

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“You’ve gotta be

Cruel to be kind in the right measure,
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign.
Cruel to be kind means that I love you,
Baby, you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind…”
-Nick Lowe (1949-)

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The first quote comes from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which is considered a “problem play” – it’s structured like a comedy, but the ‘happy ending’ we are led towards is a fierce, independent woman being tortured and ‘tamed’ by her husband in an arranged marriage. In this scene, the husband (Petruchio) describes starving his wife and depriving her of sleep until she is too broken down to resist him. The ‘kindness’ should be read very ironically; he does everything but beat her into submission.

If this is an inherently amusing idea to you, I’d love to ask you about the time machine you clearly rode here from another century.

The second quote comes from a modern(ish) pop song and is there because, funnily enough, however, when people refer to ‘killing someone with kindness’ nowadays the meaning is drastically different. Rather than constantly spying upon someone and controlling them, ‘killing someone with kindness’ refers to being extraordinarily generous and flattering towards them.

The idea is to be so unrealistically nice to the person that they get sceptical and start to wonder what you’re up to. It can be hard to shake our cultural cliche that there’s no compliment or benefit without a catch. The ‘kill’ part of ‘kill with kindness’ comes from making that suspicious person lose their mind with paranoia, waiting to figure out a ‘hidden agenda’ that never actually shows up.

We shouldn’t feel too bad about our society though; in Shakespeare’s day Petruchio is considered a hero who ‘wins’ by making his wife “asham’d that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace” (V.ii.2669-70). Our society may be cynical and suspicious, but at least its women have made some strides towards being allowed by society to defend their own corner – so that they don’t have to feel like they’re being killed anyway, with kindness or without.

–David Windrim