The Taming of the Shrew Themes
The main themes in The Taming of the Shrew include gender roles, appearance versus reality, and games and role-play.
- Gender roles: The play can be interpreted as either affirming male dominance and female submission or ironically critiquing gender conventions.
- Appearance versus reality: The suggests that the differences between classes, such as those of a servant and master, are merely matters of appearance.
- Games and role-play: The play may propose that one’s happiness in life hinges on one’s ability to adapt to the role one is given in society. Alternatively, it may suggest that social conventions are artificial roles.
Last Updated on September 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
The idea of adhering to gender roles plays a prevalent role in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Many critics have denounced the play as a misogynistic relic from Early Modern England—and there is definitely an argument in the text to support this claim. Headstrong Katherine rails against a society that forces her to act demure and requires her father to marry her and her sister off to the highest bidders. For her protestations, Katherine is called a shrew, and Petruchio sets out to change her nature. He starves her, deprives her of sleep, abuses the people around her on her behalf, and contradicts everything she says until she is docile and obedient. This evidence can be read as a testament to the patriarchal beliefs of Early Modern England. During Shakespeare’s time, Katherine’s suffering may have been purely comical to audiences and her reformation reinforced accepted gender roles. In other words, the “shrew” gets what she deserves and her husband takes his rightful place as her lord. However, modern audiences have taken different messages away from the play that are similarly textually supported.
Depending on the way it is performed, the play can be read as a tragicomedy in which the audience sympathizes with the abused Katherine. By emphasizing Petruchio’s cruelty and having Katherine deliver her last speech like a eulogy, the play can be read tragically as the death of a strong woman whose will is overcome by social pressure. By this interpretation, Petruchio is a villain. Katherine’s speech at the end of the play becomes an overt critique of how society breaks women, as opposed to a reinforcement of patriarchal mentalities.
Another reading of gender in The Taming of the Shrew focuses on Petruchio’s references to falconry as he “breaks” Katherine. When socializing a bird of prey, the falconer must deprive the bird of food and sleep until it trusts its master. It is cruel to bird and master alike. Throughout the play, Petruchio plays the role of falconer: when Katherine does not eat, he deprives himself of food; when she is kept awake, he is the one doing the waking. Petruchio’s descriptions of Katherine and his interactions with her show a type of reverence. He compares her to Diana, the goddess of chastity. When he reveals his plan to the audience, he says that he will “kill a wife with kindness” to “curb her mad and headstrong humor.” Petruchio himself seems to believe that it is his job is to socialize his wife so that they can be together within society; otherwise, he could choose to leave her at the country estate and enjoy her dowry in the city, which seems more in line with his “wive and thrive” character. The fact that Petruchio decides to “socialize” Katherine and give her a platform to speak in front of others could demonstrate his love for her. It also offers a subtle critique of a society that prevents an intelligent woman like Katherine from being accepted until she agrees to submit to a man.
Play Within a Play: Disguise and Performance
Shakespeare introduces the play using a frame story, establishing the theme of disguise and performance. Rather than asking the audience to suspend their disbelief and accept the story as truth, Shakespeare draws the audience’s attention to the fictional nature of the play: the story itself is a play for fictional characters. Within the play, this theme continues: most characters assume the role of someone else. Lucentio and Hortensio disguise themselves as teachers and attempt to woo Bianca, Tranio disguises himself as Lucentio, and the merchant disguises...
(This entire section contains 986 words.)
himself as Vincentio. Even Petruchio and Katherine can be seen as playing roles. After their wedding, Petruchio must play the role of a madman to wear down Katherine’s spirit. At the end, she adopts the role of a subservient wife.
All of these disguises and performances highlight the performative nature of Shakespeare’s society. Everyone must perform their class and gender role in order to be accepted. However, by placing low characters in the roles of high-born characters, the play also points out the fluid nature of these roles: if anyone can believably play a rich man, then there is nothing inherent that distinguishes the rich from the poor. Instead, class is merely a socially-reinforced belief. The transition of Katherine from “shrew” to wife—combined with the fact that her character, in Shakespeare’s time, would have been played by a male actor—arguably frames gender as a similar social performance, albeit one with stricter rules and penalties for failure.
The Taming of theShrew can be read as a satirical portrayal of upper-class arrogance. The play begins with a rich lord playing a prank on an unsuspecting, low-class drunkard. The upper class playing with the lives of the poor continues throughout the play. Lucentio switches places with his servant, and Hortensio and Lucentio pretend to be part of the lower class. Petruchio tames Katherine in part by abusing his servants and workers. In this way, the poor become a prop through which rich men enforce their wills. Each time a low-class character is on stage, they are used to further the schemes of the rich. There is cruel irony in Hortensio’s rejection of Bianca after she dares to show affection for a teacher, while he himself is dressed as a low-class music instructor. The rich can use the poor, but they have no greater place or recognition for the lower classes. This point is reinforced when the frame story does not come back at the end of the play. We never see what happens to Christopher Sly and the lord after the completion of the play-within-a-play. This is perhaps another way of saying that it does not matter. Since the lord has had his entertainment, the fate of Sly is not worth exploring.