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.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986

Gender Roles

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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 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.

Social Class

The Taming of the Shrew 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.

Extended Themes

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Last Updated on April 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1992

Gender Roles

Nearly all critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew deals to some extent with the play's treatment of gender roles: that is, what it has to say about socially accepted definitions of appropriate male and female behavior. On the surface, the play appears to confirm a very traditional view that men should dominate women and that women should submit to male authority. All of the characters except Katherina agree throughout the play that her initial rebellious, self-assertive, "shrewish" behavior is not acceptable. In the end, Kate has apparently come round to this position as well, giving a long speech proclaiming the rightness of male dominance and female submissiveness.

Until fairly recently, few people challenged this view of the play. In fact, the play knew centuries of popularity with audiences who found Petruchio's "taming" of Katherina both inoffensive and amusing. In the late nineteenth century, however, commentators began to express uneasiness with the way Katherina is treated, and directors began to experiment with various "ironic" readings of the plays. In the twentieth century, debate over the play's attitude toward gender roles has produced a wide variety of interpretations.

The play's treatment of gender goes well beyond its basic plot. Unlike most playwrights who wrote plays about "shrews" in the early modern period, Shakespeare suggests possible motivations for Katherina's shrewishness: her father clearly favors her sister, Bianca; the prospective suitors are shallow and rude; father and suitors alike tend to treat marriage as a purely commercial transaction. Katherina's relationship with Petruchio is complex. Their early verbal exchanges suggest a certain equality of intelligence. Although the text of the play leaves room for a wide variety of theatrical interpretations of the relationship, the traditional and most common approach emphasizes a strong sexual attraction between Katherina and Petruchio as well as a growing comradeship. Moreover, although Petruchio seeks to control Katherina, he appears to admire and value her spirit.

The relationship between the play's main plot, subplot, and Induction also affects its depictions of gender roles. A struggle for power between men and women is introduced as an issue from the beginning of the play when, in the Induction, a woman—the Hostess—ejects a drunken Christopher Sly from the tavern. In the course of the Lord's practical joke, one of his young male attendants dresses like a woman and pretends to be Sly's noble, soft-spoken, and obedient wife. The practical joke itself can be seen as a parallel to Petruchio's efforts to reform Katherina, as both involve attempts to transform one sort of character into another. For some critics, the Lord's inability to effect a convincing change in Sly's character contrasts with Petruchio's "successful" transformation of Katherina in the main plot. For others, however, the obvious artificiality of both Sly's transformation into a nobleman and the page's transformation into a woman are meant to indicate that Katherina's transformation is equally artificial.

Critics' examinations of these various aspects of the play have led to no consensus as to the play's attitude toward gender roles. A number of critics continue to maintain that the play ultimately accepts and reinforces male dominance of women. Many of these critics also argue, however, that while accepting male dominance the play emphasizes the need for mutual affection, cooperation, and partnership in marriage. Another view maintains that Katherina's final speech should be read ironically, with the implication that she will pretend to defer to Petruchio in public while ruling the household in private. Yet other commentators argue that the play ultimately undermines male dominance of women by showing this dominance to be artificial and illogical. Directors of modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew have also offered a wide variety of interpretations of this issue.

Appearance vs. Reality

Confusion between appearance and reality is a principal source of humor in The Taming of the Shrew. In the Introduction, Sly is misled by carefully orchestrated appearances into believing that he is really a wealthy nobleman rather than a poor tinker. The subplot likewise depends on the confusion of appearance and reality as various characters practice elaborate deceptions. Hortensio pretends to be the music teacher Litio. Lucentio poses as the schoolmaster Cambio. He and Bianca use Latin lessons as a cover for their courtship, and they deceive her father by eloping on the eve of her planned betrothal to another man. Lucentio's servant, Tranio, pretends to be his master and persuades an elderly scholar to pose as his master's father.

In the main plot, the difficulty of distinguishing between appearance and reality is emphasized in various ways. Petruchio's servant Grumio often misinterprets his master's instructions, with comic results. More crucially, Petruchio's strategy in dealing with Katherina often involves replacing the most apparent of realities with something more to his own liking. "Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain / She sings as sweetly as a nightingale," Petruchio resolves before his first meeting with Katherina. Although she insists she wants nothing to do with him, he tells her father they have agreed to be married. At his country house and on the road back to Padua, he insists that it is morning when it is afternoon and that the moon is shining in broad daylight. When Katherina finally gives in to him, her surrender is signaled by her acceptance of his version of reality, in defiance of appearance: "What you will have it nam'd, even that it is, / And so it shall be so for Katherine."

The various deceptions in the Introduction and the subplot seem to poke fun at social distinctions, suggesting that the difference between a servant and a master, or between a poor Latin teacher and a wealthy merchant's son, is merely a matter of appearance. This idea is echoed in the main plot by Petruchio when he appears at his wedding in rags and says of Katherina, "To me she's married, not unto my clothes," or when he tells Katherina not to worry about the way she is dressed because "'tis the mind that makes the body rich."

The theme of appearance and reality is also related to the play's treatment of gender roles. Some commentators maintain that Petruchio transforms Katherina by refusing to accept her appearance of shrewishness as reality. Instead, he sets up a sort of alternate reality, insisting that she is really lovable and obedient until she accepts his view of her identity. Other people argue, however, that the continual confusion of appearances and reality in the play undermines the concept of male dominance. They suggest that with so much deception going on in the play, the audience should be suspicious of taking Katherina's transformation at face value. Perhaps she is merely pretending to give in to Petruchio. Or perhaps—as other critics have maintained—male supremacy itself is shown to be merely an illusion.

Games and Role-Playing

Closely related to the theme of appearance versus reality is the play's emphasis on games and role-playing. It has been suggested that Petruchio treats social conventions—including the conventions governing relations between men and women—as a sort of game. The airy cynicism with which he discusses his search for a wife contrasts with both Lucentio's romanticism and Baptista's businesslike materialism. He treats the marriage ceremony itself as a joke, arriving late and poorly dressed, insulting the clergy, and forcing the bride to leave early. He seems to welcome Katherina's "shrewishness" as an interesting challenge and compares his efforts to "tame" her to a sportsman's taming of a hawk. According to this view, Petruchio's strategy in "taming" Katherina is to convince her to join in this game with him. This strategy seems particularly clear during the journey back to Padua in Act IV, when Katherina finally decides to go along with Petruchio's assertions contrary to fact and joins him in pretending that the aged Vincentio is a young woman. Katherina's final speech to the other wives is then seen as marking her agreement to play the role of obedient wife, secure in the knowledge that she and her husband both know this is merely a role.

Role-playing and play-acting also figure prominently in The Taming of the Shrew. The play-within-a-play structure emphasizes to the audience that what they are about to see is a performance—not reality, but someone's interpretation of reality. Many of the characters "become" actors in the play: Tranio plays the role of Lucentio, Lucentio poses as Cambio, Hortensio poses as Litio, and so on. Thus, for instance, a single actor might appear as one of the "players" in the Induction, as Tranio at the beginning of Act I, and later as Tranio-playing-Lucentio. Petruchio himself often seems to be playing an exaggerated role for Katherina's benefit. Recently, several critics have pointed out that Shakespeare also draws attention to the Elizabethan practice of using boys to play women's parts. This is especially true in the Induction, where the page Barthol'mew pretends to be Sly's wife.

Critics draw widely different conclusions from the play's emphasis on its own theatricality. Some suggest that it points up the extent to which the ability to lead a happy and productive life depends on one's ability to adapt to the roles one is required to play in society. Others argue that the play's treatment of role-playing undermines social conventions—particularly those governing relationships between men and women—by suggesting that they are merely artificial "roles" that people feel obliged to accept.

Imagery

Of particular importance in The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare's use of animal and other types of imagery in portraying various characters' attitudes toward other characters, toward women in general, and toward marriage.

The play is especially rich in animal imagery, beginning with the traditional use of the word "shrew" to describe a willful and quarrelsome woman. When Katherina and Petruchio first meet, their rapid exchange of insults is rife with references to animals, as is the exchange of jests by the wedding guests in the final scene of the play. Dogs and horses figure prominently in the play, and several characters are compared to animals. In Act IV, Petruchio likens his handling of Katherina to the methods used in taming hawks.

In many cases, the use of animal imagery to describe a character is clearly demeaning, as when Gremio refers to Katherina as a "wild-cat" (I.ii.196), or Hortensio describes Bianca as a "proud disdainful haggard [untamed hawk]" (IV.ii.39). In other cases, the effect is more complex. While some critics see Petruchio's use of animal imagery in referring to Katherina as indicative of a desire to subdue and control her, others have argued that Petruchio's likening of Katherina to a falcon, for instance, reflects a recognition that a successful marriage requires two minds working in partnership.

Much of the play's animal imagery is also part of the imagery of games and sport. Early in the Induction the Lord arrives from hunting, and subsequently hunting is used to typify both the pursuit of women by the play's various suitors and the behavior of women toward each other.

Clothing and entertaining, particularly dining, also figure prominently in the play. Petruchio's strategy for subduing Katherina involves both his refusal to dress as expected when he arrives at their wedding poorly dressed and his refusal to allow Katherina to purchase the clothes she wants. Clothing is also important to the various deceptions in the Induction and the subplot. At various points in the play, Katherina's exclusion from or participation in banquets or dinner parties becomes an issue. Petruchio prevents her from taking part in the banquet at her own wedding and later allows her to join him and Hortensio at dinner only after she has thanked him for providing food. Towards the end of the play he threatens to keep her from Bianca's wedding banquet unless Katherina kisses him in public. Finally, it is at that banquet that Katherina makes the public display of obedience that convinces the other guests that she has truly been "tamed."

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