The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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At a Glance

The Taming of the Shrew key themes:

  • The Taming of the Shrew's stance on gender roles is either affirming male dominance and female submission or ironically critiquing gender conventions.

  • The theme of appearance versus reality manifests itself in Hortensio's and Lucentio's disguises as well as Gremio’s comic misinterpretations of his master’s words.

  • Games and role-playing feature in Petruchio’s attitude to social conventions as well as the play-within-a-play structure.

  • Animal imagery is used to characterize individual characters and relationships.

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Gender Roles

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...

(The entire section is 2,978 words.)