The Taming of the Shrew
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Marriage as an Economic Institution
As a romantic comedy, the play focuses principally on the romantic relationships between men and women as they develop from initial interest into marriage. In this respect, the play is a typical romantic comedy. However, unlike other Shakespearean comedies, The Taming of the Shrew does not conclude its examination of love and marriage with the wedding. Rather, it offers a significant glimpse into the future lives of married couples, one that serves to round out its exploration of the social dimension of love.
Unlike in Romeo and Juliet, inner emotional desire plays only a secondary role in The Taming of the Shrew’s exploration of love. Instead, The Taming of the Shrew emphasizes the economic aspects of marriage—specifically, how economic considerations determine who marries whom. The play tends to explore romantic relationships from a social perspective, addressing the institutions of courtship and marriage rather than the inner passions of lovers. Moreover, the play focuses on how courtship affects not just the lovers themselves, but also their parents, their servants, and their friends. In general, while the husband and the wife conduct the marriage relationship after the wedding, the courtship relationship is negotiated between the future husband and the father of the future wife. As such, marriage becomes a transaction involving the transfer of money. Lucentio wins Bianca’s heart, but he is given permission to marry her only after he is able to convince Baptista that he is fabulously rich. Had Hortensio offered more money, he would have married Bianca, regardless of whether she loved Lucentio.
The Effect of Social Roles on Individual Happiness
Each person in the play occupies a specific social position that carries with it certain expectations about how that person should behave. A character’s social position is defined by such things as his or her wealth, age, gender, profession, parentage, and education; the rules governing how each of them should behave are harshly enforced by family, friends, and society as a whole. For instance, Lucentio occupies the social role of a wealthy young student, Tranio that of a servant, and Bianca and Katherine the roles of upper-class young maidens-in-waiting. At the very least, they are supposed to occupy these roles—but, as the play shows, in reality, Kate wants nothing to do with her social role, and her shrewishness results directly from her frustration concerning her position. Because she does not live up to the behavioral expectations of her society, she faces the cold disapproval of that society, and, due to her alienation, she becomes miserably unhappy. Kate is only one of the many characters in The Taming of the Shrew who attempt to circumvent or deny their socially defined roles, however: Lucentio transforms himself into a working-class Latin tutor, Tranio transforms himself into a wealthy young aristocrat, Christopher Sly is transformed from a tinker into a lord, and so forth.
Compared with Katherine’s more serious anguish about her role, the other characters’ attempts to circumvent social expectations seem like harmless fun. However, the play illustrates that each transformation must be undone before conventional life can resume at the end of the play. Ultimately, society’s happiness depends upon everyone playing his or her prescribed roles. Through the motif of disguise, the play entertains the idea that a person’s apparel determines his or her social position, but it ultimately affirms that this is not the case. A servant may put on the clothes of a lord, but he remains a servant, one who must return to his place, as we see with Tranio. Likewise, Lucentio must reveal his subterfuge to his father and to Baptista before moving forward with Bianca. Kate’s development over the course of the play is basically determined by her gradual adaptation to her new social role as wife. She complies with Petruchio’s humiliating regimen of taming because she knows on some level that, whether she likes the role of wife or not, she will be happier accepting her social obligations than living as she has been at odds with everyone connected to her. In fact, the primary excitement in The Taming of the Shrew stems from its permeable social boundaries, crisscrossed continually by those who employ a disguise or a clever lie. In the end, however, the conventional order reestablishes itself, and those characters who harmonize with that order achieve personal happiness.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Disguise figures prominently in The Taming of the Shrew: Sly dresses as a lord, Lucentio dresses as a Latin tutor, Tranio dresses as Lucentio, Hortensio dresses as a music tutor, and the pedant dresses as Vincentio. These disguises enable the characters to transgress barriers in social position and class, and, for a time, each of them is successful. The play thus poses the question of whether clothes make the man—that is, whether a person can change his or her role by putting on new clothes. The ultimate answer is no, of course. In The Taming of the Shrew, society involves a web of antecedents that are always able to uncover one’s true nature, no matter how differently one wishes to portray oneself. Tranio, disguised as Lucentio, needs only to bump into Vincentio, and his true identity surfaces. As Petruchio implies on his wedding day, a garment is simply a garment, and the person beneath remains the same no matter what disguise is worn.
The motif of domestication is broadcasted in the play’s title by the word “taming.” A great part of the action consists of Petruchio’s attempts to cure Katherine of her antisocial hostility. Katherine is thus frequently referred to as a wild animal that must be domesticated. Petruchio considers himself, and the other men consider him, to be a tamer who must train his wife, and most of the men secretly suspect at first that her wild nature will prove too much for him. After the wedding, Petruchio and Katherine’s relationship becomes increasingly defined by the rhetoric of domestication. Petruchio speaks of training her like a “falcon” and plans to “kill a wife with kindness.” Hortensio even conceives of Petruchio’s house as a place where other men may learn how to domesticate women, calling it a “taming-school.”
Fathers and Their Children
The several father/child relationships in the play—Baptista/Bianca, Baptista/Katherine, Vincentio/Lucentio—focus on parents dealing with children of marriageable age and concerned with making good matches for them. Even the sham father/son relationship between the disguised pedant and the disguised Tranio portrays a father attempting to make a match for his son, as the pedant attempts to negotiate Tranio’s marriage to Bianca. Through the recurrence of this motif, Shakespeare shows the broader social ramifications of the institution of marriage. Marriage does not merely concern the future bride and groom, but many other people as well, especially parents, who, in a sense, transfer their responsibility for their children onto the new spouses.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Petruchio’s Wedding Costume
The ridiculous outfit Petruchio wears to his wedding with Kate symbolizes his control over her. Simply by wearing the costume, he is able to humiliate her. It may be shameful for Kate to be matched to someone in such attire, but she knows she has no choice if she does not wish to become an old maid. She consents to let the ceremony proceed, even with Petruchio dressed like a clown, and thus yields to his authority before the wedding even begins.
The outfit also symbolizes the transient nature of clothing. Petruchio declares that Kate is marrying him, not his clothes, indicating that the man beneath the attire is not the same as the attire itself. Thus, Lucentio, dressed as a tutor, cannot escape the fact that he must return to his true identity. By the same token, when Kate plays the role of a dutiful wife, she remains, essentially, Kate.
The Haberdasher’s Cap and Tailor’s Gown
The cap and gown that Petruchio denies Katherine, despite the fact that she finds them truly appealing, symbolizes yet again his power over her. The outfit functions as a kind of bait used to help convince Kate to recognize and comply with Petruchio’s wishes. Only he has the power to satisfy her needs and desires, and this lesson encourages her to satisfy him in return.
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