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Examine the tailor’s brief appearance in IV.iii. What is the significance
of this passage? Why might Shakespeare have chosen to include the scene in a play that
would just as easily make sense without it?
The brief exchange between Petruchio and the tailor in The Taming of the
Shrew introduces the theme of self-invention, the idea that people can shrug off
the roles the world has assigned to them merely by force of will. Likewise, the Christopher
Sly episode that opens the play concerns one man’s attempt to alter his place in society by
imagining himself to be better than he is. Most notably, the theme of self-invention runs
throughout Katherine’s story, in which a bitter, shrewish woman learns to see herself as
friendly, attractive, and wise. The episode of the tailor thus reinforces Shakespeare’s
sense of the wonder of personal change, the miracle of discovering one’s own best self and
ignoring a community’s doubt and cynicism.
For Petruchio, the unsatisfying encounter with the tailor drives home the message that
people do not need to observe societal conventions to be happy and successful. The tailor
proposes a fashionable gown for Kate that would require her to slip her arms into billowing
sleeves “like a demi-cannon,” but Petruchio encourages her to reject the fashion and dress
in a way that makes her feel comfortable. Petruchio turns down the “fashion of the time” for
it does not accord with his own “custom,” and he prefers his personal style to the
expectations of others. He declares that he and Kate will approach her father in their own
shabby outfits, because the beauty of their personalities will shine through, and “the mind
will make the body rich.” Petruchio’s exchange with the tailor suggests that people should
rely more on their own instincts, thoughts, and styles than on the ideas that the outside
world tries to impose on them.
Likewise, Christopher Sly’s story presents the idea that people can look past others’
perceptions of their worth, appearance, and status, and invent their own place in society.
Christopher’s story begins with his abuse and scolding at the hands of a hostess, a powerful
community figure who reinforces Christopher’s own sense of himself as worthless. But through
the intervention of a benevolent and mysterious lord, Christopher learns to “let the mind
make the body rich.” The lord and his servants change Christopher’s clothes and treat him as
if he were a powerful man, so Christopher examines the sensory evidence and decides that
this revelation is true. Within a matter of minutes, he imagines himself as a man worthy of
female companionship, capable of understanding theater, and entitled to an education. By the
power of self-invention, Christopher casts aside societal prejudice and experiences a
comical but moving re-birth.
On a much broader canvas, Shakespeare paints a picture of Katherine’s personal change,
thus lending further credence to Petruchio’s notion that people can wrest control of their
own identities from the hands of a cruel, discouraging society. When we first see Katherine,
she is labeled a shrew by everyone she encounters (most disturbingly her father), and so she
behaves in a predictably shrewish, loathsome manner. But like the lord in Christopher’s
story, Petruchio sees potential for reinvention in everyone he encounters, and he thus tells
Katherine that she is actually mild, lovable, and generous. Borne on by the gift of
Petruchio’s encouragement, Katherine begins to see herself as a loving and valuable member
of her community. By the end of the play, she has renounced her shrewish habits and
encouraged the women around her to emulate her new set of impeccable manners. Again, a
character has broken free from societal constraints and re-made herself in her own best
The tailor’s brief appearance in Act IV thus concisely illustrates Shakespeare’s
thematic interest in the joys and possibilities of personal change. Petruchio laughs at the
tailor’s expectations and decides he will dress as himself, comfortable, confident, and
free. Christopher similarly looks past his established role as a drunken fool and begins to
turn into a thoughtful, reputable member of society. Most dramatically, Katherine learns to
ignore her family’s worst expectations and becomes a thoughtful and generous human being.
With the image of the tailor, Shakespeare shows that people do not have to put on the
costumes and speak the lines that their communities choose for them.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!