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.