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.
Socially Mandated and Enforced Gender Roles
Many of Shakespeare’s plays ask the reader to contemplate gender, gender roles, and gender performativity but nowhere is that contemplation more complex than The Taming of the Shrew. The Taming of the Shrew is largely about how to “correctly” or “incorrectly” be a man or a woman in society. The characters in the play equate masculinity with dominance, and femininity with subservience. Any character who aligns with that vision of masculinity and femininity is rewarded, whereas any character who fails to perform their allotted gender role correctly is humiliated and abused. The most obvious and most important example of this is Katherine, the play’s heroine. Katherine is feisty, temperamental, and prone to stubborn outbursts—Bianca, her sister and narrative foil, is sweet-tempered and submissive. Bianca is viewed as desirable by the other men in the play and is favored by their father. On the other hand, Katherine is resented and ridiculed by the men in the text and called a “shrew.” The social preference for Bianca over Katherine at the start of the play is exclusively attributed to Katherine’s unwillingness to subscribe to the traditional gender roles dictated by society.
Katherine is punished for her gender transgressions throughout the play. The gentlemen in Padua repeatedly insult Katherine, her father marries her off to Petruchio against her wishes so that she will become someone else’s problem, and, most importantly, Petruchio launches a series of physical and psychological lessons to “tame” his new wife until she becomes the picture of subservient femininity. He intentionally dresses in garish clothes to humiliate her on their wedding day, he starves her and refuses to let her sleep so that she will be too weak to disobey him, and he even tells the other men that her tempestuous outbursts are a joke between the two of them, effectively rendering Katherine’s true self an act. Katherine is only valued by the other men in the play once she begins to obey her husband and perform her allotted gender roles after Petruchio has beaten her into submission. While many interpret Katherine’s famous speech about female subservience in 5.2 as ironic as opposed to genuine, she is still trapped in a misogynistic society that demands everyone adhere to strict gender roles.