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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
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.
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!