Many of Shakespeare's comedies contrast an urban setting with a rural one. This is most obvious in plays like As You Like It, where the unpredictable Forest of Arden contrasts strongly with the authoritarian setting of Duke Frederick's Court.
The Taming of the Shrew shares this country versus city dichotomy, though it isn't as obvious as in many of Shakespeare's plays. Padua is the city setting - a place of culture and learning, of wealth and refinement, "nursery of arts." (1.1: 2) It is here that the disguised Lucentio carefully woos the fair Bianca behind his veil of Latin translations and romance books. By contrast, the country is portyaed as a place of "foul" hills (4.1: 60), "burnt" meat (4.1: 149), horses who collapse and masters who beat their servants; against this wild, cruel setting, Petruchio tames Katharina as if she were an animal. The country is, in effect, "the taming-school," where Petruchio "is the master,/That teacheth trick eleven-and-twenty long/To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue." (4.2: 56-59)
Shakespeare waits to reunite his two narratives until Petruchio and his wife are on the road to Padua; once the two domains rejoin at Lucentio's banquet it is not at all clear which side has the upper hand. Katharina emerges as the gentle and obedient wife, while Bianca and the Widow promise their own round of rural-style taming.
How exactly can we define love? This question permeates The Taming of the Shrew, suggested in the various metaphors used to describe love. Lucentio, as Cambio, carries a book called The Art of Love, while Petruchio and Katharina seem to consider courtship a full-contact sport. At the play's end, Katharina speaks of marriage in militaristic terms - "our lances are but straws" (5.2: 177) - and thus love becomes a sort of war. Only moments ealier Petruchio has described love as if it were a matter of hunting: "Here, Signor Tranio,/This bird you aimed at, though you hit her not./Therefore a health to all that shot and missed." (5.2: 49-51)
Despite the inconsistency of their definitions of love, all of the major characters in Shrew are obsessed with it. And yet none of them really knows what love is. Indeed, can we say for sure that Katharina and Petruchio ever truly fall in love? Is their kiss at the play's end a traditional romantic gesture or a symbol of subjugation? Certainly the other relationships depicted, such as Hortensio's with the Widow and Bianca's with Lucentio, are problematic as well. Suffice it to say that love is a complex force in The Taming of the Shrew - one that is always connected to questions of power, performance and wealth.
Disguise and Illusion
The Induction that begins The Taming of the Shrew introduces illusion as a principal theme. Shakespeare is not content merely to tell a story: he reminds the audience of theater's inherent constructedness. The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play - one which is very aware of the complications its status as a fiction entails.
This strange beginning continues to resonate during the subsequent action of the play proper. Indeed, when Tranio rises to the role of Lucentio, this mirrors Sly's own donning of a lord's manner. It becomes at times difficult to keep track of the various multiple identities and counterfeit personas: Hortensio as Litio, Lucentio as Cambio, the Pedant as Vincentio. However, this confusion itself is perhaps the point: the very act of disguising oneself, of playing a role, becomes the thing that matters most.
The Taming of the Shrew may thus be interpreted as a play about playing, theater about theater, in which the central concern is not love but illusion. Is love therefore an illusion? Given that Petruchio and Katharina certainly assume roles themselves, though without wearing costumes or changing their names, one is tempted to wonder what "truth" - if any - may inform performance.
Love and Money
Shakespeare intertwines love and money throughout The Taming of the Shrew. Consider that the pitting of Tranio against Gremio for Bianca's hand before Baptista involves a comparison of riches. "First, as you know, my house within the city/Is richly furnishÃ¨d with plate and gold,/Basins and ewers to lave her dainty hands," says Gremio. (2.1: 344-346) "Two thousand ducats by the year, [...] three great argosies, besides two galliases/And twelve tight galleys," responds Tranio. (2.1: 367-377) Chivalrous gamesmanship is reduced to a weighing of material wealth. And just as Baptista wants to ensure that Bianca receives a sufficient dowry, so too Petruchio demands that Katharina come with sufficient wealth: "Then tell me," he asks Baptista, "if I get your daughter's love,/What dowry shall I have with her to wife?" (2.1: 119-120)
The two narratives thus share evident symmetry in their concern with wealth: the quest for love is never disconnected from the quest for money. Indeed, money is so important in securing marriage that the characters in Shrew are driven to desperate, even ludicrous measures in order to prove their wealth; Tranio even grabs a man off the street to assume the role of the wealthy Vincentio. The uneasy role of money in The Taming of the Shrew is never fully resolved.
Marriage is important to comedies of every era of literature, from well before Shakespeare's time to ours. Almost all of Shakespeare's comedies end with a marriage, and often with several marriages. Marriage is treated as the natural satisfactory resolution to a romance: the institution through which order is restored after the wild events of the preceding Acts.
In some ways, The Taming of the Shrew follows this model. It is the aim of Lucentio as soon as he lays eyes on Bianca to have her as his wife; likewise, Hortensio, Gremio, and Petruchio all seek to be married. Uniquely among Shakespeare's early comedies, however, The Taming of the Shrew does not end with marriage. Instead, it explicitly compares the "before" and "after" of marital union. Shakespeare uses multiple plot lines in order to have one couple - Kate and Petruchio - struggling with marriage while another - Bianca and Lucentio - are still in the courtship phase. Shakespeare shifts from one narrative to the other, hopping back and forth throughout Act IV, thus patterning the idealizations of Lucentio's language and actions against the harsh realities of Kate and Petruchio. Unlike almost all comedies, Shrew is cynical about marriage, a cynicism that comes through in its very structure.
The Performance of Class
Theater, in Shakespeare's play, is posited as a means to dissolve class barriers. Through the art of acting, the servant Tranio becomes his master, the wealthy Lucentio becomes the "meaner" Cambio (1.1: 206), the Pedant becomes Vincentio, "a merchant of incomparable wealth" (4.2: 99) - and the drunken tinker Christopher Sly becomes a lord.
Through these depictions of class as mere performance, Shakespeare suggests that the only traits separating the lower from the upper classes are largely superficial. Class barriers in The Taming of the Shrew are not a matter of innate endowment or superior virtue; they simply follow from a style of speech and dress. Class status, in other words, can be attained by a costume and a pretty speech. This theme pervades subsequent, non-Shakespearean dramas as well, most notably The Marriage of Figaro and Pygmalion.
Power and Language
Lucentio uses a Latin passage to woo Bianca, just as Petruchio wields words as weapons to court - or, if you prefer, to subdue - Katharina. When Hortensio attempts to use a musical scale to do his own seducing, it fails. In these and other instances throughout the play, Shakespeare demonstrates the power inherent in language. With nothing more than words and a bit of clothing, for instance, a Pedant can be made to seem like Vincentio, and a servant can be made to seem like a master. The characters in the play who are most adept at using language - most notably Petruchio, Lucentio and Kate - are not only the most interesting and the most complex, they are also the most successful at getting what they want. The lesser language users - such as Gremio and Hortensio - come up short, despite their wealth and power.
Moreover, through his emphasis on the force of language, Shakespeare enacts his own power as a wordsmith. His plays only exist, after all, as collections of language - and yet they are vivid, three-dimensional, compelling. When Lucentio sneaks his way into Bianca's heart, or Petruchio and Kate spar so fiercely, one can detect Shakespeare winking at his spectators. After all, however inventive and poetically accomplished his individual characters may appear, they speak nothing more than the bard's words, not their own. The ultimate display of the power of language is evident not in the play's action so much as in the play's existence.
The Taming of the Shrew Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Taming of the Shrew is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
At the end of Scene II, Act V, Katharina gives a moving speech on a wife's duty to her husband. We can take this speech about submission sarcastically, or we can believe that her love for her husband has superceded all else. I've always preferred...