Themes in Taming of the Shrew Essay
The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy written in the early 1590’s by William Shakespeare. This play within a play starts when a powerful lord plays a prank on a poor, drunken man named Christopher Sly. The lord convinces the poor man that he is actually a lord himself and that the troop of actors that have arrived are there to perform a play for him. This play that the troop of actors performs is the story of Petruchio, who wants to marry for money, and Katherina, the shrew. The two actually marry and Petruchio uses his skills to “tame” Kate. This comedy of Shakespeare’s covers the themes of disguise, marriage, and transformation.
The first recurring theme throughout The Taming of the Shrew is disguise. This theme is demonstrated by multiple characters in both the outer play and the inner. In the outer play, the lord dresses Sly up as a lord and makes the page boy dress as a wife to Sly, “I know the boy will well usurp the grace, Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman. I long to hear him call the drunkard ‘husband’. ” lines 128-130. Characters in the inner play who dress up in disguise include Lucentio, who dresses as a tutor named Cambio, Hortensio, who also dresses as a tutor, and Tranio, who dresses as Lucentio.
These aforementioned characters all try to change their appearance in a plot to gain the love of the beautiful and succumbing younger sister of Kate, Bianca. Lucentio and Hortensio believe that by becoming a tutor to Bianca, they can win her affections. As Lucentio illuminates it, “And let me be a slave t’achieve that maid, Whose sudden sigh hath thrilled my wounded eye. ” lines 214-215. Tranio, Lucentio’s servant is forced to dress as Lucentio to try to get permission for Lucentio to marry Bianca from Bianca’s father.
As explained by Victor Cahn, “virtually no one in the cast proceeds honestly except Petruchio, whose early protestations about Katherine’s beauty and good nature turn out to be uncannily accurate,” (10. ) To that idea, Cahn claims that we find out that Kate is not a shrew, that she is actually “a woman of warmth, wit, and passion”, and it is her sister who we find out is the real shrew in the ending scene (10). I disagree with Cahn’s claim, but I do believe that he makes a good argument about the rest of the characters and also gives reason why disguise is used so much in this play.
The disguises are important in this play because they allow the characters to go between the social barriers and also set up two questions; do the clothes make the man and can you judge a book by its cover? Each of the characters are temporarily successful with their disguise but eventually all falls apart. All it takes to reveal Tranio’s identity is for him to bump into the real Lucentio’s father, Vincentio. We find that the clothes are not what is important, just like Petruchio implies on his wedding day, “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes,” line 111.
The clothes you wear can never fully hide the person beneath them. These disguises are central to the plot of the play as well as to the tone and the general entertainment. The second major theme in the play is marriage. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew is not a play about passion and true love. The Taming of the Shrew looks into other aspects of marriage such as courtship, life after marriage, and mainly, the economic side of marriage. The reader sees that the courtship between Petruchio and Kate is not very important, in fact, it is almost non-existent.
Immediately after meeting Petruchio, Kate sarcastically points out to her father in lines 282-284, “You have showed me a tenderly fatherly regard, to wish me wed to one half lunatic, a mad-cup ruffian and a swearing Jack. ” We understand that Kate’s happiness is not as important to her father as is the dowry that will come with the marriage. Coppelia Kahn explains that Kate is a commodity; her father wants her to marry before he will allow Bianca to marry because he is like a merchant trying to sell all the goods from his warehouse (87).
Victor Cahn agrees to this when he states that Kate and Bianca’s father “regards them as no more than prizes to be offered to the highest bidder,” (11). Both Kahn and Cahn explain well the significance of money and the lack of importance of love in marriage in this play. These critics also help show that marriage is a dominant theme in The Taming of the Shrew, but the reasons behind marriage are certainly different than what we think of them to be in our culture today.
The final and most controversial theme in The Taming of the Shrew is transformation. An online dictionary defines transformation as “A marked change, as in appearance or character, usually for the better. ” While Kate is definitely transformed throughout the play, it is very arguable as to whether or not her change from undesired shrew to tamed wife is actually for the better. The first argument is given by Lise Pederson and simply questions if the means would really produce the end. When talking about
Petruchio’s treatment of Kate and the techniques he uses to “tame” her, Pederson implies that Shakespeare’s play does not comply with reality because “it asserts that the example of bad-tempered, uncontrolled behavior can only bring about behavior of the same kind in the learner, not a change to the sweet-tempered reasonableness such as Kate exhibits. ” (19). Other critics, such as John Bean, seems content with the transformation seen with Kate and are not bothered by the means of producing the transformation either.
John Bean reasons that “we can perhaps see that Kate is tamed not in the automatic manner of behavioral psychology but in the spontaneous manner of the later romantic comedies where characters lose themselves in chaos and emerge, as if from a dream, liberated into the bonds of love. ” (66). In Bean’s eyes, Kate has transformed into a good woman and therefore the change must be for the better. Originally I had to agree with Pederson on this issue, partially because I feel that Bean’s argument is lacking a basis.
Also, being a woman, I feel like being strong-willed in a man’s world is an asset that should be retained, neither to be beaten out of or lost by a woman. I could not see why Kate needed to be tamed at all, but just assumed it to be the time period in which the play was written. When I came across a book edited by Dympna Callaghan that explained that throughout the course of the sixteenth century, marriage changed to have new ideals that suggested “the equality of marriage partners, men and women,” (246), I was shocked.
I had no idea that equality of the sexes had been starting during the time The Taming of the Shrew was written. It makes me question Shakespeare’s mindset and how he truly felt about the woman’s role in a marriage. We can see that the overall theme, as implied in the title, is about transformation. We can also see that there is much room to argue about the cause and good of the transformation, as well as why Shakespeare may have chosen this theme. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a great but notorious comedy. It is witty, fun, and very entertaining. The key to these qualities are the different themes contained in the play, three of the most important ones being disguise, marriage, and transformation.
Bean, John C. “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. ” The Woman’s Part; Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: 1980. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. Cahn, Victor L. “Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide. ” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001. Web. 5 Dec. 2012. Callaghan, Dympna, ed. Romeo and Juliet: Texts and Contexts. ” Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print. Kahn, Coppelia. “Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare’s Mirror of Marriage. ” The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Amherst: 1977. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. Pederson, Lise. “Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew VS. Shaw’s Pygmalion: Male Chauvinism VS. Women’s LIB? ” Fabian Feminist: Bernard Shaw and Woman. University Park: 1977. Web. 3 Nov. 2012. “Transformation. ” thefreedictionary. Farlex. n. d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.