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In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by William Shakespeare we run into a few different themes. This comedy deals with a complexity of issues like gender, the importance of social hierarchy, and conformity in marriage.

Raucous Fun

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare will have you laughing from the beginning of the first act all the way through to the last word spoken. We are entertained by battles of words and wit, and filled with wagers and surprises that keep us engaged.

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We meet two fated couples and a myriad of other characters where discussion of a ‘woman’s place,’ and the purpose of marriage comes up a lot.

Illustration of The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew

Major Themes

This charming, witty comedy has more going on than first meets the eye. What appears to be a play about finding the perfect marriage partner is also a play that takes a serious look at issues like gender and the so-called ‘importance’ of social class.

Reasons for Marriage

Each of the principal players have different opinions about marriage and the benefits of taking a wife.

  • Petruchio makes no bones about the fact that he has come seeking a wife that comes from money. He is clear about equating money to happiness. He makes his point when he says, ‘I come to wive it wealthily in Padua / If wealthily, then happily in Padua.’
  • Hortensio sees the other main female character, Bianca, as a commodity, and he is upset when he thinks that her father Baptista has been keeping her from him. He is not as vulgar about the need for a wealthy wife as Petruchio, but he comes very close. He tells Petruchio that he must go with him, ‘For in Baptista’s keep my treasure is / He hath the jewel of my life in hold, / His youngest daughter, beautiful Bianca, / And her withholds from me and other more.

  • Bianca wants no part of Hortensio and refuses his proposal. She is searching for love and does not want to be a part of a deal. She instead finds love in Lucentio, who has gone to great lengths to get to know her.

  • Baptista, the father of Katherine and Bianca, plays the merchant, working to get the best ‘price’ for his daughters. He makes his purpose clear, ‘Faith, gentlemen, now I play a merchant’s part / And venture madly on a desperate mart.’ (A ‘mart’ is an investment.)

While Lucentio must convince Baptista that he is wealthy in order to be given permission to marry Bianca, he believes his efforts have been worth it.

Hortensio is left to marry a widow because he would rather have someone than no one.The play is a look at marriage from all points of view: a contract, a profit, a love match, or companionship.

Gender

Gender also plays a dramatic role. In the main action of the play, we watch Petruchio as he attempts to get Katherine to conform to typical wifely duties.

He wants her to be the traditional submissive wife, and at first she wants no part of it.Bianca seems to take to the traditional role, while Kate rebels and for most of the play is insulted and chastised because of her willful behavior. In the end, the men are engaged in a lively discussion about who is ruled by their wife, and therefore has given up his manhood. We also see that Bianca and the widow may not be the best examples of the traditional wife as we were led to believe.Kate is given in marriage to Petruchio without consideration for her feelings, further emphasizing the lack of importance given to women’s preferences.

We see the value of women when Petruchio says, ‘Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented / That you shall be my wife, your dowry ‘greed on, / And will you, nill you, I will marry you.’ In other words, I’m your husband whether you like it or not.

Social Hierarchy

The importance of social hierarchy looms large. While women may not have much say in the outcome of their lives, they are still higher up the social ladder than servants. But in this play, things are not always as they seem.

The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. At the beginning, a joke is played on a drunk, Christopher Sly. Sly is dressed as a lord and men perform a play for him, the very play we end up watching, where Lucentio is dressed as a tutor (a lower social status), his servant Tranio as Lucentio, and the Merchant as Lucentio’s father.The mockery Shakespeare is making of the rigidity of the social order has audiences laughing.

The message seems to be: if you can dress the part, you can fool anyone. We see the effect clothes and jewels can have on perspective when a lord wonder if Sly wouldn’t think himself a lord if were dressed so. He say, ‘What think you, if he were conveyed to bed, /Wrapped in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers, / A most delicious banquet by his bed, / And brave attendants near him when he wakes, / Would not the beggar then forget himself?’Ever heard the expression, ‘the clothes make the man’? If you dress someone up to look the part, they will be able to convince even themselves that they belong. Shakespeare shows us social class is based on a shaky framework that can easily be taken down.

Lesson Summary

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy by William Shakespeare that delights the reader as it takes on issues of marriage, gender, and social hierarchy. These themes would have engaged audiences and had them laughing in their seats.Petruchio and Kate have their difficulties as he tries to mold her into a submissive wife. Baptista views marriage as a matter of price. Lucentio and Hortensio go to great lengths to find wives, but only Lucentio ends up marrying for love.The issues of gender and social hierarchy are put forth in behavior that is borderline ridiculous.

Shakespeare appears to be mocking the social norms of his day, showing that assumptions are often made based on the clothes we wear.

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