Study Guide

The Taming of the Shrew Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Animals

The play (including its title) is full of animal imagery, especially as it relates to the training and domesticating or hunting of birds and beasts. In the Induction, the Lord refers to Sly as a "swine" and a "beast" before transforming him into a "nobleman." Kate, of course, is referred to throughout the play as a "shrew," a derogatory term for opinionated and aggressive women that derives its name from a small, feisty animal. Punning on the name "Kate" and "cat," Petruchio threatens to turn Kate from a "wild Kate" to a "household Kate" (2.1.39). Once married, Petruchio aligns Kate with his "horse," his "ox," and his "ass," and later compares her to a falcon, a bird of prey he must starve and deprive of sleep in order to break or tame.

Literary critic Jeanne Addison Roberts points out that "Katherine is associated with more animal metaphors than any other female character in Shakespeare." (What's up with that?) Roberts also notes that "a great deal of the humor of the first meeting between Kate and her suitor […] depends on the determination of each to reduce the other to subhuman status."

OK, we'll buy that for a dollar but, so what? How can we turn Roberts's awesome observation into a snazzy interpretive point? (Some teachers call a snazzy interpretive point a thesis.) Well, let's see. For starters, even though Kate gets in some great pot shots during the initial meeting with Petruchio, he wins the game in the end and confirms man's dominion over beasts and, well, women. So, even while Petruchio sets out to elevate Katherine from a nasty little "shrew" to something more human – a nice, obedient wife – he simultaneously degrades her into an animal state.

There's a whole lot more to be said about the animal imagery and metaphors in The Taming of the Shrew. Go ahead and dig around in the play and see what you come up with. We're pretty sure we smell a great paper topic…

Petruchio's wedding getup and Kate's dirty old dress

Petruchio's ridiculous wedding digs are just one kind of disguise we see in the play. Petruchio doesn't normally dress this way – it's all part of his strategy to "tame" Kate by playing the role of erratic and excessively domineering husband. (You can read more about the other kinds of disguises in our discussion of the theme "Art and Culture.") When Petruchio arrives at the wedding ceremony late and dressed like Rainbow Brite's twin brother, he demonstrates his ability to embarrass and publicly humiliate his bride (and her father). Petruchio's outrageous getup makes it perfectly clear that Kate has absolutely no control over what Petruchio wears or how he behaves.

Baptista doesn't have any control over Petruchio either. When the old man asks Petruchio to change into something more appropriate, Petruchio replies that Kate is marrying the man, not his clothes. Petruchio is being a jerk, of course, but there's a whole lot of truth in what he says. Outward appearances are not necessarily indicative of a person's true identity, a lesson we learn over and over throughout the play. This point is lost on Baptista when Petruchio follows it up by saying something like: "By the way, dad, I can't wait for your daughter to wear me out in the sack tonight. Wink, wink."

Petruchio also exercises his control over Kate by controlling what she wears later on in the play. Before the pair set off for Bianca's wedding in Act 4, Petruchio causes a big ruckus over the clothes and hat that have been custom made for Katherine. Petruchio claims they're not up to snuff and insists that he and Kate wear old rags to Bianca's wedding. Kate is livid – like a toddler, she's not even allowed to pick out her own clothes. She's also not allowed to complain about this because Petruchio tells her to zip it, or else they're not going to Padua.

Nature

The Taming of the Shrew often aligns its characters with natural (and sometimes supernatural) forces. One of the clearest examples of this is Petruchio's funny little habit of linking himself with the wind. The connection is casual at first when Petruchio suggests the "wind" has blown him into town (1.2.9). Soon after, however, he suggests that he is the wind that will blow out Kate's "fire" (2.1.8). Silly Shakespeare – anyone who knows anything about the Santa Ana winds in California knows that wind fuels fire. Nevertheless, Petruchio sees himself as a kind of super power that will conquer the "devilish" Kate of her fiery ways. This has the effect of elevating him from a natural force (the wind) to a kind of supernatural deity. We can't even count the number of times male characters refer to Kate as the "devil," which implies, of course, that the one to tame the "devil" (in this case, Petruchio) is godlike.

Petruchio's not the only one who sees "shrew-taming" as a godlike feat. When Petruchio insists that it's seven o'clock or "what o'clock [he] say[s] it is" (even though it's really two o'clock), Hortensio admires Petruchio's ability to "command the sun" (4.3.19). What Hortensio implies here is that Petruchio is able to control the way Kate spends her time by determining (like the position of the sun in the sky) what time of day it is. But, Hortensio doesn't say Petruchio is "like" the sun – he says he "controls" the sun, like a god. In this way, Hortensio simultaneously aligns Petruchio with elements in nature and elevates him to supernatural status by suggesting that P dominates the natural world.

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