Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Marriage as an Economic Institution
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.
The Effect of Social Roles on Individual Happiness
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 forth.
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.
More main ideas from The Taming of the Shrew
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.