Dustin Pickering on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew
A literary work is often a code that reveals distinct things. Sometimes these things are simply too advanced or the logic of them too cruel. The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays and its language is easily read and understood. However, the embedded symbolism may pass by even the most astute mind.
The play is obviously about gender battles, and it seems to some that Kate is tamed by her husband. However, a deeper look at the intricately woven tropes exhumes a critique of culture, a sense of equal justice, and the way institutions impress on our minds. The play extends beyond property relations and the inequality of women. It also poaches one of theatre’s daunting faults. In Shakespeare’s day, women could not play the female roles and instead teenage boys were selected. The theatre was considered dangerous and women too unfit to perform. There was lead in the makeup and the stage action too rough. Theatre was too bawdy.
The Taming of the Shrew contains puns on horses, games, “moveables”, music, and theatre itself. Props or “furniture” signify costumes; there are witty puns revealing the dissembling nature of appearances. In Act IV, Scene III, Petruchio says, “And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds, / So honor peereth in the meanest habit.” The sun in this respect is the human mind because it is “the mind that makes the body rich”. After Petruchio is delivered a faulty wedding dress, he pontificates on the problem of physical beauty. It is true that he uses this reasoning to tame Katherina. It is part of the ploy to obfuscate her with a list of her own faults. He seeks to embody her worst aspects so she can learn from them how devilish they are. This discussion concerning the gown further moves toward critiquing the use of teenage boys to fill roles meant for females. Again, Petruchio: “is the adder better than the eel, / Because his painted skin contents the eye?” I remind the reader of the lead makeup.
Perhaps Shakespeare intends to remind us real world experience supplements bookish learning. When Vincenti is confused with a young virgin boy by Katherina (Act IV, Scene V), she realizes her error and admits to being “bedazzled with the sun”. Taking up from the aforementioned sun symbolism, Katherina’s error stands in as a trope for pure reason. With pure reason absent of categories, all things merge without identity or qualities. Her vision of green is one of seeing the world “light”. Much of the symbolism in The Taming of the Shrew references binaries such as bottom/top and heavy/light. There is a wild pun on the nature of matter. Actualities contain density while potentialities are ethereal. In an early passage, Tranio prescribes a middle way between the Stoics and Ovid. He advises Lucentio, “The mathematics, and the metaphysics, / Fall to them as you find your stomach serves you: / no profit grows where no pleasure is ta’en.”
Other engaging puns bring to mind property relationships of the Elizabethan era. A role reversal encouraged by Petruchio, of Katherina and Dian, and the playful engagement of dungeon metaphors parody imprisonment. I doubt it can be said with certainty what sort of political statement Shakespeare is making. Is he reflecting the faults of that era, or is he acclimatised to them? The bandying about concerning an imprisoned Kate, her shrewness, and the several occasions where property relations speak on their own behalf invite me to this conclusion: the play is comedic not just in form, but it is a satire of an unequal socio-political environment.
Continuous role reversals, contradictions, and allusions to myths concerning rape and chastity lead me to assume the play indicates that property relations sever our deepest humanity. Katherina can either be her husband’s chattel slave, or she can remain chaste. Both these options are not appealing and neither can be safely ruled out. Perhaps Petruchio marries for the dowry, or maybe he realises his error. After all, the play puns and moralises on looking beyond surface appearances.
Katherina is intent on remaining a shrew but Petruchio is set in taming her. Perhaps in the process both learn something new.
Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post.