Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare's comedic play, The Taming of the Shrew. Themes are central to understanding The Taming of the Shrew as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
Art Imitating Life
Shakespeare was always interested in the concept that life imitated art and this theme showed up in many of his plays, including The Taming of the Shrew. He explored this concept by creating the play-within-the-play episode. The Induction scenes in The Taming of the Shrew introduce the reader to Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker who is booted out of a tavern just before he passes out. While he is in his alcohol induced sleep, a Lord returns from hunting to find Sly and then devises the plan of dressing Sly in the clothes of the aristocracy and tricking him into believing that he is a wealthy Lord. Sly awakens to find himself surrounded in splendor, and even though he doesn't really believe he is a wealthy Lord, he plays along hoping that maybe it is true. A troupe of players is brought in to entertain the new Lord Sly and the play they perform is the story of the taming of the shrew.
Struggle between the ClassesAnother theme important to the play is that of the struggle between the classes. The Induction creates a commentary on class rank. With too much time and money on his hands, the Lord highlights Shakespeare's emphasis on the hierarchal class order as it is represented in The Taming of the Shrew.
The theme of disguise is introduced in Act I, Scene I. By the end of the scene, we have a total of four people assuming disguise (Sly and Bartholomew in the Induction; Lucentio and Tranio in Act I, Scene 1). The disguises so far have been overt and sartorial in nature; people assume physical disguises in attempt to pass themselves off as someone else. Seeing so many people assuming identities reminds us that The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy of mistaken and disguised identity — a theme that will become increasingly more complex (yet increasingly subtle) as the play unfolds.
The first and most obvious type of disguise employed in Shrew is the physical disguise. The notion of physical role playing is introduced at the very beginning of the play and continues throughout.
A bit less obvious than the physical disguises are the psychological disguises in The Taming of the Shrew. Both Kate and Petruchio assume psychological disguises. Kate becomes a shrew to compensate for the hurt she feels because of her father's favoritism toward Bianca. In addition, she refuses to be saddled with an unworthy husband and so assumes the role of a shrew, insulating herself from the hurtful world around her, no matter how much she may secretly wish to join in the fun. Likewise, Petruchio assumes the role of shrew-tamer, exaggerating Kate's bad behavior until she cannot help but see how infantile and childish her actions have been.
After being rejoined by Baptista, Gremio, and Tranio, Petruchio shows us he is a quick and clever thinker. His highly comic lie about how, in private Kate "hung about [his] neck" but in public she's agreed she'll be "curst" brings the story's theme of public behavior and private behavior to the forefront. Although in reality, he's merely concocting a story of what has just happened, placing himself in a good light, there's more truth in what he says than we may realize. The distinction between what denotes proper public behavior and how that may or may not differ from private behavior will drive the play, especially Act V. Petruchio's lie, too, makes it readily apparent he's the only man in the story so far who has the wit to compete with Kate.