Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 4)

Though, as Marianne L. Novy writes, “the focus of the play is not on the apparent changes in social class permitted by changes of clothes,” but, rather, on the change of identity by Katherine from shrew to loving wife, the theme of change in social status through change in clothing plays an important part even in the central plot. This is particularly true of the attitude of Petruchio toward clothing and other means of displaying identity. While the new garments of Christopher Sly, Tranio, and the Pedant are attempts to “rise in the social hierarchy,” Petruchio’s “choice of clothes for the roles he plays dramatizes his independence of the status concerns usually coded by Elizabethan clothing.”[1]

Sly, Lucentio, and the Pedant exhibit more concern for ostentation and the social status attached to the perception of wealth than to real wealth. Sly rejects the fine foods and drinks offered to him and insists instead on “a pot of small [or cheap] ale.”[2] He takes gleeful delight, however, in being attended to by others and referred to as “lord.”[3]

Similarly, Tranio’s concern is for the lifestyle of the wealthy rather than the actual ownership of wealth. In his victorious attempt, while disguised as Lucentio, to outbid the elderly Gremio for the hand of Bianca by offering the “greatest dower,” Tranio is not hesitant to offer wealth that neither he nor his real master actually possess.[4] After a bidding war with Gremio in which he claims “three or four” houses “within rich Pisa walls,” “two thousand ducats by the year / Of fruitful land,” “three great argosies, besides two galliases / And twelve tight galleys,” Tranio concludes by assuring Gremio that he will offer “twice as much, whate’er thou off’rest next.”[5] Unlike the wealth of Gremio, who worries in an aside that “my land amounts not to so much in all,” the wealth of Tranio-as-Lucentio is apparently unlimited because it is unreal.[6]

The Pedant, too, claims for himself wealth that he does not actually possess because his concern is for the appearance of wealthiness rather than for the possession of actual wealth. The Pedant, as he admits to Tranio before assuming the identity of Vincentio at Tranio’s behest, has come to Padua with “bills for money by exchange.”[7] He has, in other words, come with promissory notes with which to borrow money. Yet, when the real Vincentio arrives in Padua and offers a substantial amount of money to Lucentio through the Pedant, the Pedant-as-false-Vincentio rejects the money, scoffing, “Keep your hundred pounds to yourself. He shall need none, so long as I live.”[8] Tranio, arriving dressed as Lucentio, also takes part in the false claims of wealth, countering the exclamations of Vincentio at his clothing with his own commentary on Vincentio’s clothing as well as an admission of his concern for ostentation:

Sir, you seem a sober ancient gentleman by your habit, but your words show you a madman. Why, sir, what ‘cerns it you if I wear pearl and gold? I thank my good father, I am able to maintain it.[9]

Vincentio’s response is a reminder that pretense and ostentation are no substitute for inheritance: “Thy father! Oh, villain, he is a sailmaker in Bergamo.”[10]

Petruchio presents a substantial contrast with this obsession with ostentation over real wealth. Petruchio, who really is of good birth, mentions his recently deceased father only three times, each time in passing and in a manner that exhibits his more central concern for real wealth over the social status that his birth conveys to him. The first of these mentions of his parentage comes in his words to Hortensio explaining why he is in Padua; Petruchio explains,

Antonio, my father, is deceased,

And I have thrust myself into this maze,

Happily to wive and thrive as best I may.

Crowns in my purse I have, and goods at home,

And so am come abroad to see the world.[11]

Petruchio here mentions the inheritance he has received from his father as the source of his wealth, but quickly turns to his desire to acquire greater wealth for himself. Significantly, he has hidden his “crowns in my purse, and goods at home.” He has not come into the world to display his wealth and be seen but, rather, has “come abroad to see the world.” He again mentions his father when introducing himself to Gremio, but again turns his attention to himself and what his newly-inherited wealth can do for him:

Born in Verona, old Antonio’s son.

My father dead, his fortune lives for me.

And I do hope good days and long to see.[12]

Petruchio’s third and final mention of his father is as brief as the others and spoken only to prove to Baptista that he is a worthy suitor for his daughter Katherine:

Petruchio is my name; Antonio’s son,

A man well known throughout all Italy.[13]

Petruchio is willing here to mention his father because he knows that such displays of identity are important to others around him and he is willing to work within this framework to accomplish his goals.           Petruchio’s ends are not those of the other characters, however. While he is willing to display his wealth and parentage when it suits his need, his concern is not for recognition derived from ostentation. His desire is, instead, for real wealth.

His lack of concern for display extends to his treatment of others as well. In his search for wealth, he is willing to become a suitor to Kate no matter how shrewish her behavior. As his friend Hortensio begins to warn him about Kate’s displays of shrewishness, Petruchio silences him, exclaiming,

Hortensio, peace! Thou know’st not gold’s effect.

Tell me her father’s name and ‘tis enough;

For I will board her, though she chide as loud

As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack.[14]

Like the other characters, Petruchio is willing to alter identities, both his and Katherine’s, to attain his desires. His means and his desires, however, are different from those of the other characters in that while the others operate within the Elizabethan social hierarchy and attempt to make their way to the top of it through subterfuge, his desires lay in a reality free of this socially-concocted hierarchy and his means often subvert the hierarchy rather than working within it.

Petruchio’s disdain for the social hierarchy and the rules of dress and ostentation that exhibit one’s place within it are made evident through his own use of changes of clothing. Petruchio departs, after having secured the hand of Katherine in marriage through the blessing of her father, with promises of “rings, and things, and fine array” for the coming wedding.[15] His entrance on the wedding day, however, is quite different from what he had promised. Lucentio’s servant Biondello describes Petruchio’s wedding garment in detail:

Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced; an old rusty sword ta’en out of the town armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless; with two broken points; his horse hipped, with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred; besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose in the chine, troubled with the lampass, infected with the fashions, full of windgalls, sped with spavins, rayed with the yellows, past cure of the fives, stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten; near-legged before, and with a half-cheeked bit and a headstall of sheep’s leather which, being restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth six times pieced, and a woman’s crupper of velour, which hath two letters for her name fairly set down in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.[16]

This extended description of each detail of Petruchio’s bizarre wedding garments betrays the intentionality of the clothing. Petruchio has clearly carefully assembled this costume as a means by which to subvert the social order. Petruchio makes his unwillingness to conform to the social expectations of display of identity clear when he rebuts Baptista’s criticism of his clothing with a rejection of the relationship between identity and ostentation:

To me she’s married, not unto my clothes.

Could I repair what she will wear in me

As I can change these poor accoutrements,

‘Twere well for Kate and better for myself.[17]


Petruchio has both demonstrated his own scorn for social convention and the hierarchy it reinforces while subtly inviting Katherine into his game. As he made clear in his earlier fabricated description of his initial meeting with Katherine, Petruchio sees in her a worthy partner in his game of defiance of social convention:

‘Tis a world to see

How tame, when men and women are alone,

A meacock wretch can make the curstest shrew.[18]


Before they can become partners in this game, however, Petruchio must convince Katherine to join him by severing her own attachments to the accoutrements of the social order and transforming her passionate hatred for it into a scornful mockery of it. Clothing is again one of the most important tools applied by Petruchio to achieve this goal.

As Petruchio and Katherine prepare to return to Padua to visit her father, Petruchio calls for a tailor and a haberdasher, assuring Katherine,

We will return unto thy father’s house

And revel it as bravely as the best,

With silken coats and caps and golden rings,

With ruffs, and cuffs, and farthingales, and things

With scarves, and fans, and double change of brav’ry,

With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knav’ry.[19]


It is this none so subtle jab at the various fashion items which present their wearer as one of “the best,” itself revealing of Petruchio’s attitude toward ostentation, that sets the tone for the scene that ensues.

As the tailor and the haberdasher enter the stage, Petruchio turns to cast his scorn first upon the cap which the haberdasher has made for Katherine, exclaiming,

Why, this was molded on a porringer—

A velvet dish. Fie, fie, ‘tis lewd and filthy.

Why, ‘tis a cockle or a walnut shell,

A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby’s cap.

Away with it! Come, let me have a bigger.[20]


The words Petruchio chooses as he heaps his scorn upon the hat that has been presented to him are demonstrative of his attitude toward ostentation. It is, he says, a “knack,” which word Alexander Dyce defines in his General Glossary to Shakespeare’s Works as referring to “a bauble” or “a petty trifle.”[21] It is, in addition, “a toy” and “a trick,” says Petruchio. It is, in short, a deceitfully showy trinket. Yet, Petruchio, after hurling such insults on the cap, concludes by demanding one that is “bigger,” thereby compounding his mockery of ostentation by demanding a cap that is more conspicuous.

When Katherine briefly interjects that the cap “doth fit the time, / And gentlewomen wear such caps as these,” Petruchio launches again into a tirade of insults aimed at the cap, using terms with a similar implication of condemnation for ostentation.[22] “It is,” says Petruchio, “a paltry cap, / A custard-coffin, a bauble, a silken pie.”[23] It is, in short, an unnecessary and vain decoration. Petruchio concludes this second round of insults toward the cap with a subtle indication to Katherine to join him in his disdain for it and the ostentatious social order it represents, assuring her, “I love thee well in that thou lik’st it not.”[24]

Katherine, however, remains unswayed in her acceptance of the legitimacy of the system of social identity she despises, inducing Petruchio to turn his attention to the dress the tailor has made for Katherine. As with the cap, Petruchio immediately begins to insult it when it is presented to him, including within his insults several references to its use as an ornament of ostentation that hides one’s real identity behind a facade. He begins his derisive comments toward the tailor and the dress with an exclamation implying that the dress has been made for a masque, a form of entertainment popular among the wealthy of Elizabethan England in which participants hid their identities with a mask: “Oh, mercy, God, what masquing stuff is here?”[25] After adding several more insults, he then compares the dress “to a censer in a barber’s shop,”[26] which object Shakespeare scholar David Bevington describes as a “perfuming pan having an ornamental lid.”[27] The implication is that the dress is designed to hide the real identity of its wearer, which culminates in Petruchio’s accusation that the tailor “means to make a puppet” of Katherine.[28]

The scene concludes with a speech by Petruchio in which he makes clear his contempt of ostentation, his preference for honesty in identity, and his enjoyment of real wealth over the display of apparent wealth:

Well, come, my Kate. We will unto your father’s

Even in these honest, mean habiliments.

Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,

For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich;

And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,

So honor peereth in the meanest habit.

What, is the jay more precious than the lark

Because his feathers are more beautiful?

Or is the adder better than the eel

Because his painted skin contents the eye?

Oh, no, good Kate; neither art thou worse

For this poor furniture and mean array.

If thou account’st it shame, lay it on me.

And therefore frolic; we will hence forthwith,

To feast and sport us at thy father’s house.[29]


Petruchio refers to the more plain and simple clothing he intends to wear as “honest” in opposition to the lying cap and dress which he has rejected. Just as one bird is not shown to be “more precious” than another “because his feathers are more beautiful” nor one sea creature “better than the” other because his colors are more pleasing to see, Katherine is not shown to be less because she is wearing less ostentatious clothing. On the contrary, says Petruchio, “our purses shall be proud, our garments poor.” It is, then, the possession of real wealth, held within one’s purse, that is important, not the outward display of wealth and status through one’s clothing.

The induction of Katherine by Petruchio into his world of mockery of social convention reaches its climax when, along the journey to her father’s home, the two encounter the wealthy merchant Vincentio. Unaware of his identity, Petruchio induces Katherine to join him in reimagining Vincentio, a venerable elderly man, as a beautiful young maiden. Marianne L. Novy draws attention to the significance of Vincentio as the mutual target of Petruchio and Katherine:

Vincentio, as an old man, represents the class at the top of the social order within a patriarchal society, but when he is with Katherine and Petruchio his identity is temporarily within their power. . . . It is as if, in the new world of the game, ordinary social identities and inequalities are arbitrary and unimportant because other identities can so easily be assigned—anything can be its opposite.[30]

Vincentio will again be “mistaken” for something other than what he is when he finally makes his way into Padua and is accused by the Pedant, impersonating him, of impersonating himself. Shakespeare’s presentation of Vincentio twice as the subject of a “mistaken” identity which places Vincentio in a much lower social rank than his actual place in society highlights the questioning of the stability of the social order and the legitimacy of its means of display which has run throughout the entirety of the play.

[1] Novy, “Patriarchy and Play,” 18.

[2] The Taming of the Shrew, Ind.2.1.

[3] Ibid., Ind.2.103.

[4] Ibid., 2.1.341.

[5] Ibid., 2.1.364-365, 367-368, 376-378.

[6] Ibid., 2.1.371.

[7] Ibid., 4.2.90.

[8] Ibid., 5.1.22-23.

[9] Ibid., 5.1.68-71.

[10] Ibid., 5.1.72-73.

[11] Ibid., 1.2.53-57.

[12] Ibid., 1.2.188-190.

[13] Ibid., 2.1.68-69.

[14] Ibid., 1.2.92-95.

[15] Ibid., 2.1.321.

[16] Ibid., 3.2.43-62.

[17] Ibid., 3.2.117-120.

[18] Ibid., 2.1.309-311.

[19] Ibid., 4.3.53-58.

[20] Ibid., 4.3.64-68.

[21] Alexander Dyce, A General Glossary to Shakespeare’s Works, Volumes 1-2 (Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1904), s.v. “knack”.

[22] The Taming of the Shrew, 4.3.69-70.

[23] Ibid., 4.3.81-82.

[24] Ibid., 4.3.83.

[25] Ibid., 4.3.87.

[26] Ibid., 4.3.91.

[27] David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Seventh Edition (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 138.

[28] The Taming of the Shrew, 4.3.104.

[29] Ibid., 4.3.165-179.

[30] Novy, “Patriarchy and Play,” in Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations, 20.

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