Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 1)

As a keen observer of and commentator upon psychology and human behavior, Shakespeare, naturally, also delved frequently into social criticism. Much of Shakespeare’s social criticism finds its focus in the rapidly changing class structures of Elizabethan England and the ways the members of those classes derived and displayed self-definition through membership in their respective classes. In The Taming of the Shrew in particular, Shakespeare engages in a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, critique of the establishment of identity through the ostentatious display of wealth in clothing styles and other decorations of the body. Inspired by the costumes of the theater and the ease with which an actor altered his displayed identity with each change of clothing, Shakespeare explores the gain and loss of both social identity and self-definition made possible by changes of apparel in all three plots of the play: the metamorphosis of Christopher Sly from beggar to lord in the induction, the subplot in which Tranio and Lucentio exchange identities so that the latter may win the love of Bianca, and the main plot in which Petruchio tames the shrewish Katherine through a series of exercises exhibiting defiance of Elizabethan social norms. Through this exploration of the centrality of ostentation to the establishment and maintenance of identity, Shakespeare calls into question the solidity and stability of the social order as well as offering an admonitory commentary on the obsessive ostentation of the wealthy. In so doing, Shakespeare offers an apparent reaffirmation of the belief in the permanence of the hierarchical structure of Elizabethan society while subtly casting doubt on the entire structure.

The clothing style and items worn by a person was one of the most obvious marks of that person’s social status. The wealthier and the more ostensibly important a person was, the more ostentatious their clothing and accessories became as an exhibition of that wealth and importance. According to Amanda Bailey, an expert in Shakespeare at the University of Maryland, Queen “Elizabeth possessed over three thousand dresses the year she died. Clothes were important to the queen and not merely because she had a passion for them. Apparel was one of the primary means through which she realized her authority.”[1] In addition, says Bailey, “while Elizabeth’s clothing symbolized her majesty, the clothes of her subjects signaled their various social positions.”[2]

So readily recognizable was the dress of each of the various classes of Elizabethan English society that “along with establishing a character’s gender,” says Robert I. Lublin, a historian of theater, “the most immediate and important function costume served on the Shakespearean stage was to assert the wearer’s social status in the highly stratified dramatic world of the performance.”[3] The audience immediately ascertained the social status and occupation of any character who entered the stage based upon the clothes worn by the actor because it was the sort of clothing they saw worn by the various members of the society around them.

The use of clothing to project social status became particularly important during the Elizabethan Era due to increasing social mobility, both upward and downward. The “excruciating concern with status” characteristic of the Elizabethan Age, “the anguished self-consciousness, the necessity to define one’s position, was rendered all the more acute by the rise of the gentry,” writes historian and Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse in his multivolume study of The Elizabethan Renaissance.[4]  In addition to this increased possibility of upward mobility, the Elizabethan Age also saw an increase in the possibility of downward mobility, with many of the heirs of the nobles of earlier times being forced to take up various employments due to the necessity imposed upon them by their decreasing wealth.[5] Such decreases in wealth and the taking up of occupations requiring labor were, of course, accompanied by the diminishment of social status. The nouveau riche, meanwhile, clamored after the means by which to establish and display the increase of status acquired through their new wealth. There was, for example, says Rowse, a “pedigree craze” in which the new gentry sought to equip their families with coats of arms.[6]

One of the most immediate means by which members of this newly socially mobile society attempted to display their status was the taking up of the clothing of their new caste. Clothing which distinguished its wearer as a man or woman of importance became increasingly ostentatious throughout the Elizabethan Age. “It was,” say historians Ann Rosalind and Peter Stallybrass in their treatment of clothing during the Renaissance, “in the late sixteenth century that the word ‘fashion’ first took on the sense of restless change” in styles of clothing.[7] Previously, the word “fashion,” derived from the Latin facio, meaning “to make,” had referred to the production of artists and artisans, “the act of making.”[8] As individuals were increasingly able to fashion, or make, themselves into something new through changes in occupation and social status, fashion in clothing became a central means by which to mark one’s body according to one’s new station and so publicly proclaim that station. According to Rowse,

Costume clearly reflected not only class and rank, but also profession — the clerical and academic, legal and mercantile. . . . In those days the expression of class-status in one’s costume was regulated by statute, though there must have been wide margins of divergence. Middle-class women were not supposed to dress in velvets, except for sleeves; blue was the colour of servants, so the upper classes forwent that delightful colour. Peasantry and working people wore serges and fustians of drab, natural colours, like themselves. . . . In general we may say that the grand costume of the leading classes, nobility and gentry, was immensely rich and exhibitionist, conspicuous and competent, artificial, addicted to hard, brilliant colours. There was much use of black, but that served as a background to bring out other hues. Renaissance society was extravagant and extrovert, so was the costume.[9]

The word “fashion” also began at this time, however, to take on “the sense of mere form or pretence” as well as connotations of something “counterfeit or pervert[ed].”[10] Just as the gentry attempted to establish a fictitious nobility of their lineage through the acquisition of a coat of arms for their family, the wearer of ostentatious and fashionable clothing was presenting himself according to a status greater than that allotted to him by birth. He was, implicitly, calling into question the whole of the Elizabethan social order, with all of its strict codes of conduct and rigid hierarchies, including the traditional passage of occupation and status from parent to child.

While this clash between the increased social mobility and a traditional hierarchal world picture consumed Elizabethan society, it also found a central place on the Elizabethan stage. Drawing upon the work of G. K. Hunter, Lublin summarizes, “the early modern stage engaged individuals first and foremost as expressions of their social rank.”[11] This was accomplished, says Lublin, primarily through costuming. “Without recourse to dialogue,” Lublin writes, “the characters established their identity onstage immediately and almost entirely from the apparel they wore.”[12] Even for those characters with substantial amounts of dialogue, “dialogue did not serve to constitute otherwise blank identities, but rather to modify the identities posited by their social station as it had been established by their apparel and understood by virtue of the sumptuary legislation of the period.”[13] Because of the importance of clothing to the establishment of the status and occupation of the character, acting troupes like that of Shakespeare were willing to spend large sums to ensure the authenticity and accuracy of the clothing worn on stage.

This importance of costume to character became a central comedic motif in the early works of Shakespeare and continued to play a substantial role through his career as a playwright. Shakespeare includes, for example, a number of comedic references to the practice of dressing boys up as women to play female parts due to laws which prohibited stage performances by women, as in Cleopatra’s lament shortly before her suicide in Antony and Cleopatra that in the future she

shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ the posture of a whore.[14]

The simultaneously pitiful and comedic effect of the statement was surely obvious to a crowd who was watching just such a boy-actor dressed as Cleopatra “squeaking” these very words.

As You Like It features what is perhaps the greatest example of the comedic uses to which Shakespeare could put the issues of gender raised by his crossdressing boy-actors. There, the boy playing Rosalind, a female character, dresses up as and pretends to be a male character, Ganymede, who, in turn, pretends to be Rosalind. This complicated multilayering of identity as it relates to gender and the display of identity through costume is at once both humorous and intriguing.

[1] Amanda Bailey, “‘Monstrous Manner’: Style and the Early Modern Theater,” Criticism 43, no. 3 (2001): 249, doi:10.1353/crt.2001.0023.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert I. Lublin, Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 41.

[4] A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 86.

[5] Ibid., 123.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ann Rosalind and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1.

[8] Ibid., 1-2.

[9] A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Cultural Achievement (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 200-201.

[10] Rosalind and Stallybrass, 1.

[11] Lublin, 43.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.

The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 7)

Various interpreters and commentators have offered a diversity of opinions on the final scene of the play. David Bevington, a Shakespeare scholar the University of Chicago, describes the great variety of recent stage renditions of Katherine’s final monologue in his introduction to The Taming of the Shrew in the edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare which he edited:

Kate emerges in various stage productions as more or less contented, or as simply resigned, or as cruelly brainwashed, or as only playing the role of obedient wife to get what she wants.[1]

None of this, however, seems necessary in the light of Shakespeare’s use of the creation narrative of a subtext for the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine. It is quite possible, indeed much more likely, that both Katherine and Petruchio are quite happy in the relationship that they have established for themselves, a relationship that entails a mutuality of wills and a shared mastery over the world around them. Sly is the foil to Petruchio and Bianca and Hortensio’s Widow are the foils to Katherine specifically because each of them remains apart from their respective partners. Each refuses to understand and identify with his or her spouse. Katherine and Petruchio, on the other hand, have merged themselves into a marriage of perfect harmony in which neither has lost anything but each has gained the other.

[1] Bevington, Complete Works, 110.

The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 6)

When Katherine and Petruchio finally meet, their initial dialogue is a hilarious exchange of insults and innuendo which incorporates language about the creation of men and women:


Why, what’s a movable?


A joint stool.


Thou hast hit it. Come, sit on me.


Asses are made to bear, and so are you.


Women are made to bear, and so are you.


No such jade as you, if me you mean.

In this and the other barbs they exchange, both Petruchio and Katherine attempt to force each other into submission. Katherine compares Petruchio to inanimate objects (“a joint stool”) and animals (“asses” and a “jade,” which David Bevington identifies as “an ill-conditioned horse”).[1] In so doing, she is attempting to establish mastery over him like the mastery she has over other objects and animals, as well as other men, whom she treats as objects and animals. Petruchio responds by reminding her of the expectations of women in Elizabethan society to “bear” their husbands and, subsequently, to “bear” children. To this she responds with her usual rebuffs against such expectations. As the two go round with each other, each discovers in the other an equal match, the first which either of them have encountered, though neither of them is willing yet to acknowledge it. When Baptista and the other men return, Petruchio proclaims to them that “‘tis incredible to believe / How much she loves me.”[2] While it is tempting to reject this as a lie by Petruchio, especially given that much of what follows in the same statement is clearly false and Kate attempts to protest at such statements by Petruchio, Harold Bloom offers the best explanation for what has occurred: “the swaggering Petruchio provokes a double reaction in her: outwardly furious, inwardly smitten.”[3]

Indeed, this is the only explanation which can take into account Katherine’s behavior in the scene in which she next appears, waiting outside of the church for a very late Petruchio to arrive to their wedding. After worrying aloud, in a monologue that is remarkably uncharacteristic of a shrew, what people will think of her now that Petruchio has apparently abandoned her, Katherine exclaims, “Would Katharine had never seen him, though!,” followed by the stage direction “Exit weeping.”[4]

Petruchio does at last arrive and the marriage ceremony is completed, all in a manner that is consistent with the abrupt and over-the-top personality of Petruchio. As the wedding guests begin to make their way to the banquet following the ceremony, Shakespeare once again delves into explicit biblical commentary, taking up the opportunity to satirize a too-literal reading of the Tenth Commandment. Petruchio prevents Katherine from going with the guests to the wedding banquet, declaring,

I will be master of what is my own.

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,

My household stuff, my field, my barn,

My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;

And here she stands, touch her whoever dare.[5]

The scene is typical of the Petruchio’s outrageousness, yet serves a practical purpose. Petruchio here binds Katherine to himself, making her “bone of my bones / and flesh of my flesh,” in the words of Adam in Genesis, by separating her from her father and the rest of those of her household and hometown. As Petruchio continues, he presents himself as the rescuer and defender of Katherine against her family:

I’ll bring mine action on the proudest he

That stops my way in Padua.—Grumio,

We are beset with thieves.

Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man.—

Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate!

I’ll buckler thee against a million.[6]

As Marion D. Perret writes in her “Petruchio: The Model Wife,” “since protecting his wife is a man’s duty, this exaggeratedly masculine role, uncalled for by the immediate situation, acts as a public declaration that Petruchio will do his duty as a husband.”[7] This “brilliant stroke” then “forces Kate into the traditional feminine role.”[8]

The remainder of Katherine’s “taming” once she enters into Petruchio’s home is taken up by a series of scenes in which Petruchio implicitly questions her trespasses of his prerogatives by trespassing into territory traditionally assigned to the woman of the household. Upon, entering the house, for example, Petruchio, ordering about the servants, demands them to bring food. In so doing, Petruchio usurps Katherine’s wifely prerogatives of household management and food preparation, a point he drives home by asking her, once the food has been presented, “will you give thanks, sweet Kate, or else shall I?”[9] As it was the husband’s duty to say the grace before meals, Petruchio is subtly asking Katherine whether she will continue in her former shrewish ways in his household by usurping his authority in the same manner that he has here usurped those tasks which would otherwise be under her dominion.

Petruchio again usurps Katherine’s prerogatives when a haberdasher and a tailor come to present them with new clothing for a journey back to Padua to visit Katherine’s father. While buying clothing would rightfully have been within the purview of the wife, Petruchio takes it upon himself to choose even Katherine’s clothing for her. This usurpation is driven home by Grumio’s intentional misunderstanding of Petruchio’s words as Petruchio rejects the dress the tailor has brought for Katherine to wear:


Well, sir, in brief, the gown is not for me.


You are i’the right, sir, ‘tis for my mistress.


Go, take it up unto thy master’s use.


Villain, not for thy life! Take up my mistress’ gown for thy master’s use!


Why sir, what’s your conceit in that?


Oh, sir, the conceit is deeper than you think for:

Take up my mistress’ gown to his master’s use!

Oh, fie, fie, fie![10]

The repetition of this bawdy double entendre by Grumio emphasizes Petruchio’s overstepping of the traditional role of a husband in his taking up himself of the roles that would more commonly be assigned to the wife.

The “taming” of Katherine reaches its climax along the road from Petruchio’s house back to her father’s house in Padua. It is here that the wills of Petruchio and Katherine finally come into sync and with the establishment of marital harmony there is a culmination in the process of creation of cosmos out of chaos which Shakespeare has been depicting. The scene begins, like Genesis, with an invocation of God and a declaration of the existence of light by Petruchio:

Come on, i’God’s name, once more toward our father’s.

Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon![11]

The brief debate that ensues from Petruchio’s declaration offers a short satire upon the debate over the source of the light created on the first day, according to Genesis 1:3-5, as the sun and the moon were created on the fourth day, according to Genesis 1:14-19:


The moon? The sun. It is not moonlight now.


I say it is the moon that shines so bright.


I know it is the sun that shines so bright.[12]

Petruchio, apparently exasperated with Katherine’s continued contrariness at last tells her that unless she agrees with him he will turn the party around and go back to his home rather than continuing on to her father’s house.

In a moment of sudden insight, however, Katherine realizes the game that Petruchio has been playing all along. Throughout their relationship, he has continuously attempted to forge a bond with her through a shared mastery over the norms of the society around them. In this instance, as Katherine realizes, he has turned their shared ability to stand above these social impositions upon nature itself. At last, she responds,

Then, God be blessed, it is the blessed sun.

But sun it is not, when you say it is not,

And the moon changes even as your mind.

What you will have it named, even that it is,

And so it shall be so for Katherine.[13]

As Katherine’s will finally comes into sync with Petruchio’s, the process of new creation reaches its completion, a point made by Shakespeare with the arrival of Vincentio. Petruchio conspires with Katherine to pretend that Vincentio, an elderly man, is a “young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet.”[14] As Katherine explains to the perplexed Vincentio at the completion of the trick,

Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes,

That have been so bedazzled with the sun

That everything I look on seemeth green.[15]

Indeed, for Katherine and Petruchio, everything in the world is “green,” or new, in their new creation.

It is with the kiss between Petruchio and Katherine in the following scene that the process of new creation finally comes to a close. Standing outside of Katherine’s father’s house in Padua, Petruchio entreats his wife for a kiss. At first, she is hesitant, but finally relents.


First kiss me, Kate, and we will.


What, in the midst of the street?


What, art thou ashamed of me?


No, sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss.


Why, then let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.


Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.

Like the primeval couple in the Garden, “the man and his wife were both naked” in their display of their love to the sight of the world, “and were not ashamed.”[16]

[1] David Bevington, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 7th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 125.

[2] Ibid., 2.1.304-305.

[3] Bloom, Shakespeare, 29.

[4] The Taming of the Shrew, 3.2.26.

[5] Ibid., 3.2.229-233.

[6] Ibid., 3.2.234-239.

[7] Marion D. Perret, “Petruchio: The Model Wife,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23, no. 2 (Spring, 1983): 231.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.147.

[10] Ibid., 4.3.151-159.

[11] Ibid., 4.5.1-2.

[12] Ibid., 4.5.3-5.

[13] Ibid., 4.5.18-22.

[14] Ibid., 4.5.36.

[15] Ibid., 4.5.44-46.

[16] Gn. 2:25.

The Taming of the Shrew and Biblical Commentary (part 5)

The same is true of Petruchio, who enters for the first time in the following scene in the midst of giving orders to his servant Grumio. When Grumio misunderstands Petruchio’s orders, Petruchio immediately turns to threats of violence, warning Grumio that he will “knock your knave’s pate,” and finally to actual violence as he grabs Grumo and “wrings him by the ears.”[1] From the moment he enters the stage, then, Petruchio is violent, abrupt, and pompous. As Kahn accurately describes him,

he evokes and creates noise and violence. A hubbub of loud speech, beatings, and quarrelsomeness surrounds him. “The swelling Adriatic seas” and “thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” are a familiar part of his experience, which he easily masters with his own force of will and physical strength. Like Adam, he is lord over nature, and his own violence has been well legitimized by society, unlike Kate’s, which has marked her as unnatural and abhorrent.[2]

Importantly, however, Petruchio is Adam before the creation of Eve, the Adam about whom God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”[3] Petruchio is alone because he has not yet met his match. Petruchio’s violence and pomposity are not presented as positive characteristics.

Petruchio’s violence is certainly more socially acceptable than Katherine’s, as when he describes the sounds and sights of battle:

Have I not in my time heard lions roar?

Have I not heard the sea, puffed up with winds,

Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?

Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,

And heaven’s artillery thunder in the skies?

Have I not in a pitched battle heard

Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets clang?[4]

In spite of the greater social acceptance of Petruchio’s state-sanctioned violence, however, he is nonetheless an outsider because of it. As Gremio, the elderly suitor of Bianca, comments beforehand on Petruchio’s plan to woo Katherine, “such a life with such a wife were strange.”[5] When Petruchio, with his usual abruptness, approaches Katherine’s father Baptista to inquire about Katherine, Gremio warns him, “You are too blunt. Go to it orderly.”[6] Petruchio, then, like Kate, lacks orderliness. He is, like her, an embodiment of the primeval chaos that pervaded existence before the creation.

[1] The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.12, 17.

[2] Kahn, 92.

[3] Genesis 2:18, ESV.

[4] The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.198-204.

[5] Ibid., 1.2.191.

[6] Ibid., 2.1.45.