The Taming of the Shrew | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Taming of the Shrew | Motifs



Music plays many roles in The Taming of the Shrew. In the Induction soft music signals Christopher Sly's transition from his old life as a tinker to his new life as a nobleman. The lord specifically orders his servants to "procure me music ready when [Sly] wakes," to complete the illusion created by the fancy clothes and rich food. Music is also a sign of sophistication and high culture. In Act 1, Scene 1, Tranio urges his master Lucentio not to neglect music, which will "quicken" him (i.e., enliven and energize him) for the rest of his studies. Later, Hortensio chooses to pose as a music teacher (and not a language tutor like Lucentio) in order to have the best shot at courting Bianca. Even the oafish Petruchio knows enough about music to describe wooing as a "dance" (Act 1, Scene 2).

Bianca and Katherine respond very differently to music, offering clues to their personalities. Bianca, gentle and mild-tempered, loves music so much that her father has arranged for private lessons. She grows bored with Hortensio's lesson, but not because she fails to pay attention. Rather, she wishes he would stop rehearsing the basics and move on to something more challenging. Katherine, on the other hand, has as little patience for music as she does for courtship. Hortensio has barely started teaching when she grabs the lute and bashes him over the head.

Hortensio's rhyming lesson in Act 3, Scene 2 is an extended pun on a medieval system known as the gamut, in which every note in the musical scale had a name. The system itself gets its name from gamma ut, which was the name for the bottom note of the scale (modern low G). This arrangement is the ancestor of modern solfège, the do-re-mi system used in choirs and classrooms.

Although it may seem unnecessarily complicated by today's standards, the gamut was common knowledge to educated Elizabethans. Thus, when Hortensio offers his poem to Bianca in Act 3, Scene 1, she protests, "I am past my gamut long ago." The gamut system is also the origin of the expression run the gamut, which means to cover the entire range of something. Bianca's suitors, for example, run the gamut from servants in disguise (Tranio) to elderly tycoons (Gremio).

Ships, Sailing, and Trade

Nautical imagery also recurs throughout The Taming of the Shrew. Since many of the play's characters are merchants or merchants' sons, allusions to maritime trade help to connect the activities of marriage and commerce. In one of his many vivid metaphors for the courtship process, Petruchio describes Katherine as a ship to be boarded (Act 1, Scene 2). This hints toward the forceful approach he will take in "taming" her after the wedding. Tranio, in his bidding war against Gremio, mentions "argosies," "galliasses," and "galleys," three kinds of merchant vessels that make up Vincentio's fleet. Later in Act 4, Scene 2, Tranio frightens the (unnamed) merchant with the false claim that his ships have been seized in Venice; if this were true, it would bring his trading activities to a grinding halt. This disturbing news helps to make the merchant more willing to cooperate with Tranio's plan. In the final act, once Lucentio and Bianca have eloped, Biondello wishes them "good shipping," figuratively turning marriage into a sea voyage.

In Shakespeare's time cities throughout Europe depended greatly on oceangoing trade for their prosperity. Some, such as Venice, were major commercial ports. Others, including Padua, lay inland but were still reliant on shipping to get their wares to foreign markets. For an individual merchant, a ship was an important investment, and the loss of a vessel could spell disaster. (In The Merchant of Venice, the delayed arrival of a ship becomes a matter of life and death.) When Tranio tallies up Vincentio's ships, he is not just showing off or trying to embarrass his rival Gremio. He is offering Bianca financial security in the present and the possibility of vast wealth in the future.

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