The Taming of the Shrew | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Taming of the Shrew | Symbols

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Petruchio's Horse

As part of his plan to humiliate Katherine, Petruchio makes sure to arrive late to his own wedding. When he is finally spotted on the road to Baptista Minola's house, his outrageous clothes are the first topic of discussion. Even more remarkable, however, is the horse Petruchio has ridden into town. Petruchio's steed is never seen onstage, but Biondello describes it in grotesque detail as a weak, disfigured creature barely able to walk, let alone carry a rider. He reports that the horse is afflicted by an improbably long list of diseases, including the "bots" (maggots that infest the skin) and the "spavins" (swollen leg joints). This horse is the equivalent of a car with two flat tires, no muffler, and mismatched doors taken from the junkyard.

Clearly, Petruchio does not just happen to have a diseased, broken-down horse waiting in his stable. Instead, he goes out of his way to find the worst horse possible. This gesture reflects Petruchio's cavalier attitude toward his bride, his friends, and his future father-in-law. In his quest to "tame" Katherine, Petruchio is willing to make himself look ridiculous, even clownish.

The Dress

Petruchio begins his campaign against Katherine the moment he meets her. His plan, as he tells the audience in Act 3, Scene 1, is to contradict Katherine at every turn, praising her for virtues she does not have. In Act 4, he steps up his game by pretending nothing is good enough for his precious Katherine. He brings in food and then takes it away, claiming it is not dainty enough for her refined palate. Later, he refuses to let Katherine sleep because the pillows and bedsheets are not arranged correctly.

This absurd behavior reaches its climax in Act 4, Scene 3 when Petruchio has a tailor bring in a costly gown, cut in the latest style. Just as Petruchio expects, Katherine absolutely adores the dress: "I never saw a better-fashioned gown," she declares, "more quaint, more pleasing, nor more commendable." He then proceeds to find fault with the way the sleeves are cut. In fact, he throws an absolute fit, berating the tailor as a "flea" and a "nit" and threatening him with physical violence. When the tailor realizes he will not be able to collect payment for the gown, he packs it up and quickly leaves the house.

The dress, which Katherine loves but cannot have, is a visible symbol of how cruel Petruchio has become. By fixating on a small detail, he has managed to turn an ordinary meeting into an upsetting spectacle, all while denying Katherine something she clearly desires. Katherine is already hungry and sleep-deprived when the scene begins, but after Petruchio's argument with the tailor, she understands there is no hope of reasoning with him.

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