The Taming of the Shrew | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Taming of the Shrew | Themes


Disguise and Deception

Tricks and disguises abound in The Taming of the Shrew. Three out of Bianca's four suitors employ some kind of disguise, either to get close to her or to fool her father. Lucentio and Hortensio both masquerade as tutors, and their ruse fools not only Baptista Minola but also their rival Gremio. Tranio not only impersonates Lucentio, but tricks a merchant into posing as Lucentio's father, leading to a confusing and emotional recognition scene in Act 5. Gremio, Bianca's remaining suitor, does not wear a disguise, but has tricks of his own. He hires Lucentio to teach Bianca literature, but wants him to teach her only love poetry and to speak favorably of him.

Petruchio's "taming" of Katherine makes use of a different, crueler sort of trickery: false promises he has no intention of keeping. From their first meeting onward, Petruchio dangles before Katherine the promise of a lavish lifestyle, full of "rings, and things, and fine array." These luxuries seldom materialize, and when they do, Petruchio snatches them away before Katherine can enjoy them. Even though she sees through Petruchio's behavior, Katherine is gradually worn down by her inability to trust her "madcap" husband.

Gender Roles

There's no getting around it: The Taming of the Shrew reflects—and maybe even celebrates—the widespread sexism of its time. The central premise of the play is that a woman who is too assertive, argumentative, or uncooperative needs and deserves to be "tamed." Some scholars have argued that this theme is presented in jest, and Katherine's closing monologue should be read sarcastically. Still, neither Petruchio's friends nor his father-in-law speak out too strongly against his actions. To them, apparently, the "taming" experiment is acceptable in principle, even if Petruchio carries it too far.

Shakespeare, it might be argued, is not endorsing this viewpoint, but merely presenting the way things were, or commenting on an unfortunate social reality. In Shakespeare's later plays, characters as misogynistic as Petruchio tend to be either villains or tragically misguided heroes. In Cymbeline the Italian merchant Iachimo is so convinced of women's infidelity that he sets out to ruin the reputation of Imogen, a woman faithful to her husband. Posthumus Leonatus readily believes the rumors about his wife and vows to kill her, but he repents before the end of the play. Iago in Othello is another woman-hater who manufactures a scandal, this time with fatal consequences. Othello, too easily turned against his wife, murders her and then kills himself.

The Taming of the Shrew, however, is a comedy, and it ends with a celebration, not a funeral. For Petruchio, the play's ending is definitely a happy one. He "come[s] to wive it wealthily in Padua," and he achieves his goal by marrying into one of Padua's richest families. In the world of the play, marriage is a property arrangement between husbands and fathers-in-law, a kind of game which Petruchio clearly wins. Katherine, married against her will to a tyrannical husband, is almost certainly the loser. Moreover, Petruchio wins precisely because of his willingness to treat Katherine like an animal to be domesticated. In one monologue Petruchio even justifies his behavior by reframing it as a good example for other men to follow: "He that knows better how to tame a shrew,/Now let him speak; 'tis charity to shew."

Nor is Petruchio the only character who thinks this way. His male companions cheer him on, since they are relying on his success for their chance to woo Bianca. Tranio, usually a sympathetic character, speaks with admiration of Petruchio's "taming school/... That teacheth tricks eleven and twenty long/To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue." Even the father-in-law is in on the act: in the final scene, Baptista Minola is overjoyed that Katherine has been "tamed" and offers Petruchio an additional 20,000 crowns on top of the dowry.

By the end of the play, Katherine is so thoroughly changed that she gives a lecture on wifely obedience to the other women at the wedding. Although these women are not as shrewish as Katherine once was, they show some definite sparks of resistance to the idea of being "tamed." In Act 3, Scene 1, when Hortensio and Lucentio are fighting over who gets to tutor Bianca first, she speaks up for herself: "I am no breeching scholar in the schools./I'll not be tied to hours, nor 'pointed times,/But learn my lessons as I please myself." Later, she calls her husband a "fool" for assuming she will drop everything and come when called. The Widow, Hortensio's wife, likewise refuses to participate in the obedience contest in the final scene. She suspects—correctly, as it turns out—that her husband is engaged in some kind of frivolous game.

Wealth Conquers All

It's no surprise that a play about a fortune-hunting suitor would be filled with images of gold and jewels. In fact, these images are used to describe all types of desire, from romantic love to greed. For Petruchio the only wealth worth pursuing is the literal, physical kind. When Hortensio points out all of Katherine's bad qualities, Grumio tells him not to worry: as long as "gold enough" is involved, Petruchio will be happy to marry "a puppet or an aglet-baby," i.e., a small carved figurine. Petruchio himself scoffs at Hortensio's warnings: "Hortensio, peace. Thou know'st not gold's effect." Later on, Petruchio taunts his wife with the promise of "golden rings," though it seems unlikely that he would actually spend money on costly gifts for her.

Baptista Minola is almost as money-minded as Petruchio. He treats his daughters' suitors like contractors bidding to complete a job, and he offers Petruchio a bonus payment for taming Katherine so well. Gremio is well aware of Baptista's materialistic worldview. Instead of donning a disguise and hoping to win Bianca's heart directly, he plans on impressing Baptista with a huge dowry. In Act 2, Scene 1, Gremio gives a lavish description of his home in Padua, which is adorned with all kinds of gold and silver furnishings. He even alludes to his own advanced age, hinting that Bianca will inherit her dower much sooner than if she marries a younger man. Tranio, who is bidding on behalf of his master Lucentio, goes directly to the heart of the matter. He names the exact sum, in ducats, that Bianca will receive if she marries him.

Hortensio, Bianca's other suitor, seems a little more idealistic at first. He uses wealth imagery to express his admiration for Bianca's intelligence, personality, and physical beauty. It's worth remembering that Bianca is the younger sister, so her dowry is not likely to be as great as Katherine's. Nonetheless, Hortensio regards Bianca as a "treasure" and "the jewel of my life," likening Baptista Minola's house to a castle in which such a treasure might be guarded. But Hortensio's high-minded notions of love do not survive the play. When he spies Bianca kissing Lucentio, he immediately loses interest in her and chases after a rich widow instead.

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