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Animal Images in The Taming of the Shrew

Many authors, from Orwell in his famous satirical novel Animal Farm to Shaw in his play Candida, have used images of animals to convey character’s or, perhaps more accurately, man’s internal ideas, aspirations, goals, and actions. In the same way, William Shakespeare, in his comedy The Taming of the Shrew, uses animal references and images to, mostly, provide insight into the complicated balance created in and through the relationship of Petruccio and Katherine.

From the very first time that Katherine is introduced to Petruccio in the middle of Act II Scene 1 of The Shrew, the use of animal images to show the couple’s initial feelings of playful repulsion and capture become apparent. In a continuous one-hundred twenty-five line interaction between the two characters, references to animals are used constantly. Right from the start, Katherine refers to Petruccio as a “buzzard” to which he quickly retorts that as a buzzard, he will carry her away (2. 1. 204-205).

In the same interaction, Katherine warns Petruccio to be wary of her wasp-like sting to which he says he will pluck it out once he finds where it lies (2. 1. 208-214). This interaction and use of animals in the first scene of act two illustrates the beginning of Petruccio’s plan for the taming of his shrew. Petruccio continually opposes Kate in every way and praises her in abundance for the qualities that she is famous for lacking: “With gentle conference, soft, and affable, / Why does the world report that Kate doth limp? ” (2. 1. 244-245).

Kate tries out her wit on him, through describing him as a buzzard among other images, but Petruchio always tops her remarks with equal ones, and the dialogue becomes broad, bawdy, and full of quibbles allowing the audience, through the dialogue, use of images, and use of the language, to really understand the initial hopes of both Katherine and Petruccio. Perhaps the greatest use of animals to show human traits in The Shrew is in Petruccio and Katherine’s interaction at the end of Scene 1 in Act IV where Petruccio explains his method for taming his shrew of a wife.

In giving his explanation, Petruccio uses many terms and analogies to the sport of falconry. For instance, Kate, the falcon, who has gone without food for over two days, will not be fed until she flies to the decoy, or husband’s gift, as a trained falcon, or wife, should. In addition to using starvation as a training technique, Petruccio has also chosen to employ another method of obedience training – that of forced sleepiness. Young falcons that continually resist their masters are kept awake and forced to comply until their exhaustion causes their acceptance.

After already having kept his falcon, Katherine, from sleeping for the previous night, Petruccio vows to do so again that night until she, like the obedient falcon, accepts her master completely. One important thing about the art of falconry is that the bird must come to depend on its master, and the master must also be prepared to trust his bird, because when it flies away for the kill it is temporarily out of his control and will return only of its own want.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, once released from the falconer’s control, the falcon flies high to kill, and therefore takes more punishment and offers a greater challenge to the falconer, as Kate does to Petruccio. (Britannica). This additional knowledge continues to illustrate the relationship between Kate and Petruccio as well as Shakespeare’s mastery in the use of animal images. Petruccio’s entire treatment of Katherine, and especially during the time when he attempts to tame her, shows him as a loving partner who treats Katherine as one would treat a family pet.

In an anonymously-written play titled The Taming of a Shrew that was penned during the same time as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the treatment of Katherine as an animal by her husband is even more apparent and dramatic. Ferando, Katherine’s husband in A Shrew, tames Katherine by treating her like a crazy wild animal. For instance, he offers her meat impaled on the point of his dagger. This is something that Shakespeare’s Petruchio would never have done.

For even though Petruccio uses animal references to refer to Kate, he still even admits to trying to “kill a wife with kindness” (4. 1. 189). The simple interjections of animal images in a play that is about the conquering of a shrew are transformed into a looking glass that magnifies the relationship of Petruccio and Katherine through the mastery of Shakespeare’s poetic hand. As Nietzsche wrote “people are animals” and as Shakespeare proved, those animals are sometimes the best illustration of our actions, our dreams, our aspirations, and most importantly, a reflection of ourselves.

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