The Taming of the Shrew


William Shakespeare

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The Taming of the Shrew: Allusions 7 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Induction, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Classical References:

In the following excerpt from Scene 2 of the Induction, the English lord's household staff attempt to deceive Christopher Sly into believing he is actually a nobleman, as opposed to a poor beggar. They offer to bring artwork before him, alluding to several figures of Classical antiquity that may feature in the paintings.

SECOND SERVINGMAN: Dost thou love pictures? We will fetch thee straight
Adonis painted by a running brook,
And Cytherea all in sedges hid,
Which seem to move and wanton with her breath,
Even as the waving sedges play with wind.

Both Adonis and Cytherea are figures connected to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love in Greek mythology. Adonis, described as being unnaturally beautiful, was a favorite of Aphrodite's. Cytherea, according to legend, is a Greek island that served as the birthplace of Aphrodite. Her connection to this island led some to call her Cytherea.

These Aphrodite-adjacent classical references place emphasis on the beauty-by-association of the paintings in this scene. To convince Sly that he is truly a nobleman, the English lord and his household staff present him with beautiful objects. They must present him with items of such beauty that they juxtapose anything Sly might have encountered before.

Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Minerva:

In Act 1, Scene 1, the audience is introduced to Baptista and his two daughters, Katherine and Bianca. While Katherine is unpleasant and standoffish, the observing men view Baptista as an ideal woman. After Bianca states that she will go inside and attend to her studies, as her father wishes, Lucentio praises her through allusion:

BIANCA: Sister, content you in my discontent. —
Sir, to your pleasure I humbly subscribe.
My books and instruments shall be my company,
On them to look and practice by myself.

LUCENTIO [aside to Tranio]: Hark, Tranio, thou mayst hear Minerva speak!

Minerva is the Roman name for the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena. Lucentio's allusion, comparing Minerva to Bianca, bears a range of implications. The activities Bianca describes primarily concern intellectual and artistic pursuits, two things commonly associated with Minerva/Athena. Lucentio remarks on this; however, his comment may also be intended to signal that he views her choice to obey her father as a wise one. Either way, Bianca presents herself as both intelligent and obedient, the latter in direct and deliberate contrast to her older sister. Just like her suitors, Bianca cultivates and tends to her public image, working hard to offer herself up as a palatable alternative to Katherine.

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Explanation and Analysis—Europa:

In Act 1, Scene 1, Lucentio waxes eloquent about Bianca's beauty, combining allusions and similes to properly convey his appreciation:

LUCENTIO: O yes, I saw sweet beauty in her face,
Such as the daughter of Agenor had,
That made great Jove to humble him to her hand
When with his knees he kissed the Cretan strand.

In this passage, Lucentio compares Bianca to the "daughter of Agenor," which is an allusion to the figure of Europa, the daughter of King Agenor of Phoenicia in Greek mythology. As the legend goes, Europa was so beautiful she inspired the love of the god Zeus ("Jove," as Shakespeare calls him in the above excerpt). According to legend, Europa gave birth to King Minos of Crete, the man responsible for creating a labyrinth and trapping the Minotaur inside. 

By likening Bianca to Europa, Lucentio inadvertently positions himself as a Zeus-like figure: the king of the gods, descending from Mount Olympus to bed any mortal woman he wishes. Again, this reads as the innocent entitlement of youth. Lucentio desires Bianca; and, like a god, he feels that this desire entitles him to descend from on high and claim her as his bride. This youthful folly robs him of the discernment needed to see Bianca as she is, as opposed to the persona she projects.

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Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Petruchio's Needs:

In Act 1, Scene 2, Petruchio explains that his primary marital concern is money. He emphasizes this point by pairing multiple similes and allusions, comparing his theoretical wife to several less-than-desirable characters from classical antiquity only to state that nothing else matters as long as she has money:

PETRUCHIO: Signior Hortensio, ’twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice. And therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife,
As wealth is burden of my wooing dance,
Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates' Xanthippe, or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes at least
Affection’s edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas.
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.

Petruchio alludes to Xanthippe, a woman who lived in ancient Athens and who was Socrates's wife. According to some records, Xanthippe behaved in a "shrew"-like manner towards Socrates, hounding and abusing him. The Sibyls, to whom Petruchio also alludes, were ancient and wise oracles who featured principally in Greek mythology. The combination of these two allusions paint an imagined Katherine as shrewish and old. Petruchio further extends this image, using simile to compare Kate's affection to the "swelling Adriatic seas." Neither Kate's rough, sea-like temperament nor her theoretical age or disposition could dissuade Petruchio from marrying her given the right price tag. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Helen of Troy:

In Act 1, Scene 2, Tranio (under the guise of Lucentio) discusses his courtship of Bianca with several of the other men. Tranio tries to compare his lady love to the most desirable object he can think of. To do so, he utilizes both allusion and hyperbole:

TRANIO: [as Lucentio] She may more suitors have, and me for one.
Fair Leda’s daughter had a thousand wooers;
Then well one more may fair Bianca have.
And so she shall. Lucentio shall make one,
Though Paris came in hope to speed alone.

The phrase "Leda's daughter" is an allusion to Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world (in Greek mythology). She was so beautiful that her kidnapping resulted in the Trojan War. Tranio makes this allusion to emphasize Bianca's beauty, claiming that she will have even more suitors than Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman that Tranio can think of. Obviously, such a comparison is hyperbolic: Bianca may indeed be beautiful, but she's certainly not powerful enough to start a war. This form of elevation—placing Bianca on a pedestal, as it were—effectively turns Bianca into an object that Tranio can obsess over and, more importantly in the context of the play, possess.

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Explanation and Analysis—Hercules:

In Act 1, Scene 2, Gremio speaks with Petruchio about his intent to court Katherine. In the course of this conversation, Gremio alludes to Greek mythology in an attempt to illustrate the difficult task ahead:

PETRUCHIO: Sir, sir, the first’s for me; let her go by.
GREMIO: Yea, leave that labor to great Hercules,
And let it be more than Alcides’ twelve.

This passage alludes to Hercules and the 12 heroic tasks set out by Alcides that he was forced to complete. These tasks were notoriously difficult, ranging from slaying the nine-headed Hydra to stealing cattle from a three-bodied giant. At the time of their completion, Hercules was the only person ever to have attempted these tasks and succeeded. When Gremio chooses to compare Petruchio's courtship of Kate to the twelve Herculean tasks, the metaphor is twofold. Petruchio's labors of love will perhaps constitute the first and only time any man seriously pursues Kate. Out of all the potential suitors, Petruchio possesses the unique talents required to succeed in his endeavor, just like Hercules. Gremio quite clearly alludes not only to Petruchio's singular capability, but to the unique challenge(s) ahead: if Petruchio is Hercules, then Kate is all 12 of his Herculean tasks.

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Act 2, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Diana:

In Act 2, Scene 1, Petruchio admires Kate from afar, utilizing allusion to compare her to an ancient goddess:

PETRUCHIO: Did ever Dian so become a grove
As Kate this chamber with her princely gait?
Oh, be thou Dian, and let her be Kate,
And then let Kate be chaste and Dian sportful.

"Dian" here is an allusion to the goddess Diana, who serves as the Roman equivalent to the Greek goddess Artemis. Diana is considered the goddess of nature, the hunt, and crossroads, among other things. Petruchio compares Kate to Diana through metaphor; in doing so, he places his future wife on a kind of pedestal. In his eyes, she very nearly eclipses the goddess he compares her to.

It is worth noting that elevating a person to god-like status comes with certain interpersonal complications. Although comparing someone to a goddess is flattering, it also threatens to put that person in a box of sorts—in other words, Kate must live up to Petruchio's extremely high standards. Over the course of the play, Petruchio's view of Kate loses its rosy tint, and he ceases to revere her as otherworldly. She, like him, is a human being with the capacity for complex growth and change.

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