Meaning in Mad Attire

“Clothes,” Mark Twain once observed, “make the man.” Clothing indeed plays a pivotal role in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Servants, noblemen, widows, schoolgirls, merchants, musicians: the play is replete with disguises and costumes that are the stuff designers’ dreams are made on. Without a doubt the strangest garb of the play is swaggering Petruchio’s bridal wear. Petruchio has courted Katharine the Curst in a whirlwind of verbal insult and clever wordplay, promising to return on Sunday for the wedding of the century. Headstrong Katharine finds herself caught somewhere between “Over my dead body” and “I thought this day would never come”; but as Sunday dawns, she is ready—if somewhat unwilling—to wed. However, when Petruchio arrives, he is attired in such a way that the entire wedding party is scandalized. Shakespeare spends a full twenty lines describing the repugnance of Petruchio’s and his horse’s getups: mismatched, rusty, worn, moth-eaten, unfashionable, yellowed, and patched. (And let’s not forget gaudy—the horse is wearing velvet riding gear with Katharine’s initials in randomly placed studs. A sort of Elizabethan vanity plate–how sweet!) The servant Tranio is so embarrassed that he offers his own clothes to the indecorous Petruchio. To which the motley bridegroom roars, “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes.” Yes, Tranio, there is “some meaning in his mad attire.” It seems that Petruchio has bedecked himself in the ugliness of Katharine’s own soul, right there in the bedazzling daylight before God and these witnesses. His clothes are repulsive and garish, jaded and cumbersome. Katharine may not have at that moment recognized herself in Petruchio’s looking-glass. But she soon shall. Clothes have made the man; now they may make the woman. And so the taming begins.

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