Animal imagery and falconry

Attitudes to animals

The Taming of the Shrew has two dominant animal images – that of the shrew (a small but fierce and vocal mammal) and the falcon. The image of the shrew was used from Medieval times onwards as a byword for an unpleasantly dominant female. Modern sensibilities can find problematic instances where people are described as animals or compared to animals. 
Line drawing of a shrewAnimals that were of worth for their hunting or domestic work were highly valued and carefully looked after in Elizabethan society, as is seen in the way the Lord takes good care of his hunting dogs, saying of Silver when he is taken off stage to be looked after: ‘I would not lose the dog for twenty pound’. It is telling that he does not place quite so much value on Sly and has him taken off for a much less charitable purpose. 

Combative animal references

Much of the animal imagery is sustained as Petruchio woos Katherina by engaging her in a battle of wits:
Petruchio:  O slow-winged turtle, shall a buzzard take thee? 
Katherina:  Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard. 
Petruchio:  Come, come, you wasp! I'faith you are too angry. 
Katherina:  If I be waspish, best beware my sting. 
Petruchio:  My remedy is then to pluck it out. 
Katherina:  Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies. 
Petruchio:  Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? 
In his tail. 
Katherina:  In his tongue. 
Petruchio:  Whose tongue? 
Katherina:  Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
Act 2 Scene 1    

Falconry techniques

Petruchio’s soliloquy at the end of Act 4 Scene 1 illuminates how he is applying the methods employed by a falconer in his ‘taming’ of Katherina. Modern sensibilities are often disturbed by seeing Katherina described as a hawk which needs to be tamed, a grown woman subjected to the same taming process as a wild bird. 
In falconry, the aim is to make a wild bird lose its autonomy. By careful regulation of the hawk’s appetites, such as for food and sleep, and by ‘sealing’ its eyes so that it is blind for a time, the bird comes to depend totally on its handler to survive. Yet once it knows how to respond obediently, the hawk is set free to fly and hunt, before coming back to the security of human care.
Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And ’tis my hope to end successfully.
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper’s call.
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat and will not be obedient.
Act 4 Scene 1     
Petruchio uses technical terms from falconry when he reveals how he intends to ‘man my haggard’ (i.e. get an unruly bird subject to human handling), such as ‘sharp-set’, ‘stoop’, ‘full-gorged’, ‘lure’, ‘watch’. As T. H. White wrote in The Goshawk (1960):
It was startling to read Shakespeare after a course of falconry. The Taming of the Shrew was pure hawk-mastery and must have been a play of enormous vividness to a generation which understood the falcon. It was as if a great dramatist of today were to write a play in which, by subjecting her to the applied laws of tennis, or golf, or cricket (or whatever footling theoretical game might be said to be the public favourite nowadays), a woman were brought under her husband’s government. Petruchio tamed his Kate as an austringer did his hawk, and he was conscious of the fact. (pp. 157-159)     

Training the handler

It is worth noticing that falconry involved not only the deprivation of the hawk, but also a similar degree of rigour for the falconer. The Elizabethan word for regulating hunger and sleep was ‘watching’. Ensuring that Katherina goes without food or sleep means that Petruchio too cannot rest or leave her side, rendering both of them ‘sharp and passing empty’. Petruchio says that he will couch his harsh methods in terms of ‘reverend care’, which means that Katherina cannot complain about them – but perhaps genuine care for the woman he has married is what motivates the costly process of training, so that ultimately Kate can enjoy ‘flying’ once again.

The object of pursuit

The idea of hunting for prey as applied to men’s pursuit of women is also problematic in an era that considers the sexes to be equal, yet the final scene of the play has a cluster of such images. 
When Petruchio wants Bianca to engage in the female battle of wits, she retorts that she is not prepared to be, like a bird, the target of his hunting bow. To cover his failure, Petruchio jokes that Tranio too had aimed at Bianca but missed; however, the servant retorts that this was deliberate as he was acting like a greyhound catching prey in order to bring it back to his master, Lucentio. 
Like a pack of hounds, the men all then turn on Petruchio, joking that he cannot even get near his fearsome ‘deer’. But the barbs they shoot are actually deflected off a confident Petruchio, who knows that the less robust husbands will ultimately be ‘maim’d’ by their own prey/wives. The hunters will end up as targets themselves.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.