Petruchio’s Horse: Equine and Household Mismanagement in The Taming of the Shrew
Heaney, Peter F.
Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998)
Few of the hundreds of horses mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays are given any significance but, where horses are singled out and given prominence, the reader should take notice. A notable example is Petruchio’s horse, in The Taming of the Shrew, which is riddled with diseases, all of them described in lavish detail, and most of them causing swelling of the mouth or the head. This essay begins with the suggestion that the unfortunate horse should be seen as a sign, a symptom (if not a metaphor), for the condition of its master, Petruchio, who exhibits what could be described as disorders of the mouth and the ego. Petruchio’s behaviour, even before his self-declared suit for the hand of Katherine, is egocentric and violent; more significantly, the horse also depicts Petruchio’s “policy” of misrule, disorder and mismanagement. The essay also points to the growing interest, in sixteenth-century England, in the writings on domestic conduct and household management of the Greek philosopher, Xenophon, and more recent Renaissance humanists. Petruchio’s treatment of his horse, and subsequent “taming,” of Katherine, the supposed shrew, are shown to be a means by which Shakespeare’s text problematises patriarchal authority. The Shrew, it is argued, is an example of a text which offers resistance to the dominant discourse.