"Caparisoned like the horse": Tongue and Tail in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

LaRue Love Sloan
University of Louisiana at Monroe

Sloan, LaRue Love. "'Caparisoned like the horse': Tongue and Tail in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 1.1-24 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/sloacapa.htm>.

Winner of the 2005 Literature Online Prize [Note added 4/7/05]


  1. As the impetuous Petruchio makes his way into Padua on the appointed day of his wedding to notorious shrew Katherine Minola, also known as Kate the Curst, Biondello—one of the play’s clowns— regales both on-and-offstage audiences with his description of the bridegroom’s outrageous wedding costume and disease-ridden horse:
    Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced; an old rusty sword ta’en out of the town armory, with a broken hilt and chapeless; with two broken points; his horse hipped, with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred; besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose in the chine, troubled with the lampass, infected with the fashions, full of windgalls, sped with spavins, rayed with the yellows, past cure of the fives, stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten; near-legged before, and with a half-cheeked bit and a headstall of sheep’s leather which, being restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth six times pieced, and a woman’s crupper of velour, which hath two letters for her name fairly set down in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread. (Shr. 3.2.43-62)[1]
  2. Although this astonishing horse never sets hoof on stage, it looms large in the mind’s eye, thanks to this standup comic monologue. Critics commenting on the passage have suggested, variously, that the horse’s dilapidated condition reveals Petruchio to be a monster of household mismanagement (Heaney), that the combined image of horse and rider suggests Petruchio’s transformation into a monstrous centaur (Roberts), or that the passage "counter[s] the more usual image where a horse and rider in concord exemplify the harmony of man and nature" (Hartwig 293). Though Joan Hartwig and Jeanne Addison Roberts connect the trope of the horse and rider to Petruchio’s taming of Kate, neither explores the bawdy implications of the trope in Biondello’s Act III monologue. Nor has any critic read Biondello’s description of the horse as a Skimmington parody of Kate.[2]

  3. Perhaps critics have been hesitant to link the horse too directly with Petruchio’s bride because, judging from the single pronoun that might refer directly to the animal, it appears to be male. However, a close reading of the passage reveals a horse that, notwithstanding its dropsical diseases, has repeatedly fought the bridle and refused to submit to "the manage" of the rider[3]—certainly an apt description of Katherine Minola, as well as the countless unruly wives depicted in Skimmington Rides, street ballads,[4] and conduct books. Shaming rituals such as the Skimmington and other "rides" brutally mocked the husband who failed to "bridle" his unruly wife, graphically parodying his ability to control his "mount" by displaying him as seated backwards on a horse, an ass, or even a stick horse. By parodying the inversions effected by the husband/rider’s failure to control the unruly wife who, in refusing to be bridled, "turneth backward the laws of nature" (Vives qtd. in Aughterson 137), the Skimmington was intended to restore "right rule" within the household and, by extension, within the community. In these dramatized, bawdy inversions of the horse-and-rider trope, the animal’s sex was immaterial; the mount, whatever its gender (or lack of it), represented the incorrigible wife whom the husband/rider, in an embarrassing collapse of natural authority, had failed to bridle and "ride." From the most elaborate spectacle to the simplest—with the husband ridden through the streets backwards on a staff, or stang—the two central figures were the husband and his mount.  And such is the case for Petruchio and his horse.

  4. In the most elaborate versions of the Ride, the "husband," usually represented by a male neighbor, might be beaten with a ladle or fist, or even kicked in the groin by his "wife," a male neighbor dressed as a woman.[5] In such spectacles, the rebellious wife was represented not only by the cross-dressed male, but also by the horse on which the hapless husband sat, reinless, facing the tail. This doubling of the wife’s image suggests her twofold power over him: the power of tongue and tail.  In fact, according to D.E. Underdown, it was assumed that the henpecked husband "was almost certainly being cuckolded" (127).  As Lynda Boose notes, "illogical as it may initially seem, the two crimes—being a scold and being a so-called whore— were frequently conflated," as well as punished in identical ways (195).[6] Early Modern conduct books acknowledge the conflation and warn women to curb their tongues if they wish to preserve their reputation for virtue. Barnabe Rich’s My Lady’s Looking Glass equates excessive female speech with harlotry:
    …an [sic] harlot is full of words, she is loud and babbling, saith Solomon. She is bold, she is impudent, she is shameless, she cannot blush: and she that hath lost all these virtues, hath lost evidence of honesty [chastity]; for the ornaments of a good woman is [sic] temperance in her mind, silence in her tongue, and bashfulness in her countenance. 
    (1616, pp.11ff, qtd. in Aughterson 96).
  5. Richard Brathwait’s The English Gentlewoman also equates female volubility with sexual indiscretions, averring that "In much speech there can never want sin" (1631, pp. 88-91, qtd. by Aughterson 84), while Juan Luis Vives’ Instruction of a Christian Woman warns young women, "if thou speak much, [others] reckon thee light [loose]" (1523, qtd. in Cusick 71). William Whately’s A Bride Bush likens shrew to strumpet, describing scolding wives as "loathsome" and "unwomanly," "stains of womankind, blemishes of their sex, monsters in nature, botches of human society, rude, graceless, impudent, next to harlots, if not the same with them" (1617, pp. 36ff, qtd. in Aughterson 33). Clearly, Kate the Curst imperils her reputation as "fair and virtuous" simply by giving her tongue free rein.[7]

  6. But even obedient wives were horses. Conduct books often used the horse-and-rider trope to describe a good wife, comparing her to a well-broken horse. "It is laudable, commendable, a note of a virtuous woman, a dutiful wife when she submits herself with quietness, cheerfully," says Whately, "even as a well-broken horse turns at the least turning, stands at the least check of the rider’s bridle, readily going and standing as he wishes that sits upon his back . . ." (qtd. in Aughterson 34).[8]   The notorious popular ballad A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for Her Good Behavior suggests that, if necessary, the beleaguered husband can exercise a bit of sympathetic magic to turn his wife into an obedient horse. The "Goodman" in this tale kills his favorite horse, beats his shrewish wife until the blood runs down to her ankles, wraps her in the salted-down horse’s hide, and lays her in the cellar until she agrees to submit herself to his every whim, or, apparently, until she agrees to be like his good old horse, Morel.

  7. So entangled were scolding and loose behavior that villagers wasted no time in shaming the offending couple. Underdown cites such an instance of public shaming during a 1609 wedding at Charminster in Dorset when rams’ horns—indicating cuckoldry—were installed on the churchyard gate as the couple exchanged vows (128). The official record reports that the incident "caused people to laugh and deride [the couple] in very uncharitable manner, and to the great grief and scandalizing of them and their credits" (qtd. in Underdown 128).  Even courtship could be hazardous. Katherine’s other would-be suitors, well aware of the assumed slippage between shrew and strumpet, attempt to deflect public derision away from themselves and onto Kate. When invited to woo her, Gremio proposes to "cart her" rather than "court her" (1.1.55), referring to the practice of riding criminals, scolds, or prostitutes through the streets to shame them before exacting further punishment.[9]  He adds that marriage to Kate would be tantamount to being "whipped at the high cross every morning" (1.1.133-34). When Kate breaks the lute over suitor Hortensio’s head, he describes himself as being pilloried: "And with that word she struck me on the head, / And through the instrument my pate made way;/ And there I stood amazed for a while, / As on a pillory, looking through the lute" […] (2.1.153-56). Both suitors seem confident that marriage to a shrew would prove even more humiliating than submitting to the pillory or a public whipping. Gremio’s snide reference to carting follows the party line in identifying scolding and shrewish behavior with harlotry.

  8. Having duly noted Hortensio’s failure to ‘scape whipping, Petruchio seizes control of the community’s most threatening weapon. Rather than emulating Gremio’s purely rhetorical transformation of courting to carting, Petruchio effects a much more literal transformation: his madbrain procession into Padua looks like a Skimmington Ride—a pre-emptive parody of the public shaming he can expect as the meacock wretch who marries a curst shrew. Although his Ride is confined to offstage environs, it is described in living color by the clown Biondello, affording both on- and off-stage audiences a glimpse of Petruchio’s future with a curst wife. Close attention to this passage as well as to Grumio’s description of the offstage honeymoon trip reveals that the groom’s uncooperative, dropsical horse is meant to represent Kate, and that Petruchio portrays the surrogate Skimmington "husband," shamed by repeated failures to manage his horse/unruly intended.

  9. Like the impudent wife figured in the Skimmington horse, Petruchio’s mount has a history of bursting both bridle and crupper—restraints associated with tongue and tail— and virtually every detail of the horse’s appearance has a secondary, bawdy meaning. Biondello reports that Petruchio’s horse is lame ("hipped"), "stark spoiled with the staggers," and that its bridle has been "restrained to keep him from stumbling." It was a commonplace that, like hipped horses, wives should be "restrained," or kept from "trotting" here and there, to guard against "stumbling," or sexual missteps (Partridge 194). The shared lexicon of equestrian management and household government appears quite plainly in the following synonyms for the French word bridé in Cotgrave’s 1611 French dictionary: "bridled; bitted [equestrian management]; restrained, ruled, moderated, held under, kept in order [household government]" (Lancashire, Early Modern English Dictionaries Database).[10] An even more impressive example of the shared vocabulary of equestrian and household government can be seen in Florio’s 1598 Italian dictionary, where testiera is defined as "an obstinate, selfe-conceited, testie, or wilfull woman," and "Also the head stall of a bridle" (EMEDD @ 20841274). In accord with this lexicon, horses and women that are properly restrained—unlike Petruchio’s comically exaggerated horse—are unlikely to limp, stumble, or become "notable" as objects of curiosity. Vives warns that a woman should never "be marked or named by any notable mark, as white, lame, goggle-eyed […], these ought not to be known abroad in a good woman" (qtd. in Aughterson 72). Petruchio has deliberately selected a lame, staggering, stumbling, and decidedly "notable" horse for his procession. Is he aware of how this horse will be "read" by the community?

  10. Petruchio’s rhetoric, or what Grumio identifies as his "rope tricks," suggests he knows exactly what he is about. In the Act II wooing scene, Petruchio verbally constructs two Kates—one who is chaste and one who is not—and both seem to be horses. During the wooing scene, Petruchio assesses Kate as though she were a piece of horseflesh, checking her "gait" for imperfections. As Hartwig points out, "[to] the buyer of horses, the gait of the horse as well as his general conformation is of utmost importance" (287). "Why doth the world report that Kate doth limp?" asks Petruchio. "O, let me see thee walk," he requests of Kate. "Thou dost not halt [limp] . . . Did ever Dian so become a grove / As Kate this chamber with her princely gait?" (2.1.253, 255-56). Like the writers of conduct books, Petruchio sets forth the distinctions between a good woman and a bad one, using the common lexis of woman as horse. His recounting of the "report" (gossip) that Kate limps—with its bawdy connotation of sexual stumbling—together with his subsequent defense of her "princely gait," constructs both the limping ("marked" and "noted") Kate whose reputation, like Petruchio’s horse, is "stark spoiled with the staggers," and the chaste Diana who will allow herself to be "put through her paces" by the man who recognizes her worth. In selecting a mount for his pre-emptive Skimmington, Petruchio constructs the Kate everyone expects to see—the lame Kate "reported" to be unchaste, the Kate who certainly will get the best of her foolish husband, not only by railing, but also by cuckolding him. Using the readymade theatrics of Skimmington, Petruchio succeeds in out-Heroding Herod: the horse he chooses for his procession into Padua is not only a parody of a horse, but a Monty Python caricature of an impudent wife.

  11. Biondello’s description of the horse’s equipage emphasizes the inept rider’s repeated failures to control an animal that insists on having its head even though it can scarcely stand. Biondello faithfully reports that the chief means of controlling the horse— the headstall, or bridle—having been "restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been often burst and [is] now repaired with knots."  Paradoxically, knots can refer to the "virgin knot," or maidenhead, as well as sexual intercourse, with a hint of the bestial (cf. the toads that "knot" and "gender" in Othello). Metonymically, the bridle knots imply the bridal knots, or wedding vows, that knot up a marriage. A bridle that has been repeatedly "burst" and repaired suggests extramarital breaks of the bridal knot as well as marital couplings that temporarily patch, or knot up, the breaks. In collapsing "stumbles," or sexual infidelities, into headstrong behavior, the "burst" and knotted condition of the bridle reinforces the popular assumption that shrews and strumpets are horses of the same color. The fact that the most common apparatus for cruelly immobilizing a woman’s tongue was also known as a bridle provides further, if chilling, reinforcement. But Petruchio’s bridle is "half chekt" [Folio]—either half-cheeked, meaning that it is only half there, or half-checked, meaning that only half of it works. In either case, it is more for show than for control. A scold’s bridle that was only half-cheeked would pose little threat to a scolding woman. 

  12. The horse sports "a woman’s crupper of velour, which hath two letters for her name fairly set down in studs, and [is] here and there pieced with packthread." The combination of crupper and velour results in plenty of bawdy insinuations linking private parts to private property. In addition to describing the saddle strap passing under the horse’s tail, "crupper" can also imply the area at or around the tail and is broadly used to refer to the rump or buttocks. The addition of "woman’s" and "velour" to the term "crupper" suggests a woman’s private parts, velour (velvet) being, according to Partridge,  "an obscure allusion to the clitoris" (159). The augmentation of the crupper with "two letters for her name fairly [handsomely] set down in studs," a seemingly irrelevant detail, led me to look up "stud" in the EMEDD where I discovered two entries associated with a "marriage girdle." The entry for cesto in Florio’s 1598 Italian dictionary describes a "mariage [sic] girdle full of studs, that the husband gave his wife, and guirded [sic] her with the first day, and at night tooke it from her againe: poets speake much of them" (EMEDD @16026399); Blount’s 1656 dictionary confirms the definition of cest [cestus] as "a marriage girdle, full of studs, where with [sic] the husband girded his Wife at the Wedding, and which he loosed again the first night" (EMEDD @41995324).

  13. The bridegroom’s ceremonial girding of his bride and subsequent removal of the girdle on the wedding night signify his claim to ownership of what the girdle encloses: it is his prerogative to remove the belt that girds up his property. Unlike the chastity belt, which functions literally to lock up the wife’s private parts, the marriage girdle functions in a figurative sense, as a sign that the woman is off limits for other men’s use. Early Modern conduct books made clear that a wife’s private parts were not hers, but her husband’s. A typical text, this one directed at men, describes adultery as breaking, entering, and despoiling private property, an action "very heinous in respect of our Neighbour, whose hedge we break down, and whose enclosure we lay wast[e] . . . and defile and dishonour that which is his most proper possession" (qtd. in Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: 105). Having once belonged to a woman, Petruchio’s studded crupper, like the studded marriage girdle, suggests male appropriation of female property, including ownership of her body.  We note, however, that her initials remain defiantly, indeed handsomely, in place. In fact, in the lexicon of woman as horse, the crupper’s being "here and there pieced [prickt or stitcht][11] with packthread" suggests a crupper with a rather long and varied history of use, rather like the lover in Sonnet 110 who has "gone here and there/ [,]…made [himself] a motley to the view/ . . . [and] sold cheap what is most dear." The reference to repairs with packthread may even hint at the practice of restoring the prostitute’s "virgin knot" with thread.  Certainly Biondello’s suggestive linking of the crupper with a woman’s velvet, or privates, further elides the difference between shrewish wife and strumpet. It appears that this horse’s sexual stumbles have irremediably "burst" not only the bridle—the husband’s control, or "firm hand"—but the studded crupper signifying chastity, the marriage bond, and the husband’s exclusive ownership of the wife’s private place. Even the "stirrups of no kindred" are suspect when we consider that elsewhere in Shakespeare, to "stir up" is to excite sexually.[12] The bawdy insinuation, easily effected by the clown’s slow enunciation of "stirrups," suggests repeated sexual liaisons between two persons who are not mates ("of no kindred").  The concept of husband as constituting all a wife’s kindred is found in scripture and elaborated on by Vives: "Now then, what woman will be so presumptuous and so haughty to disobey her husband’s bidding, if she consider, that he is unto her instead of father and mother and all her kin, and that she oweth unto him all the love and charity that were due to them all?" (Aughterson 137).

  14. From the horse’s equipage, we move to the beast’s diseases. Petruchio’s Skimmington mount is  "possessed with the glanders," "infected with the fashions," "sped with spavins," "rayed with the yellows," "past cure of the fives," "stark spoiled with the staggers," "begnawn with the bots," and "swayed in the back." As Heney points out, each of these diseases—with the sole exception of the staggers—causes swelling. While Heney proposes that these swellings of "head and mouth" allude to Petruchio’s swollen ego, it seems more likely that they allude to "tongue and tail" by dramatizing the infections one might catch from "old trot [with] as many diseases as two-and-fifty horses"—Grumio’s earlier description of the kind of woman Petruchio would be willing to marry, "so money comes withal"(1.2.78-80).[13] The pithy phrase merges women, horses, and sexuality in an unsettling, if familiar, trinity. Biondello’s catalog of the horse’s diseases only slightly exaggerates the descriptions of the strumpet/harlot characterized by the likes of Rich and Whately: "Infected," "rayed" (defiled), and "past cure" echo the language used in homilies and conduct books to admonish the foolish male who yielded to the blandishments of the impudent female. Biondello’s use of the terms "possessed," "sped," and "spoiled" is particularly suggestive. Possess, speed, and spoil were verbs often used to describe sexual conquest of the female who, once possessed—particularly if she lost her virginity—might well be described as sped or spoiled, having lost what is repeatedly described in Early Modern texts as her most precious possession. And to further confirm the link between tongue and tail, we find that a woman with an unruly tongue was also described as spoiled, which, as Florio’s 1598 Dictionary indicates, was synonymous with "impudent, shameless, saucie, malapert, overbold, blushlesse," adjectives commonly used to describe both shrews and strumpets (EMEDD @ 20140461).

  15. That Petruchio’s horse is "begnawn with the bots" suggests "beknown," or known (carnally) before, while "swayed in the back," in addition to the obvious "swaybacked from hard use," may pun on being "persuaded" or "ruled by" the back (cf. Falstaff’s "When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do?"[MWW 5.5.12-13]).[14] The phrase thus reinforces Petruchio’s insinuations about Katherine’s virginity in the wooing scene. To her retorts that he is an ass "made to bear," as well as a "jade," or worn-out horse, Petruchio replies that, although "women are made to bear [children; the weight of a man]," he will not "burden" (ride) Kate, "knowing [her] to be but young and light [wanton]" (2.1.195-199).[15] When she defends herself by rejecting his advances and asserting her virginity—"too light for such a swain as you to catch, / And yet as heavy as my weight should be"—Petruchio scoffs, alluding to the buzz of rumors about her: "Should be? Should—buzz!" (200-202). The implication—here made flesh in Petruchio’s horse—is the commonplace assumption that shrews inevitably prove strumpets, already possessed and begnawn [beknown], and thus spoiled and sped. The horse’s diseases, suggestive of both pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, reinforce this assumption. If the shrew inevitably turns strumpet, this horse’s multiple swellings prophesy the engendering of issue fathered not by Petruchio, but by swains who would cuckold him. Like the Skimmington, the scold’s bridle, and the cucking stool, Petruchio’s preposterously diseased horse, with its threats of disease, emasculation, and cuckoldry, locates the source of male anxiety in female verbal and sexual autonomy—both believed to be possessed in abundance by the shrew.

  16. Having carefully selected his mount for his preemptive Skimmington, Petruchio exercises equal care in portraying himself as the "combless cock" he has agreed to become "so Kate will be [his] hen" (2.1.226). For example, Biondello’s otherwise perplexing equivocations about whether Petruchio is actually approaching Padua may imply that, like the Skimmington husband, Petruchio is literally mounted backwards on his horse. If Biondello is "to speak by the card," as Shakespeare’s clowns often insist on doing, he cannot accurately describe as "coming" a rider who is facing the wrong way. Thus, though the horse approaches, it may not be entirely accurate to describe Petruchio as doing so.
    Baptista: Is he come?
    Biondello: Why, no, sir.
    Baptista: What, then?
    Biondello: He is coming.
    Baptista: When will he be here?
    Biondello: When he stands where I am and sees you there.
    Baptista:  I am glad he’s come, howso’er he comes.     
    Biondello: Why, sir, he comes not.
    Baptista:   Didst thou not say he comes?
    Biondello: Who? That Petruchio came?
    Baptista:  Ay, that Petruchio came.
    Biondello. No, sir, I say his horse comes, with him on his back.
    Baptista: Why, that’s all one.
    Biondello: Nay, by Saint Jamy,
                I hold you a penny,
                A horse and a man
                Is more than one,
                And yet not many. (3.2.35-40, 73-85)
  17. First announcing that Petruchio is coming, Biondello follows up by emphatically insisting that he is not, and ultimately concludes that the horse is coming, with Petruchio, who is not coming, on his back. The riddle of Petruchio’s simultaneous coming and not coming, as well as his apparent transformation from equestrian to incidental baggage, is solved when the clown is taken literally: Petruchio, henpecked husband in the making, is seated backwards on the horse. The suggestive connotations of Petruchio’s "coming" and the "one flesh" metaphor implied by Biondello’s "A horse and a man / Is more than one" may also imply the bawdy parody central to Skimmington—horsemanship as copulation.[16]  Placed in the context of an "unable" husband who cannot control either his wife’s "stumbles" or her headstrong ways, Biondello’s comments about Petruchio’s "standing" (erection) and "coming" (emission) in the previously-cited passage suggest that the horse /wife "comes" while the cuckolded husband not only fails to do so, but assumes the inferior position ("with him on his back").

  18. If Petruchio’s unexpectedly slow approach into Padua also implies that he fails to "speed" sexually, we see yet another link between the wooing scene and Petruchio’s horse. In the earlier scene, Kate’s father inquires how Petruchio "speeds" in wooing Kate.  "How but well?" replies Petruchio. "It were impossible I should speed amiss" (2.1.279-80). According to the ubiquitous horse-and-rider trope, the husband who speeds well bridles his spouse for a "bout" or "turn" (sexual intercourse) and then "rides" her (Partridge 71) to his (and her) satisfaction. Petruchio assures Katherine that he is "a husband for [her] turn" (2.1.269), but Kate, like Petruchio’s headstrong horse, will not be bridled/bridaled, suggesting instead that Petruchio himself wear a halter: "I’ll see thee hanged on Sunday first" she retorts (2.1.296). The Skimmington mocked the husband who failed to "speed" in "turns" with his wife by seating him "face to crupper," or "face to tail." Petruchio’s talk of tongues and tails in the wooing scene may offer another preview of the public humiliation a husband perceived as a combless cock might expect:

    Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp, i’faith you are too angry.
    Katherine: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
    Petruchio: My remedy then is to pluck it out.
    Katherine: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
    Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp doth wear his sting?
      In his tail.
    Katherine: In his tongue.
    Petruchio: Whose tongue?
    Katherine: Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
    Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again.

  19. In Ruth Melinkoff’s discussion of the punishment known as Riding Backwards, several descriptions of the practice suggest that the rider was forced to lie face down on the animal. Examples include "with his face to rump of steed," "with their faces to the Arses" (164), "face to crupper" (160), and "his Face to the Horse Taile" (160). This prone position is unmistakably stressed in the thirteenth-century English romance The Lay of Havelok the Dane when one offender is thrown onto "a scabby mare [so that] his nose went into the anal cleft" while the other is "bound lengthwise upon an exceedingly filthy ass, his nose into the tail, and led shamelike to Lincoln," where he is burned alive (Melinkoff 158). Melinkoff also discusses "the mortification […] of enfeebled husbands by means of the ride backwards," noting that it "has been documented in France as early as 1375 [and] was still a favorite activity of the Lyon society of fools of about 1578" (163). In the context of such descriptions, Petruchio’s talk of having his tongue in Kate’s tail may have as much to do with his anticipated ride backwards as with his being "rough" and "wooing not like a babe."

  20. Petruchio is also careful to dress the part of the abject Skimmington husband. He  explicitly links his worn-out clothes to Kate’s volubility as well as to her demanding sexuality with the suggestive word "wear": "Could I repair what she will wear in me/ As I can change these poor accoutrements/ ‘Twere well for Kate and better for myself" (3.2.118-120). Elsewhere in Shakespeare, women of questionable virtue are described as items of clothing that can be put off and on at will. In 1 Henry IV, for example, Mistress Quickly is compared to a "buff jerkin" and a "sweet robe of durance," while Diana in All’s Well is accused of being "an easy glove."  Petruchio’s description of himself as an item of clothing to be worn by Kate confirms his willingness to play the combless cock and hints at the reversible world of Skimmington.  Without Biandello’s detailed description of Petruchio’s costume, however, the audience could not know how faithfully Petruchio parodies the inversions mocked by the Skimmington. Virtually every item of his clothing is a product of literal inversions, or "turnings," complete with sexual innuendo. The thrice-turned breeches, a product of repeated literal inversions, are not likely to last another metaphorical "turning," or sexual bout, suggesting Petruchio’s imminent danger of not only losing the proverbial fight for the breeches but of finding himself cuckolded. The boots into which Petruchio has inserted his feet—foot having the bawdy connotation of phallus—are worn-out mismatches, not mates. No longer serviceable as boots, they have been turned into candle cases ("case" connoting the female pudendum). Petruchio has "turned" them again, putting them back into service as boots, though they are madly mated—one buckled, one laced. Swords (points) and scabbards (chapes) being popularly associated with male and female sex organs, the word "chapeless," with its hint of inadvertent exposure, insinuates Petruchio’s lack of a case (pudenda) for his sword (penis), as well as the cuckold’s exposed horns, of which Petruchio has the usual two (points), both "broken." [17]  Such sword-and-points references further reinforce the popular assumption that the henpecked husband will inevitably be cuckolded. Biondello’s obliging catalog of items that have been "turned," "pieced," discarded, retrieved, and put back into use exposes the rider’s ineffectual recuperation of worn-out masculine "artifacts."  Petruchio has reversed the "history" of each artifact, just as he hopes to reverse the generally accepted history implied by the frequently burst and knotted bridle—that the shrew-ridden husband will never subdue his wife to the manage. Other indications of the Skimmington husband’s ineffectual management of his wife appear in the condition of those items that imply male domination. Boots, breeches, sword, and bridle—all are hopelessly dilapidated. The detailed description confirms the news "both old and new" promised by Biondello: though Petruchio may be wearing a new hat—as a new husband—the old news is that, like his "old jerkin," his new bride will not only "wear" him, but be worn by other men.

  21. Petruchio also insures that his servant Grumio is properly attired for his part in the Skimmington. When asked who comes with Petruchio, Biondello responds, "O, sir, his lackey, for all the world caparisoned like the horse" (3.2.64-65). The term caparisoned  conflates decorative equine trappings with human attire and makes explicit the implied comparison between consort and horse. If Grumio is caparisoned like the horse, our horse-woman lexicon reveals that he is also caparisoned like a wife—the wife traditionally represented in the Skimmington, as well as in the dominant discourse, as a horse. In fact, Grumio might be said to doubly embody Kate, for he "comes with" Petruchio just as the Skimmington "wife," or cross dressed male, would accompany the Skimmington "husband." Following the wedding, both comparisons and caparisons multiply as references to horses begin to proliferate. When Petruchio defines Kate as his "goods," "chattels," "household stuff," etc., he ends his catalog by adding  "horse" to the familiar "ox," "ass" and "anything" of the Tenth Commandment:
    I will be master of what is mine own.
    She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
    My household stuff, my field, my barn,
    My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything….  (3.2.232).
    Another horse reference in the same scene indicates that Petruchio and Grumio are still operating in the inverted world ridiculed by the Skimmington:               

    Petruchio:         Grumio, my horse.
    Grumio:            Ay sir, they be ready. The oats have eaten the horses.

  22. Further evidence of the ineffectual husband whose sexual advances come to naught comes to light as Curtis interrupts Grumio’s description of the honeymoon trip home to clarify a point about horses:

    Grumio:  […] we came down a foul hill, my master riding behind my mistress—
    Curtis:    Both of one horse?
    Grumio:  What’s that to thee?
    Curtis:    Why, a horse.
    Though it later appears that Kate, Petruchio, and Grumio ride separate horses, Curtis’s confusion evokes the image of husband and wife riding the same horse. One of Hogarth’s illustrations for Hudibras depicts such a Skimmington:  the "husband" sits behind the "wife" on the same horse; he faces backward while "she" controls the reins and beats him with a ladle. The Skimmington’s insistence on seating the husband backwards implies not only that he cannot control his wife’s behavior, but that he cannot mount her appropriately, just as the wife’s beating of the husband in Hogarth’s Skimmington indicates that the wife not only rules the roost but repels his sexual advances.  In Grumio’s recounting of the honeymoon trip home, images of the Skimmington wife multiply as first the horse, then Katherine, then Grumio enact the stumbling, bemoiling, bridle bursting, and loss of crupper previously caricatured in Biondello’s elaborate description of Petruchio’s horse.
    Tell thou the tale. But hadst thou not crossed me, thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoiled [befouled with mire], how he left her with the horse upon her, how he beat me because her horse stumbled, how she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me, how he swore, how she prayed that never prayed before, how I cried, how the horses ran away, how her bridle was burst, how I lost my crupper, with many things of worthy memory, which now shall die in oblivion and thou return unexperienced to thy grave. (4.1.64-65).
    Several details in the passage reinforce the Skimmington parallels between Grumio and Katherine. Grumio complains that Petruchio beat him "because [Kate’s] horse stumbled," as if the horse’s stumbling were Grumio’s fault. In his role of Skimmington wife, however, Grumio is responsible for the horse’s stumbling—his character figures the sexual "stumbles" generally expected of the headstrong wife who failed to yield to "the manage." The passage further echoes Biondello’s description of Petruchio’s horse as "rayed"—defiled as a result of sexual stumbling—when Katherine suffers the consequences of her horse’s stumbling by being "bemoiled," or soiled, as well as subsequently deserted by Petruchio, who leaves her in the mire "with the horse upon her." The last phrase also suggests a parallel to A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for Her Good Behavior.[19]  As the title indicates, the husband kills and flays his lame horse, Morel, and wraps his wife in the salted hide after beating her mercilessly.  The husband notes that he has kept the blind, lame horse "thus long" only to "work a charm that shall be feat [fitting, suitable, proper]" (qtd. in Dolan 279). The "Goodman" in the ballad literally wraps his wife in a horse’s hide, an action Petruchio imitates only metaphorically, but both attempt to work a charm effecting a wife’s transformation from a lame horse to a nimble and obedient mount. While the Shrewd and Curst Wife must suffer both a beating and subsequent, if temporary, abandonment, the preponderance of horses in Petruchio’s Skimmington permits one representation of the wife to be beaten while the other, metaphorically lapped in the horse’s skin ("with the horse upon her"), is abandoned. Grumio, still caparisoned like the horse, takes the beating while Kate is left lying under the horse—not in the cellar, as the ballad indicates, but in the mire where, as the ballad stipulates, Morel was wont to fall down (279). Petruchio’s beating of Grumio is also consistent with numerous taming stories in which the husband punishes his horse in order to intimidate his new bride.[20] As if to confirm that Grumio is still "caparisoned like the horse," Petruchio calls him a "whoreson, malt-horse drudge!" (4.1.117), while Grumio’s recital of the injuries he and Katherine have endured on the trip home ("how her bridle was burst, how I lost my crupper") identifies the two as twins. The motif of tongue and tail continues as Grumio singles out the same two items of equine equipage emphasized in Biondello’s description of Petruchio’s horse—bridle and crupper.

  23. If Petruchio deliberately evokes the Skimmington in order to exorcise its power to emasculate him, he must somehow separate himself from the henpecked cuckold he has chosen to represent. And herein appears his double knavery: Petruchio’s willingness to publicly represent himself as a "combless cock" enables him to preempt the Skimmington’s mockery of the weak-kneed husband and manipulate the spectacle’s central paradox—its simultaneous representation of male abjection and domination. The male neighbors who posed as the henpecked husband and his domineering wife asserted their own masculinity by imitating and grossly exaggerating the actions of the misbehaving couple. While the neighbor playing the husband’s role submitted to being "beaten" by the Skimmington "wife," he was in no danger of being confused for the genuine article, nor was the "wife’s" cross dressing suspect, as long as the pair were acting, their intentions being to ridicule and correct the transgressors whose behavior posed a threat to the community.  Like the male neighbors who instigated Skimmingtons, Petruchio makes a spectacle of himself as a meacock wretch even as he simultaneously separates himself from the parody: "To me, she’s married, not unto my clothes," he intones (3.2.117). In distinguishing himself from his costume, and in further distinguishing his "normal" clothing from this costume, Petruchio identifies himself as an actor. The "difference" between Petruchio the actor and Petruchio the abject husband is implied when he describes himself as a "wondrous monument,/ Some comet, or unusual prodigy" (95-96) and again when Tranio asks why he is "sent . . . hither so unlike [him]self" (3.2.104).  Costumed as his own surrogate, Petruchio as actor forces Petruchio the henpecked husband and potential cuckold offstage—out of the spectacle and into the space of shame.[21] Thus having been successfully exorcised, the humiliated Petruchio, like his parody of a horse, never appears on stage. As Biondello says, "he comes not" and, as a result, the community’s derision is directed to an empty space. [22]

  24. Whether the general impression that the Skimmington punished the man more severely reflects the historical tendency to be oblivious to the female point of view or the Early Modern conviction that the male’s reputation could be irrevocably damaged by his wife’s verbal or sexual transgressions (while the reverse was not generally true), it is impossible to say. Clearly, however, by appropriating and inverting powerful communal symbols, Petruchio skillfully avoids the public humiliation so feared by Hortensio and Gremio. Like the Skimmington riders, he employs his costume and spectacle as a kind of physic, though his intentions are to minister to himself rather than the community. His chief concern is to wive it wealthily without compromising his reputation, and to preclude being publicly humiliated—whether by pillory, whip, horns or ladle. Petruchio simultaneously enacts both the offense of being ruled by a wife and its punishment—the public humiliation of a Skimmington. Paradoxically, staging his own Skimmington enables Petruchio to pass himself off as a surrogate for the henpecked husband, an actor who but plays the role in jest. The future looks somewhat less promising for Kate, however. In or out of the Skimmington pageant, she remains a woman, and thus caparisoned like the horse.


[1] All quotes from The Taming of the Shrew are from the updated fourth Bevington edition.

[2] Although Dorothea Kehler, Irving Ribner, Hartwig, and Roberts develop the argument that the horse-and-rider trope is central to Petruchio’s training of Katherine, they do not link the sexual connotations of the trope with the bawdy parody enacted in the Skimmington Ride.

[3] I am indebted to Hartwig’s article for her detailed discussion of "the manage."

[4] For example, the notorious A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for Her Good Behavior, published in London c 1550 by Hugh Jackson (Hosley 295).

[5] Davis cites examples of Skimmington "wives" hitting their "husbands" with "distaffs, tripe, sticks, trenchers, and water pots, throwing stones at them, pulling their beards, or kicking them in the genitalia" (note, p. 29). 

[6] Both scold and whore could be branked, or bridled, as well as carted and cucked—repeatedly plunged into water by means of the cucking stool. Boose’s essay contains illustrations of all these methods of punishment.

[7] Women who did not figuratively bridle their tongues could find themselves literally bridled, their tongues cruelly immobilized by the notorious scold’s bridle, also known as the brank or the Gossip’s Bridle. Hartwig’s essay includes detailed illustrations of bridles from Llewellyn Jewett’s 1860 essay "Scolds; And how They Cured Them in the ‘Good Old Times’" The Reliquary (October 1860): 66-67.

[8] In her essay on Arianna’s lament in Montiverdi’s L’Arianna, Suzanne Cusick notes that Lodovico Dolce’s  "widely reprinted Della institutione delle donne " takes the tack that "training a girl to be a good wife was similar to the process of breaking a horse" (22). 

[9] Boose notes that the victim of carting might also be branked, or bridled. Valerie Wayne’s "Refashioning the Shrew," Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 159-87, and Karen Newman’s "Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew," in Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1991), 33-50, closely examine carting and cucking.

[10] Entry 28456031 in The Early Modern English Dictionaries Database (EMEDD), compiled by Ian Lancashire. Hereafter identified parenthetically and in the text as EMEDD, followed by the appropriate entry number.

[11] Florio 1598: "pierced through, prickt or stung" @ 20944952 and "prickt, stitcht, pierced or stung through" @ 20973615, EMEDD. Williams’ Dictionary identifies "copulate" as one of the possible meanings of "stitch" (3: 1319).

[12] Partridge, "stir; stir up. To arouse or excite sexual desire (in, especially, a man)", 91.

[13]  Williams’ Dictionary indicates that the bots and glanders, in addition to being equine diseases, were slang expressions for the pox (1: 134, 239).

[14] Partridge, entry at back, p. 60.  Entries at back, bots and chine in Williams’ Dictionary suggest that at least some audience members would have heard "begnawn with the bots" as "eaten up with the pox" and "swayed in the back" as indicative of excessive sexual activity. At back, Williams cites Dekker’s Honest Whore (c. 1605), in which the prostitutes are so worn out with continual sexual activity that "no mettle bee left in their backe"(53), and Brown’s Letters from the Dead (1702), in which the narrator describes himself as "troubled with such a weakness in my back, that it makes me bend like a superannuated fornicator" (1: 51).  Biondello’s comment that the horse is "like to mose in the chine," or get down in the back (chine being the backbone), suggests a back weakened by both excessive copulation and the pox: "’Mourning of the chine’ is an Anglicizing of mort d’eschine (lit. death of the spine). OED suggests ‘that mort here is a mistake for morve, running of the nose, glanders [pox]…The notion that the morbid matter of glanders came from the spine was generally held’" (Williams 1: 239).

[15] As Hartwig points out, the dialogue indicates that "the association between women and horses is Kate’s immediate thought as well" (287).

[16] Roberts comments that the last three lines "might even be taken as a mock description of marriage—in which man and horse are one flesh" (165). She wryly adds that Petruchio "looks readier for ‘The Battle of the Centaurs to be sung by an Athenian eunuch to the harp’ than for sexual consummation" (165).

[17] Partridge: "case [is the] pudend […] because it sheathes a sword" (196). Partridge defines "point" as the "head …of the penis; with vague allusion to the entire phallus" and "horn" as both the penis and horns of cuckoldry. Though most editors gloss "with two broken points" as broken laces for hose, possibly because the punctuation suggests a new category, what the audience hears is "sword . . . with a broken hilt and chapeless, with two broken points," so that the points seem to belong to the sword.

[18]  Williams’ Dictionary defines wild oats as "a dissolute young fellow" and cites an example from Two Angry Women (1588) in which "a young man and woman trade insults, he being ‘wild oats’ and she ‘wanton’" (3: 1536). Gremio’s comment that the oats have eaten the horses, as well as his shift to the plural pronoun, may be chalking up a victory for Petruchio (oats) against Kate and himself (horses).

[19] Richard Hosley’s essay "Sources and Analogues of the Taming of the Shrew," published in the Huntington Library Quarterly, discusses numerous similarities between the two works, though not this one.

[20] In his exhaustive analysis of shrew-taming stories and their relationship to Shakespeare’s play, Jan Harold Brunvand comments that "the taming invariably takes place on the trip home, occasionally continuing somewhat at home. Always a horse is killed [usually for] doing something on its own accord—stumbling, getting stuck, splashing or throwing a rider, falling, and so forth" (194). 

[21] Though her comments are not specific to Petruchio’s horse and costume, Boose comments that Petruchio "spectacularizes himself . . . [w]ithout ever falling into the abjected space of being ‘womanish’ himself" (192). We differ in our explanation for his motives. She argues that his purpose is to humiliate Kate by "seiz[ing] unquestioned control of the male space of authority" (193).

[22] Another of Petruchio’s politic inversions is his elaborate "defense" of Katherine from the wedding guests. Like his offstage trouncing of the priest, his cataloging of his possessions, which he backs up by quoting the Tenth Commandment, identifies the community as the unruly element determined to interfere with the husband’s "right rule" and ownership of his wife.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).