A guest post from Hailey Bachrach’s website, Dramatis Personae.
I don’t like The Taming of the Shrew, and it’s one of a handful of plays I’ve been avoiding having to write about. But last week, the University of Kent’s Middling Culture Project released a fun Social Status Calculator for determining (as the name suggests) the social status of 16th and 17th century English people. And though Shrew is nominally set in Italy, it’s safe to say that when considering issues of class and marriage, Shakespeare is almost always really writing about England. So let’s quiz Petruchio on his social status, and the possible financial problems—or ambitions— that have driven him to ‘wive it wealthily in Padua.’
Petruchio is—obviously, notoriously—a man (and one, it must be said, with an extremely low estimation of women). He is never addressed by a title, however. The question of his possessing a coat of arms is also vague—however, in the infamous ‘wooing’ scene in which he attempts to gaslight his future wife Kate into submission, one of the subjects they pun about is his theoretical coat of arms. So while they both say a lot of things they don’t mean in that scene, and Petruchio never actually confirms that he has one, I think we’re allowed to assume he does. It’s a mark of gentry status we know for certain Shakespeare took very seriously, as he put in a lot of effort to acquire a coat of arms for his father—which is to say, for himself.
I think we can likewise assume he inherited it. He enters the play because his father has recently died, and he mentions extremely frequently how much wealth he inherited. This is not a man who is seeking to solidify his position in society by acquiring arms for himself: everything he has, he was given.
This is a tricky one (also, if you’re interested in money in Shakespeare’s day, the National Archives Currency Converter is an amazing resource). Annoyingly, unlike the other two suitors who appear in the play, Petruchio doesn’t have to make an accounting of his wealth and lands because Kate’s father just wants to get rid of her and doesn’t care. However, her father Baptista promises 20,000 crowns as a dowry, which is about £5000. Even if we assume Katherine is bringing in ten times what he currently has—unlikely, given that he makes it clear he wants a wealthy wife but doesn’t actually need one—that still puts him in the top income bracket of this quiz.
How am I making myself hate Petruchio more than I already did?
There are several categories beneath these, but these are the three I was torn between for Petruchio. The first I ruled out was the last one: we know he inherited his estate, even though the descriptions of luxury seem plausible.
We don’t learn as much about the look of Petruchio’s home as we might, but we know that he has an apparently limitless budget for clothing, speaks frequently of purchasing hold jewelry, at least five servants with reference to more, and at the end of the play offers 100 crowns (so £25, or nearly 3 horses) as if it were nothing (though it is, to be fair, on a wager he’s pretty sure he’ll win). These all place him in the top category: however, there’s no sign of a steward to run his estate, the coat of arms question is still technically uncertain, and I definitely cannot see Petruchio acting as a patron to anyone. On the other hand, he’s definitely not managing his own financial papers, either. On balance, I put him in the top category again: he seems like a young man who hasn’t entirely finished setting up his household, not someone who doesn’t have the means to employ a steward. Maybe he’s waiting until he has a wife to manage that kind of thing for him.
One thing we do know about Petruchio is that he has one (1) friend: Hortensio, one of Kate’s sister’s suitors. Hortensio also does not describe his assets (he’s pretending to be a music teacher at the time—don’t worry about it), but let’s assume for the sake of argument that he’s of identical status to his rival suitor, Gremio. Gremio’s description of his assets is a mix of the second and third living situations described above: a great deal of material wealth in the form of household goods, but not a lot of land, plus a trading ship. Since he does have a farm (even if it’s not as large as that of his other rival, Lucentio), I think it’s safe to call him—and thus Hortensio—lords of a manor.
Add it together, and we get…