Brits have been calling attractive women (read: “maidens”) by the fowl reference “bird” since around 1300 (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]). Since Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew at some point decidedly AFTER 1300 (he wasn’t born until 1564), we might expect a little avian diction to pop up occasionally in the play, right?
Occasionally? Not quite. Try repeatedly. While the term “shrew” is used only eight times in the play (with the adjective “shrewd” used an additional four times), bird references appear nearly two dozen times over the course of the play.
When we first meet the Minola sisters, and we see Gremio and Hortensio vying for Bianca’s hand, Baptista sets forth his decree: no man shall wed Bianca until a husband has been found for Kate. To this, our intrepid suitors balk, with Gremio complaining, “Why, will you mew her up, // Signor Baptista, for this fiend of hell” (I.i.87-88). It’s the verb “mew” that’s interesting here. According the Oxford English Dictionary, the prevailing meaning during Shakespeare’s day was “to put a hawk in a ‘mew’, or cage at moulting time” (OED). It’s not just a cage, but a cage during moulting season, during which the hawk would “shed or cast (feathers) in the process of renewal of plumage” (OED); in other words, it’s a time of growth and maturation. Not only is Baptista caging Bianca, they complain, but he’s caging her because she’s coming of marrying age, when she is most appealing to them. Also of note here is the contrasting of Bianca, who is a hawk, to Kate, who is a “fiend.” While fiend had some of the same meanings as it does today (“an evil spirit generally; a demon, devil, or diabolical being” and “a person of superhuman wickedness” [both OED]), it also denoted “a grisly monster (e.g. a dragon)” (OED); while Bianca is a hawk, a majestic bird, Kate is a winged creature of another sort–a dragon.
Later, in the wooing scene, Petruchio and Kate banter back and forth using avian terms.
Alas, good Kate, I will not burden thee!
For, knowing thee to be but young and light-
Too light for such a swain as you to catch;
And yet as heavy as my weight should be.
Should be! should- buzz!
Well ta'en, and like a buzzard.
O, slow-wing'd turtle, shall a buzzard take thee?
Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.
A herald, Kate? O, put me in thy books!
What is your crest- a coxcomb?
A combless cock, so Kate will be my hen.
No cock of mine: you crow too like a craven.
— I.i.205-211, 228-231
When Petruchio plays with Kate’s “should be,” turning it into the sound that a bee makes, Kate then puns on that “buzz” remark and likens him to a “buzzard” (both II.i.209). A buzzard is “an inferior kind of hawk, useless for falconry,” and thus analogous to “a worthless, stupid, or ignorant person” (both OED). Then, as befitting Petruchio’s “all opposites, all the time” line of discourse, he turns her depiction of him as a buzzard into his own description of her as a “turtle” or turtle-dove, a “dove…noted for its graceful form, harmonious colouring, and affection for its mate,” which can also be applied as a term of endearment to a person (OED): “O, slow-wing’d turtle, shall a buzzard take thee?” (II.i.210). She may be the graceful, affectionate dove, but will he take her, capture her (and this is both in the hunting and sexual senses)? She then turns the tables on him again, saying that he (the buzzard) can take her (recognize her) as a turtledove as easily as a dove “takes a buzzard” (II.i.211). Here, buzzard takes on a secondary meaning, that of a large moth, food for a turtledove (in much the same way as Petruchio earlier calls her a “kate,” a delicacy to eat). The banter is playful, flirtatious, with just enough sexual innuendo to keep the insults from being truly harmful.
As the wooing scene turns the corner into a discussion of heraldry, Kate asks if a clown’s hat, a coxcomb, is Petruchio’s crest. Petruchio responds that it’s not a coxcomb that is his crest, but a “combless cock” (II.i.230), a rooster with his crest shorn down (think a stud rooster, rather than a fighting cock). And here, for a rare moment, Shakespeare is NOT dirtier than our minds: “cock” will not begin to connote “penis” for another thirty or so years according to the OED. Here, we’re purely discussing domesticated fowl, as Petruchio continues his assertion of the combless cock if “Kate will be (his) hen” (II.i.230). When Kate responds, “No cock of mine, you crow too like a craven” (II.i.231), she turns that barnyard rooster into a fighting bird, only Petruchio’s fighter won’t fight, as he’s both “combless” and a “craven.” If she’s going to be a bird, she wants a true cock, a fighter, a real man.
And she gets exactly what she wants.
Later, once they are married, and Petruchio has brought her home and “politicly begun (his) reign” (IV.i.178), he outlines his course of action:
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty.
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg'd,
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.
Here, he fills his discourse with avian terms: Kate has become his “falcon” (IV.i.180)–which according to the OED, “In Falconry, applied only to the female, the male, being smaller and less adapted for the chase, is called the tercel or tiercel” (OED)–and she is now “sharp” (also IV.i.180). Petruchio can mean either “rough” (as in her shrewishness), “acute or penetrating in intellect or perception,” or “of a hawk: Eager for prey; hungry” (all OED). All of these fit the context: she is rough and must be tamed; she is smart and thus can be trained; she is eager and hungry, and thus more easily tamed and trained. In the course of this taming, “till she stoop she must not be full-gorged” (IV.i.181); until she either “bow(s) down” or “humble(s) oneself, yeild(ing) obedience” (both OED), she will not be fed. From a more falconry-specific view, however, it can also mean that until she “descend(s) swiftly on its prey… descend(s) to the lure” (OED), she will not be fed as well; this foreshadows Petruchio’s use of the “lures” of food, hats, and dresses to bend Kate to his will. While the first two meanings of “stoop” are possible connotations here, it is the last use of “stoop” that is most likely used, as Petruchio goes on to say that he must starve her, else “she never looks upon her lure” (IV.i.182), “an apparatus used by falconers, to recall their hawks, constructed of a bunch of feathers, to which is attached a long cord or thong, and from the interstices of which, during its training, the hawk is fed” or, for Kate, “something which allures, entices, or tempts” (both OED) like food, hats and dresses.
If these references have to be interpreted to fit into a falconry analog, the remainder of the speech leaves no doubt. He must “man (his) haggard” (IV.i.183): both the verb and the noun are important here. To “man” can mean “to be the master of; to manage, rule,” but in Falconry it means “to accustom (a hawk, occas. other birds) to the presence of men. Hence (transf. and gen.) to make tame or tractable” (both OED). A “haggard” can be either “a wild (female) hawk caught when in her adult plumage” (especially telling, given the earlier reference to Bianca’s “moulting” period “mew”-ing or caging), or “a wild and intractable person (at first, a female); one not to be captured” (both OED), this last completely fitting given the title of the play. There is another meaning for “haggard” but it doesn’t really apply here… keep that in mind when we hit the word again later. He must train her to come on command, “her keeper’s call” (IV.i.184); one’s keeper is not just “one who has charge, care, or oversight of any person or thing,” but also a “custodian” (OED). But to “man” her, Petruchio must keep an eye on her, just as a falconer must watch a kite, which is a kind of “bird of prey” as well as a term “applied (or misapplied), with or without qualification, to birds … as the Buzzard” (OED).
Who’s the buzzard now?
Kate is, for now at least, like “these kites // That bate and beat, and will not be obedient” (IV.i.185-86); she both bates–“to contend, fight, strive, with blows or arguments,” “to flutter, to struggle,” and, as in Falconry, “to beat the wings impatiently and flutter away from the fist or perch”–and beats–“to flap (the wings) with force so that they beat the air or the sides” (all OED). Petruchio knows she can struggle, but he shall win.
For a short respite, the focus of the play turns away from Petruchio and Kate and toward Hortensio and his unsuccessful attempts to woo Bianca, who–in his frustration–he calls a “proud disdainful haggard” (IV.ii.39). The definitions earlier noted (wild hawk and intractable woman) both apply, but given his frustration, Hortensio may also be using a third definition: “a witch” (OED), which foreshadows Bianca’s revelation as a shrew herself.
When we return to Petruchio’s taming of Kate, he has used his lures of food, hats, and dresses, and announced they will return to Padua in “honest mean habiliments” (IV.i.167), respectable but simple clothes. Kate is disappointed, but Petruchio explains his rationale, again with bird imagery: “What, is the jay more precious than the lark // Because his feathers are more beautiful?” (IV.iii.172-173). The jay is a “European bird… in structure and noisy chattering resembling the magpie, … and having a plumage of striking appearance” while the lark is “any bird of the family Alaudidæ… a sandy-brown plumage” (both OED). But while the jay may be beautiful, the lark has other attributes that make it more attractive: “its early song, and the height it attains in contrast with the low position of its nest” (OED)… it flies higher in relation to its home, and what better compliment can one pay to a bird?
In the play’s final scene, there are a few final avian allusions. When Petruchio tells Bianca that “jests” are about to begin, she will have none of it and responds shrewishly, “Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush, // And then pursue me as you draw your bow” (V.ii.46-47). She asks if she is his (read: any man’s) bird, both in a metaphorical sense (one to be hunted with a “bow”) and in the popular slang: “a maiden, a girl. [In this sense bird was confused with burde, burd, originally a distinct word, perhaps also with bryd(e bride; but later writers understand it as fig. sense of 1 or 2.] In mod. (revived) use: a girl, woman” (OED).
When the husbands decide to wager on the respective obedience of their wives, the original bet is twenty crowns, but Petruchio scoffs,
I'll venture so much of my hawk or hound,
But twenty times so much upon my wife.
Petruchio might bet such a small amount on his “diurnal bird of prey used in falconry” (OED), but Kate, newly tamed trained re-created, is so much more than that now. Kate is more than a mere hawk. She is an extension of her husband now. Remember that falconry–from which so much of Petruchio’s avian terminology comes–is the training of hawks to hunt for humans, to train something that is not man, to do what man can do well, and do it FOR man. So when Kate, in her final speech, refers to the newlywed shrews as “froward and unable worms” (V.ii.175), she attacks their “dispos(al) to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable” (“froward”; OED) and their inability (more than just unwillingness) to do what is correct. She also calls them worms; again, this has multiple meanings: “a serpent, snake, dragon” (could this be a Garden of Eden reference?), “larva or grub of many kinds of beetles, destructive to trees” (hmmmm, something destructive to the home of birds… interesting), and “earthworm” (all OED), something a bird would eat. Earlier, she–as a bird–might have feasted on the likes of them; now, however, she is greater than they.
Petruchio had earlier said that he needed to “man (his) haggard” (IV.i.183), and here we see how yet another definition of the verb “man” may have been what he was after, all along: “to make manly or courageous; to brace up; to fortify the spirits or strengthen the courage of” (OED). Only by breaking down the weaknesses of Kate’s previously shrewish behavior, can he make her greater than she was, greater than other women. She is no mere wife… she is now his extension, she is now his equal.