Contrary to its title, “The Taming of the Shrew” is not a training guide for prospective shrew owners. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “shrew” was commonly used to describe an ill-tempered woman.
Is this fair to the shrews, though, or is the Bard giving these small, unassuming insectivores a bad name?
Few people ever even see shrews, and fewer still realize they’re not rodents. Having spine-like teeth instead of large front incisors, shrews are in fact more closely related to hedgehogs and moles, and are globally widespread and tiny. (The Etruscan pygmy shrew, for example, is the world’s smallest terrestrial vertebrate, weighing only 1.8 ounces.)
Shrews are voracious eaters with a fast metabolism, often consuming up to double their body weight in a day, but because their teeth do not grow continuously, many have teeth that are red from enamel-strengthening iron deposits.
To compensate for meager vision, they have excellent senses of hearing and smell. By quickly exhaling an air bubble and then immediately re-inhaling it to detect odorants of their aquatic prey, water shrews can even smell underwater!
This and other cool attributes make shrews quite unique among mammals, as some species possess a venomous bite and others can use echolocation.
Does Shakespeare even allude to these remarkable talents in “The Taming of the Shrew”? Only audiences can say, but perhaps the play’s best defense is in the word “shrewd,” which has since come to denote being sharp-witted, clever and astute, all of which describe not only Kate, but shrews as well.