Shakespeare lived in a time far distant and removed from our modern culture. When
he wrote, he wasn’t thinking about the students who would be reading his plays 400 years later. Thus, included in his writing are references to stories, cultural beliefs, or activities that were popular in his time, but that are very strange to us. Below are some examples from
The Taming of the Shrew that need some explanation:
“I must dance barefoot on her wedding day and . . . lead apes into hell.”
— Katherina (2.133-34)
Katharina accuses her father of favoring her sister Bianca while he dooms her to these two proverbial fates. First, it was a custom throughout Europe for older sisters to dance barefoot upon the occasion of a younger sister’s wedding in order to ward off the curse of becoming an old maid. Second, leading apes into hell was said to be the fate of women who die as old maids, an afterlife punishment for their failure to go forth and multiply
“So may you lose your arms. If you strike me you are no gentleman. And if no gentleman, why then no arms.”
Katharina says this in response to Petruchio’s threat that he will hit her if she attempts to hit him again. She is referring to both his physical arms as well as a gentleman’s coat of arms—a symbol of nobility.
“That teacheth tricks eleven and twenty long.”
— Tranio (4.2.56-57)
The reference is to a phrase used in a popular card game of the time, trentuno.
The basic meaning is that one needs to use the right hand, or trick, to overcome the opponent.