The Taming of the Shrew
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
One oblique source for this play, Gascoigne’s play Supposes, was performed at Gray’s Inn on December 26, 1566 (Farina 73). Gascoigne had translated Ariosto’s Suppositi; he died October 1577 (Clark 102), just before it is thought that Oxford wrote an earlier version of The Taming of the Shrew, called A Morrall of the Marryage of Mynde and Measure, performed early January 1578/79 (Clark 102; cf. Farina 73).Petruchio, in our current version of the play, still soliloquizes over the “measures” he will take (Clark 107), “the measures planned to tame the wilful mind” (Clark 108). Perhaps a sketchy, very early version of what became this play was written at Gray’s Inn (Ogburn and Ogburn 158) and became The Taming of A Shrew, published in 1594.
Shakespeare begins with what seems as if it will be a framing structure: the Christopher Sly material called the Induction. Thus he sets up a “play-within-the-play,” a gimmick especially popular in the late 1580s and early 1590s, when The Taming of the Shrew is traditionally dated — although this dating probably errs to fit the Stratfordian scheme. More likely, the play is much earlier, Shakespeare the innovator, the later playwrights the imitators, though some Oxfordians think the Induction was a later addition (e.g., Ogburn and Ogburn 160).
- What might this kind of structuring device accomplish? How does it potentially enrich the experience of the play for the actual audience?
- Does this particular Induction work thematically somehow with the “taming” plot itself? If so, how: what are the resonances? If not, why: what is missing? [This is one of the first common critical questions regarding this play (e.g., Wells 47; Bloom 28).]
- Distinguish several theories as to why we do not get a return to the Christopher Sly framework, both textual (or historical) and artistic (or dramaturgical). Regardless of explanations, what are the effects of this odd imbalance?
For a digital facsimile of a 1631 printed edition of the text, click here.
The first words, “I’ll pheeze [fix] you, in faith” (Ind.i.1), which work thematically for the play, come from a belligerent drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, who, threatened with a call to the police by a justifiably angry barmaid, coins the phrase, “I’ll not budge an inch” (Ind.i.14).
A tinker was a solderer and repairer of kettle, pots, and other such household metalware, … It did not take much capital or much intelligence to be a tinker…. They were usually itinerant, … even smalltime thieves and con men. At any rate, tinkers were traditionally considered rascals and rogues. (Asimov 443).
Sly pretends to be better than he is, with bungled foreign terms and the insistence that his ancestors “came in with Richard Conqueror” (Ind.i.4-5) instead of William. It’s interesting that this is the name bungled. “Like the historical Will Shakspere, Sly has a tradesman background” (Farina 72), and the reference to being a “card-maker” means cards for combing wool (Farina 72). Oxfordians take Sly to be “a send-up of Shakspere himself” (Farina 72; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 999-1000).
Sly falls asleep. A Lord enters with his servants, discussing the merits of certain hunting dogs. According to the Huntsman, who should know, the “better dog” is one who can pick “out the dullest scent” (Ind.i.24-25). One critic claims that this is the key to the play (Goddard, I 73): the worthiest have the talent to catch hints and subtleties. So as readers we need to keep alert for something one might otherwise easily miss.
As a(n im)practical joke, the Lord enlists the others to help make Sly think he’s a lord when he wakes. Everything around him — servants, luxurious surroundings, a wife (a male page in drag), the insistence that he’s been insane for many years — all will conspire to convince Sly that his sense of reality is mistaken. “Would not the beggar then forget himself?” (Ind.i.41). They will construct a new reality for him (a situation comparable to that in The Matrix or The Thirteenth Floor). The tale of a commoner tricked into thinking he is a nobleman appears in Arabian Nights, and Richard Edwards (d. 1566) reportedly was responsible for a work on this theme subsequently lost after publication in 1570 (Farina 73).
The Lord, a proto-Hamlet in this respect, welcomes a troupe of players: “This fellow I remember / Since once he play’d a farmer’s eldest son. / … / I have forgot your name; but sure that part / Was aptly fitted and naturally perform’d” (Ind.i.83-87). He also advises them not to crack up in the middle of their performance (Ind.i.94f).
In the Induction’s scene ii, the trick seems to work. Sly is promised pictures of Io and Daphne (note the Metamorphoses theme) and Correggio’s Io may have been in Shakespeare’s mind here (Anderson 106). And “the echoes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses will suggest the empowering possibilities of transformation” (Garber 58). Interestingly, Sly begins to speak in the iambic pentameter more typical of aristocratic characters:
Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dream’d till now?
“The tinker’s language turns from prose to verse as he accepts the greatness that is thrust upon him” (Wells 46; cf. Asimov 446). So to a certain extent he is indeed transformed. Sly wants to go to bed with his faux wife, but excuses are drummed up that the doctors think Sly ought to take it easy and see a play — plays are good for one’s health (Ind.ii.131-136)!
Some say that although there is a vague thematic connection in Petruchio using imagination and words to transform Kate, this Induction contains no real intrinsic connection to the Taming story performed by the troupe of strolling players as entertainment. Sly fades out quickly, so the “play within the play” badly coheres. It is technically true that this Induction “would serve half a dozen other comedies by Shakespeare as well or as badly as it coheres with the Shrew (Bloom 28). But, since Sly’s language turns from prose to verse as he accepts greatness and adjusts to his new identity and treatment (vs. Kate’s inability to adjust), we will see not only the power of language to create illusion and to transform, but that that transformation is reflected in the language too. In that sense the partial frame does match the inner play. Additionally, Petruchio is likewise persuaded that he is a great lord — over his wife…. Is it possible that he too is in for an awakening?” (Goddard, I 73).
The Induction takes on some further significance when one credits the Earl of Oxford as the author. Christopher Sly, “by education a card-maker” (Ind.ii.19) — that is, a maker of cards for combing wool, a business Shakspere was involved in — is low-born and has pretensions: “the Slys are no rogues. Look in the chronicles; we came in with Richard Conqueror” (Ind.i.3-5). The moron means William the Conqueror. Sly doesn’t even know that the correct name is William.
So in a way, Shakspere doesn’t know his own name. Ogburn thinks that the Induction shows that de Vere not only knew of Will Shakspere but was bothered by Shakspere being given credit for de Vere’s work. Sly is Will, with the Shakspere pretensions to nobility (sought through the Ardens, his mother’s side); reference to “Burton-heath” (Ind.ii.18) where Shakspere’s uncle and aunt, the Lamberts, lived; and mention of an “ale-wife of Wincot” (Ind.ii.22), with its connection to Shakspere’s mother Mary Arden of Wilmcote — probably pronounced “Wincot.”
More importantly, Sly is contrivedly transfigured into a lord by a web of illusion and delusion. Yet, de Vere writes it so that this Shakspere cannot even stay awake for a play, much less understand one or write one!
The situational premise of the actual play focuses on members of a Paduan family: Baptista, Katherine (Kate), and Bianca. “Baptista is a family tyrant and Bianca is his favorite daughter” (Goddard, I 69), prompting the elder Ogburns to detect some Burghley in Baptista and Bianca with a touch of Anne Cecil (Ogburn and Ogburn 159). In any case, we all know how screwed up families are, and how confusing the tangle of blame as to how they got that way. Draw on your understanding of the family as a sick political entity to decode this batch.
- What on the surface seems to be the cause for the state of things among these family members? What would the general Paduan citizen say about the situation?
- Is there anything to say about the courtship of Bianca plotline? Why does Lucentio fall for her?
- What are the subtler dynamics operating here? If Kate expressed herself in “tamer” ways, what would be her perception of the problem?
- To what extent do issues of commerce influence matters in this play?
- What does “shrew” mean? Come to think of it, what does “tame” mean? And can one tame a shrew? If so, isn’t it still a shrew though?
Stratfordians strain to explain Shakespeare’s Italian settings, but the Earl of Oxford traveled there enthusiastically. In 1575 he was writing Lord Burghley for money. We know he borrowed 500 crowns from a Paduan banker named Baptista Nigrone and also received a remittance from a Venetian banker named Pasquino or Benedict Spinola. The name Baptista Minola with his representative Paduan concern for wealth seems more than coincidental (Clark 105; Ogburn and Ogburn 88; Farina 74).
Lucentio, from Pisa, arrives in Padua with his servant Tranio, announcing that he’ll study philosophy; Shakespeare knew that Padua was a “nursery of arts” (Asimov 447; Anderson xxx). The Earl of Oxford was called Phoebus at court, thus a bringer of light: Lucent E.O. (Ogburn and Ogburn 159). But Lucentio immediately falls in love with the sight of Bianca, daughter of Baptista Minola and much sought-after girl by other Paduans, chiefly old Gremio — a pantaloon stock-character from commedia dell’arte (Farina 74) — and dorky Hortensio. Daddy Baptista insists he’ll not consider suitors for Bianca until his older daughter Katherine is essentially off his hands. Kate acts nasty, but it certainly seems as if with good reason. Lucentio hears Bianca speak and gushes, “Hark, Tranio, thou mayst hear Minerva speak” (I.i.84) — an allusion to the Roman goddess (Greek Athena) of wisdom (but also of warfare, who sprung fully armed from her father Zeus’ head shouting a battle cry). Hortensio and Gremio, though rivals, join forces to address the Katherine problem (I.i.114f; cp. I.ii.276-277), as if it were a business venture. Lucentio will pose as a schoolmaster to gain entrance to Baptista’s household, and Tranio will meanwhile pretend to be him. (So who is master, or “who’s the boss,” is blurred, a factor operating in the other plotline coming.) Lucentio’s mention of killing a man (I.i.232) resembles a similar comment from Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (IV.i.) and Alcibiades about his gentleman friend in Coriolanus (Ogburn and Ogburn 120). Is this a reference to the undercook Oxford killed in what Burghley declared self-defense, or some other autobiographical incident of which we know nothing (Ogburn and Ogburn 973)?
A rebuttal of Sidney’s Arcadia may be operating. Instead of this being healthy “feminine” subordination — experiencing emotion and victimization to make them whole — Lucentio and Hortensio are not ennobled by love but rather demean themselves socially in wooing Bianca, and Lucentio lowers himself in status.
How does Lucentio fall in love? What are the preconditions and what exactly does he fall in love with? (See I.i.70-71, 84, 150-151, 174-175.)
Is Bianca — the name means “white” or “blank,” “as though to emphasize her colorlessness” (Asimov 449) — the docile embodiment of the implications of her name? “The next time Shakespeare uses this name it will be for a courtesan in Othello, whose external ‘whiteness,’ or purity, is at variance with her profession” (Garber 70). We value Bianca first simply for not being her ranting sister. She is the favorite and spoiled child of the dreadful Baptista, remade in her father’s image (or sprung fully armed from her father’s head). At best, she is insipid: “And as for Bianca, you can pick up a dozen of her in the first high school you happen on, any one of whom could act her to perfection by just being herself” (Goddard, I 71). Some find her ultimately to be the real shrew here.
Kate is on a rant when we meet her. But consider why this may be? She is a shrew only superficially, in reaction to her environment. “Shrewd” is the relevant term — she sees what’s going on but has become imprisoned within her own set of habitual reactionary behaviors. Look at it this way: what do you think Shakespeare thinks of the generic Paduan? Then if you had a brain and had the misfortune of being a woman, wouldn’t you find yourself inclined towards Kate-hood? “Kate’s shrewishness is superficial, not ingrained or congenital” (Goddard, I 69).
What do you think happened to the mother in this family? (Perhaps she died in childbirth? How would that shed further light on the dynamics here?)
What can we say about Baptista’s ruling that Katherine must be married first before Bianca can be wooed (I.i.50-51)? This may sound as if it’s merely customary, but what are the motives? (Daughters = expenses. If he withholds the much-desired Bianca, he can get rid of Katherine from his household. How that happens doesn’t seem to matter.) Why are schoolmasters sought? Teaching becomes a cover for courting (and Petruchio will be teaching under the guise of courting); I am appalled.
Petruchio comes on the scene, in immediate chop-logic contention with annoying servant, Grumio, over “knocking” him (i.e., knocking for him at a local door). He visits Hortensio. It has been said that his boasting about his mercenary motives is just big talk since these are immediately subsidiary to the game of taming. But does he boast of mercenary motives to begin with anyway?
Signior Hortensio, thus it stands with me:
Antonio, my father, is deceas’d,
And I have thrust myself into this maze,
Happily to wive and thrive as best I may.
Crowns in my purse I have, and goods at home,
And so am come abroad to see the world.(I.ii.53-58)
It is Hortensio who in the next lines brings out the automatic Paduan assumptions: regarding a wife, “I’ll promise thee she shall be rich, / And very rich” (I.ii.62-63). Indeed, it’s the Paduans who perpetually make the most mercenary assumptions. Perhaps when Petruchio seems to confirm their assumptions (I.ii.68, 75-76), in direct contradiction with what he first has said, he’s playing along insofar as he knows that this is the way Paduans understand dealings in life. Grumio (I.ii.78-81) is crass; Hortensio is obsessed with wealth (I.ii.62-63, 118f); Hortensio volunteers his own and Gremio’s financial backing for Petruchio’s wooing — something never requested, and soon one wonders if needed (I.ii.214-215). Gremio dismisses learning (I.ii.159, 169-170). And everyone is vaguely connected — Paduans don’t know anyone well, but know of everyone or everyone’s father (e.g., I.ii.239). What does Shakespeare think of the Paduan worldview or value system?
Oxford’s fluency in Italian phrases shows in this scene, unlike the kind of phrasing one would have picked up in a tavern (Farina 74).
As the plots are set in motion, Gremio reveals much about Paduan values:
Hark you, sir, I’ll have them very fairly bound–
All books of love, see that at any hand–
And see you read no other lectures to her.
Books to this dolt are solely propaganda, advertising. (This is why the era of the rising mercantile class is called the Early Modern Period — because we’re still saddled with the same cultural values.) Later, Gremio brags about the schoolmaster he has found (the disguised Lucentio):
And by good fortune I have lighted well
On this young man; for learning and behavior
Fit for her turn, well read in poetry
And other books, good ones, I warrant ye.
It certainly sounds to me as if he thinks “poetry” is the name of one book and that there are others that exist, whose names escape him, such as maybe Math and Wildlife.