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The Taming of the Shrew eNotes Lesson Plan
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One of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and published for the first time in the First Folio (1623), The Taming of the Shrew was a success with audiences when it was originally performed. Its main plot focuses on the “taming” of Katherine—a woman no one will marry because of her strong personality and sharp tongue. Petruchio, eager for a challenge and for Kate’s sizable dowry, sets out to wed Kate and make her into an obedient wife. The secondary plot concerns the love affair of Lucentio and Bianca—the latter of whom is courted by several men and controlled by a dominant father, leading Lucentio to resort to disguise and deceit in order to make Bianca his own.
Shakespeare structures The Taming of the Shrew as a play within a play. Preceding the appearance of any of the central characters, audience members watch the Induction—explanatory scenes that stand apart from the main action—in which a drunken member of the working class, Christopher Sly, is the subject of a lord’s elaborate joke: If Sly is treated as a lord and told he is a lord, will he believe it? As part of the ruse, the lord compels Sly to watch a play performed by a traveling troupe; thus the stories of Kate and Petruchio and of Lucentio and Bianca are framed through the eyes of Christopher Sly. “Induction,” therefore, takes on a double meaning, as will so many words throughout the play. Sly is being “inducted” into the aristocracy, just as the audience is introduced to the play’s action. Shakespeare also seems keen to remind his audience they are only watching a play, not real life, and they should not take anything at face value.
The Elizabethan audience who first watched The Taming of the Shrew would have expected an enormous imbalance of power in any marital relationship. Men were firmly entrenched as heads of their households, and women were subservient. By the Elizabethan period, the “shrew” had become a well-established stereotype. A comic figure in popular farces and tales, she also acted as an admonitory symbol of “unnatural” women who did not recognize their subservient place in a male-dominated society. So common was her type that among the fifteenth-century wood carvings in the choir stalls of Shakespeare’s own church (Holy Trinity in Stratford), there’s a carving of a woman known as the “bridled scold”: She has a bit in her mouth to punish her for shrewishness. Thus, Shakespeare’s audience would have laughed at Petruchio’s treatment of Kate and probably would have agreed with the other characters that any abuse she receives from Petruchio or any other man is well deserved.
It goes without saying that gender roles have changed significantly in the four centuries since The Taming of the Shrew was first performed. What is less obvious is why the play has endured despite its outdated premise. The answer may lie in Shakespeare’s original intent for the play. Did he mean for the play to be taken at face value—or is it a typical Shakespearean comedy filled with characters whose behavior the audience could learn from and laugh at? Educated Elizabethans knew that comedies, in accordance with classical theory, were supposed to mirror ridiculous human behavior that the audience should not emulate. Did he intend it as a farce, wherein behaviors are so exaggerated and ridiculous that the audience is free to laugh without taking the characters and their dilemmas seriously—or did he intentionally include elements to suggest that Kate’s “taming” could be interpreted as the death of a free spirit?
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