The Taming of the Shrew Essay - The Taming of the Shrew (Vol. 77)

The Taming of the Shrew Literary Criticism (Vol. 77)

Introduction

The Taming of the Shrew

See also The Taming of the Shrew Criticism (Volume 55) and The Taming of the Shrew Criticism (Volume 87).

Categorized among the early Shakespearean comedies, The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-91) has become one of the playwright's most controversial works. While Elizabethan audiences may have viewed the piece with amusement and approval, the story of the spirited, rebellious, and sharp-witted Katherina (Kate), forced by her father to marry the equally exuberant and willful Petruchio, generally fails to correspond to a modern sensibility of the proper bond between husband and wife. The tactics by which Petruchio transforms Katherina's obstinacy into obedience, as well as the drama's undercurrent of violence and cruelty, are perceived by many critics as unsettling in a play principally concerned with marriage. Whereas nineteenth-century commentators dismissed the drama as a simple farce of little serious consequence, modern scholars find much in the play that merits serious study. Many critics have endeavored to explicate the troubling elements of the play, and are particularly interested in Katherina's apparent submission to her husband in the play's final act. Summarizing its enigmatic appeal, Oxford Shakespeare editor H. J. Oliver (1982) observes the ways in which Shakespeare transformed and improved upon his numerous sources for The Taming of the Shrew to fashion a piece that, despite certain limitations, fascinates with its intriguing subject: the clash of sexes.

Contemporary character-based studies of The Taming of the Shrew have almost invariably focused on the drama's central and dominating figures, Katherina and Petruchio. This volatile relationship is the subject of Ruth Nevo's (1980) appraisal, which emphasizes the dynamics of “sexual battle” that drive the play. Nevo dissects the fundamental subject of The Taming of the Shrew—locating a suitable mate for the “wild, intractable and shrewish daughter of Baptista”—and the conflict of wills that ensues. Analyzing Petruchio's verbal strategies in wooing and taming his wife, Nevo observes that Katherina largely responds to his cues, and suggests that the play steadily informs us that by its final act Kate is truly in love with her husband. Other critics have taken a wider, social view of Katherina's taming. Velvet D. Pearson (1990) sees the process of subduing Baptista's eldest daughter on stage as a barometer of changing social attitudes toward women from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, ranging from a traditional view of Katherina and Petruchio as two individuals learning to love one another to a more modern vision that champions Katherina's assertiveness and intellectual freedom. Harriet A. Deer (1991), while acknowledging that the play presents a strongly chauvinist subtext, argues that in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare creatively undercut conventional stereotypes associated with the shrew and braggart figures, which provide the theatrical basis for Katherina's and Petruchio's characters, in order to reveal the deeply patriarchal suppositions of Elizabethan marriage.

Despite its potentially disturbing representation of gender conflict, The Taming of the Shrew continues to be one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed comedies. Charles Isherwood's evaluates the 1999 Public Theater production staged in New York City's Central Park, directed by Mel Shapiro. Isherwood finds this performance, which primarily appealed to low humor with an unyielding silliness and multitude of crude jokes, an affront to the emotional complexities of Shakespeare's characters and story. While Isherwood admires Allison Janney's outstanding Katherina, he laments Shapiro's overall disregard for the emotional subtleties of the drama in favor of eye-catching comic additions. Similarly, Ben Brantley (1999) finds Richard Rees's 1999 Williamstown Theater Festival production of The Taming of the Shrew disappointing. For Brantley, one of the saving elements of this “fast, furious, and overstuffed interpretation” was Bebe Neuwirth's convincingly performed Katherina. Elysa Gardner (2000) praises director Victoria Liberatori's musically enhanced Taming of the Shrew set in a retro, 1970s style and performed by the Princeton Repertory Theater in 2000. Gardner contends that this seemingly odd setting offered an excellent commentary on the play by evoking the sexual revolution and the women's rights movement. Lastly, D. J. R. Bruckner (2001) comments on Liz Shipman's use of the critically contentious induction scene that opens The Taming of the Shrew in her 2001 production with the King County Shakespeare Company. Bruckner finds nearly all of Shipman's directorial interpretations beneficial to the drama and approves of the ensemble performance.

Recent thematic criticism regarding The Taming of the Shrew has generally focused on two key topics: transformation and the socially dictated roles of women. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1983) explores the theme of metamorphosis in the play, beginning with its induction scene and the mock conversion of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly into a nobleman. Roberts goes on to study the pervasive imagery of transformation in the play, such as the emblematic transformation of a married couple into a single entity represented by a hermaphrodite, and the symbolic metamorphosis of humans into animals—particularly the association between woman and horse. Approaching the transformation theme from a sharply contrasting perspective, Barry Weller (1992) studies the problematic relationship between The Taming of the Shrew's induction and main plot. Noting that Christopher Sly's dream induction to the drama is rife with allusions to theatricality, Weller suggests that Katherina's ostensible metamorphosis from assertive shrew to servile wife, when viewed through this frame, should be regarded with at least a degree of skepticism. Shifting to issues of gender in The Taming of the Shrew, Erika Gottlieb (1986) considers Katherina's rebellious actions in the play as a kind of ideological assault on the Great Chain of Being, a traditional hierarchical structure that dominated early modern thinking. While Katherina rails against her social placement below man in this scheme, Gottlieb observes that Shakespeare's final statement on the matter remains ambivalent. Gary Schneider (2002) presents a feminist-materialist assessment of the social world depicted in The Taming of the Shrew. Schneider maintains that in the play, the theater becomes a site of “social control” where Katherina becomes the mouthpiece for patriarchal rhetoric. According to Schneider, Katherina's final speech is meant to act as a kind of sermon that encourages the female audience members to exhibit proper behavior.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Oliver, H. J. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: “The Taming of the Shrew,” edited by H. J. Oliver, pp. 1-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpted introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, Oliver surveys the play's sources, style, themes, structure, and characterization.]

THE STORY OF CHRISTOPHER SLY

No one source for the ‘Induction’ of The Taming of the Shrew has yet been found, and none need be sought: Shakespeare may well have first heard at his mother's knee some version of the universal tale of how a sleeper or drunken man, when he awoke to find himself dressed in fine clothes, was deceived into believing that he was really a lord, or of some such high rank, and that what he thought to be his memories of his earlier life were delusions. The form of the story most widely known today is that in The Arabian Nights, where the Caliph Haroun al Raschid plays the trick on Abu Hassan (and although The Arabian Nights as such was not known in Europe until the eighteenth century, it is perhaps worth recalling that the stories in it may have been collected as early as the fourteenth and in origin may go back many centuries before that).

Discussion of Shakespeare's acquiring of this fable was put on the wrong track years ago when Thomas Warton stated in his History of English Poetry (1774-81) that Shakespeare found the story in a collection of prose tales made by Richard Edwards in 1570. Then in the papers of the Shakespeare Society in 1845, H. G. Norton, from loose printed leaves in his possession, published such a tale, calling it ‘The Waking Mans Dreame’ and assuming that it came from the book by Edwards, of which no copy had ever been seen. In 1913 A. E. Thiselton demonstrated that the tale printed by Norton supposedly from Edwards's (hypothetical) volume was in fact one of a collection of anecdotes, Admirable Events, translated by S. Du Verger from the French of J. P. Camus and not published until 1639; but this demonstration went almost unnoticed and the point had to be made again by Charles C. Mish in 1951.1 The Edwards collection is apparently a ‘ghost’—but it haunts many scholarly discussions of Shakespeare's sources written even since 1951.

It is, then, still necessary to say that no printed version of the story has been found earlier than Shakespeare's except the one in Latin by Heuterus, in De Rebus Burgundicis, 1584, which Shakespeare is not likely to have known: it was not translated into French, by Goulart, until about 1600, or into English until 1607, by Edward Grimeston. Grimeston's, the version printed by Geoffrey Bullough in his Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare,2 tells how Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, found ‘a certaine Artisan’ very drunk in the street, had him carried home to the palace, dressed in fine clothes, conducted to the Mass, waited on there, taken hunting and hawking, and entertained with ‘a pleasant Comedie’, before being carried back, drunk again, to where he was found. The tale is told in a completely different tone from Shakespeare's, to draw moral lessons about the vanity of state—but one suspects that if it were not safely dated 1607, somebody could long since have ‘proved’ by verbal parallels that Shakespeare used it. Perhaps some day an earlier translation will be found.

It may be difficult to name a source for the Sly scenes, but it is not difficult to appreciate them. From the moment of the entry of Sly and the Hostess—an opening sure to capture the attention of an audience, particularly if Sly reels on to the stage as if he has been thrown out of the alehouse—the pace does not slacken. The tinker's drunken recalcitrance is caught in just a few sentences; his intellectual limitations are well established by his references to Richard Conqueror and Saint Jeronimy and by his fondness for the catch phrases from The Spanish Tragedy. Within a few minutes the Lord and his train have come on, and their knowledgeable discussion of the hounds, in technically correct language—but in only fourteen lines—has made the necessary contrast with the peasant and has also added to the already convincing details of life in a ‘real’ countryside. The plan to deceive Sly is outlined in the firmest of language—noticeable particularly are the precise active verbs, ‘take him up’, ‘carry him’, ‘hang it round’, ‘balm his foul head’, and so on—and the audience is eager to see what will happen. Not many plays have openings as competent, theatrically, as this: it is, albeit in a completely different tone, comparable with the magnificent beginning of the much later Othello.

The entry of the players provides further variety in stage ‘action’ before plans are worked out both for their share in the tricking of Sly and for the share of the page who is to be Sly's wife. The exchange about Soto makes a private joke with the audience and so helps to maintain its feeling of complicity, in however small a way. Sly is brought forward again, ‘aloft’, and the interest now is in the psychological changes as he is faced with the new situation. The first mood, after he wakes calling ‘For God's sake, a pot of small ale’, is the surliness, the truculence that has already been seen: ‘call not me “honour” nor “lordship”. I ne'er drank sack in my life … Ne'er ask me what raiment I'll wear …’ and so on. Surliness is succeeded by plain anger, that he should be made a victim of what he naturally assumes to be their mockery of him: ‘What, would you make me mad? Am not I Christopher Sly … ?’ (and there follows the sequence of local allusions, to ‘Burton-heath’ and Marian Hacket and Wincot, which certainly builds up ‘atmosphere’, even if Shakespeare is amusing himself at the same time). Then there is a period while the others talk at Sly, and he remains silent and presumably perplexed; when he does speak, it is to announce his decision to make the best of it and enjoy both the small ale (he is still, of course, continually giving himself away) and the company of his ‘lady’. As Hazlitt delightedly—and delightfully—put it, ‘we have a great predilection’ for him.3

Detailed comment would be superfluous on Sly's guarded dialogue with the servants, or his blunder over the aristocratic way to address a wife (‘“Al'ce madam”, or “Joan madam”? … Madam wife, they say …’) or his willingness to watch the comedy to be played before him, though he is none too sure what a comedy is. There is, however, some need for comment on the search for ‘meaning’ in the Sly section, and on its dramatic function.

Whereas once there would have been general agreement with F. A. Marshall's opinion that The Taming of the Shrew ‘is the one of Shakespeare's plays most devoid of serious interest, not excepting the Comedy of Errors',4 it has become orthodoxy to claim to find in the Induction the same ‘theme’ as is to be found in both the Bianca and the Katherine-Petruchio plots of the main play and to take it for granted that identity of theme is a merit and ‘justifies’ the introduction of Sly. Such a claim is seen in its extreme form in the statement that the three segments of the play ‘are all linked in idea because all contain discussion of the relations of the sexes in marriage’.5 So do Othello, and Hamlet, and Macbeth, and even King Lear. The situation is not saved by the statements that The Shrew deals with ‘different ways of wooing and holding a wife’ and portrays ‘different kinds of wives and husbands. The Shrew becomes thereby a drama with more social and intellectual substance than The Comedy of Errors, but in presenting shrewishness and preaching morality it resembles that play.’6 What The Shrew has to say about wooing a wife can be—and in the play itself is—put in a few sentences; and if one were to read the comedy—or The Comedy of Errors or for that matter any early Shakespearian comedy—for its ‘social and intellectual substance’ or to see what it preaches, then—if Dr Johnson's famous phrase about reading the novels of Samuel Richardson for the story may be adapted—‘your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself’. If, as Meredith said in his Essay on Comedy, the test of true comedy is that it should awaken thoughtful laughter, probably The Taming of the Shrew qualifies—but only just.

It is also debatable whether discussion is much advanced by the more widely held theories that the Induction, the Bianca story, and the taming form a unified play because each deals with ‘assumptions about identity’ and ‘assumptions about personality’.7 An alternative version is that the plots are all based on ‘supposes’—the ‘counterfeit supposes’ of 5.1.106, with the implied reference to Gascoigne's Supposes, the source of the Bianca plot.8 Such theories seem to derive from D. A. Stauffer's suggestion that the play demonstrates that people can become—or, indeed, are—what others think they are or treat them as being. Sly is compared with Katherine: ‘there is something deeper than humor, however, in Petruchio's calling Katherine affable, modest, and mild: in the outcome, thinking makes it so’.9 Is it too late in the day to insist that it is not ‘thinking’ that makes it so—neither Petruchio's nor Katherine's—and that Sly does not become what others pretend him to be?

The terms used in all these interpretations are far too wide: the sense in which Sly (for the minute) ‘assumes a new personality’ is quite different from the sense in which Kate is thought to assume one. Does she in fact ever assume one? Perhaps she merely learns that in certain circumstances certain kinds of behaviour do not work. Bianca, of course, does not assume a new personality at all: Lucentio finally sees her in her true colours, as the audience, if it has any acuity or theatrical experience, will have predicted from the first scene in which she appears. Assumptions about identity and assumptions about personality may be wildly different things. And it is simply not true that ‘Sly's story is in effect “finished” when, like Kate, he has been persuaded to accept a new personality’.10 He remains in the play after that, to watch a comedy—and not only to watch it but also to comment on it: ‘'Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady: would 'twere done!’—and Sly's attitude to the play within the play is crucial to the attitude to it of the audience in the ‘real’ theatre. The Sly Induction does not so much announce the theme of the enclosed stories as establish their tone.

There are many reasons for telling a story indirectly or putting it within a framework—as, for example, a play can be enclosed within a play. Sometimes, as in Defoe, the main tale is wrapped up in discussion about the narrator, and the author's knowledge of the veracity of the narrator and so on, as a kind of camouflage, with the aim of causing a reader to quibble, if at all, about what does not matter so that the main story will remain unchallenged. It is a method of making the enclosed story more realistic, more credible. Something similar, although far more sophisticated, is seen in the novels of, say, Joseph Conrad; if Conrad tells us about Marlow who helps with others to tell us about Lord Jim (or Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness), it is, partly, that we may believe more readily in the ‘truth’ of the story and also that attention may be given to the analysis of the complex moral issues that the story raises: Marlow's opinion, among others, is accepted, rejected or modified by the reader only because he for the minute accepts the ‘reality’ of both Marlow and Jim. The moral or intellectual debate in a sense presupposes the reality of the characters. Similarly, in a less complex and indeed unsophisticated use of the technique, a film or play will start with an ‘I remember’ followed by a dramatization of what is remembered—the aim again being greater conviction.

More often, however, the ‘enclosing’ technique works in exactly the opposite way. If in a film the characters go to see a film, the film they see is quite remote: it is at one further move from the ‘reality’ of the audience in the ‘real’ cinema. Similarly if a play on a small scale is put within a play, what happens in the enclosed play is not ‘believed’ at all. Examples would be ‘The Mousetrap’ in Hamlet and ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in A Midsummer Night's Dream—both of which, of course, are further ‘distanced’ by other methods and notably by a deliberately artificial and old fashioned style. Since, however, these are short and in some ways special, it may be better to look for a parallel to the technique of The Shrew in a play in which the enclosed story is the longer and the enclosing story apparently no more than a way of introducing it. Just such a play is George Peele's The Old Wives Tale, the exact date of which is uncertain but which undoubtedly belongs within a few years of The Shrew. In Peele's play as in Shakespeare's the audience is introduced in the Induction to realistically drawn rustics who are contrasted with more aristocratic and intellectual types; and Peele's delightfully down-to-earth Old Wife, Madge, begins to tell a typical old wife's tale which is then, as it were, acted out for her by the players, with all the inconsecutiveness and the crossed lines of the story as it would be if she told it. And, of course, we do not ‘believe’ a word of it, and have been told not to believe it—and enjoy it the more. The Taming of the Shrew is in some ways very similar: the enclosed story is not told by an uninformed and unimaginative rustic but it is put on to amuse one; we ‘believe’ in Sly but do not really believe in Lucentio, or Bianca—or Petruchio. The phenomenon of theatrical illusion is itself being laughed at; and the play within the play makes Sly drowsy and probably soon sends him to sleep. Are we to let that play ‘preach morality’ to us or look in it for ‘social and intellectual substance’? The drunken tinker may be believed in as one believes in any realistically presented character; but we cannot ‘believe’ in something that is not even mildly interesting to him. The play within the play has been presented only after all the preliminaries have encouraged us to take it as a farce (meaning by that not slapstick, but a broader kind of comedy not involving ‘engagement’ with the characters). We have been warned.

Why, then, having begun the Induction, might Shakespeare have decided not to continue with it to the end; or—what is for this purpose much the same question—if he did at first continue with it, in a form of which A Shrew gives us some idea, albeit inadequate, why might he have changed his mind and decided to cut it short?

There are, in the first place, some purely practical, theatrical, considerations that may have weighed with him. It has been suggested, for example, that there was a staging problem because the presence of Sly and the ‘presenters’ ‘aloft’ made the use of the ‘upper stage’ for another purpose difficult; and the raised acting area does seem to be needed again in 5.1 when, as F1 has it, the ‘Pedant lookes out of the window’ (l. 2397).11 There may be something in this, although not enough is certain about the ‘upper stage’ in Elizabethan theatres for the argument to carry full conviction; it was not necessarily impossible to keep Sly's party well away from the ‘window’ required for the Pedant. (Conceivably the form of the Induction in A Shrew, which has Sly on the main stage throughout, represents some intermediate, experimental version that tried to get over the problem of the differing uses of the area ‘aloft’; alternatively, … the compilers of A Shrew—if they were thinking that the text they compiled might be acted by, for example, touring companies—may have had in mind the limitations of stages and theatres other than those for which the Shakespeare play was written.)

The staging would not seem to have been so difficult as to make necessary by itself the decision not to continue the Sly story after Act I Scene I. A greater difficulty was, perhaps, casting, although again it cannot be said that an Elizabethan company could not have coped with the problems of the full framework (including in that phrase both the carrying through of Sly's comments as in A Shrew and the alternative possibility of leaving him and others, even though they remain silent, in view of the audience throughout). If the actors of Sly, the Lord, and the Page in the Induction are not available to play other roles, then The Taming of the Shrew requires a cast of sixteen to play named parts (plus a few odd servants), of whom at least four would be boys (the Page, Kate, Bianca, the Widow)—five if a boy played Biondello; and it may have been necessary—if the company could not rise to this number—to introduce some doubling, not merely by ending the Sly story when it does end in the Folio text but also by getting him and his fellow presenters off the stage altogether.12 One caveat may be entered: it has perhaps been too readily assumed that because the Lord remains on the stage with Sly in A Shrew, he must remain with Sly, if Sly remains, in The Shrew. This is not so. The Lord could leave the Induction for the last time at 2.114 and be available for Vincentio or any other role thereafter, unless he is made to be the ‘Messenger’ of Induction 2.125.1 (itself involving an almost impossibly rapid change of costume) and also the ‘1. Man.’ who is one of the ‘Presenters’ still watching the play at the end of 1.1.13 If these two very minor roles are given to a minor actor or hired man, then only Sly and the boy-Page-‘wife’ are being ‘wasted’ if they are kept on stage; but certainly if they are removed from the view of the audience, ‘Sly’ can play the Pedant later, and the boy can play the Widow in the final scene.14 (Perhaps it should be added—in view of some rather wild theorizing about Sly's ‘dream’—that the actor playing Sly cannot conceivably play Petruchio if the Folio text is adhered to; Sly must ‘sit and marke’, at least for a while, and the very first thing he is required to mark is the entrance of Petruchio.15) William Ringler's analysis of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, has suggested that Shakespeare as a young dramatist did not always use his actors economically, and has shown that he probably could count on twelve adult actors and four boys if he really needed them. It may therefore be wiser to look beyond the casting, as well as the stage, for explanations of the dramatist's final preference for the ‘incomplete’ framework and to consider the possibility that the final form of the play is in fact the better for aesthetic reasons.

If what has been argued earlier in this Introduction is correct, the main purpose of the Induction was to set the tone for the play-within-the-play—in particular, to present the story of Kate and her sister as a none-too-serious comedy put on to divert a drunken tinker. The artificial style of the beginning of 1.1 is perhaps further indication that we are not expected to become too involved in the Lucentio—Bianca—disguises plot; we are told that it more or less put Sly to sleep; and only then are we invited to watch also Petruchio's campaign to tame the shrew. As that tale goes on and especially when Kate is introduced, it gradually changes key and it does become, for a while, more realistic and convincing (and an attempt will be made later to justify this claim); but it never for long loses its basically farcical character, and it ends, perfectly logically for a farce, with the shrew not only tamed but also prepared to instruct the untamed wives on the social desirability of tameness. That last scene has been taken literally by, for example, G. I. Duthie, who wrote that ‘What Shakespeare emphasizes here is the foolishness of trying to destroy order’.16 He can take such a view, however, only because for him the Induction is finally irrelevant (indeed, in this discussion he does not so much as mention its existence); for him, all the hints about the nature of theatrical illusion have been in vain; because Kate is straightfaced, he believes what she has said. Others, holding that ‘the best in this kind are but shadows’, as Shakespeare was to put it later, and remembering that this particular shadow was for the amusement of a shadow, will have their doubts.

The play as it stands is, in modern jargon, ‘open-ended’—and it is made not more ‘open’ but less so by having Sly, in a final scene, convinced that he now knows how to tame a shrew and by having Sly's friend not so sure. The reintroduction of the presenters would also, as has been suggested by several modern critics, run the risk of anticlimax and, one might add, of seeming to gild the lily. One does not improve a farce by ending it with the reminder that it may have been only a farce; far better to let the audience make that judgement, if it wishes to make it.

Perhaps Shakespeare first tried the play with the full Sly framework, perhaps he did not; but at least one can say that he seems to have had very good reasons for his apparent decision to leave it ‘incomplete’ as it is now in the approved text and (probably) to get Sly out of view of the audience early in the play and let them forget him—until perhaps they have left the theatre and have time to wonder what happened to him and even, perhaps, what has happened to them.

THE BIANCA SUBPLOT AND ‘SUPPOSES’

At least there is no dispute about the main source for the part of The Taming of the Shrew that deals with Bianca and her suitors. Shakespeare even alludes to it, and paraphrases it, when he has Lucentio reveal his identity, with the words:

                                                                                                                                  Here's Lucentio,
Right son to the right Vincentio,
That have by marriage made thy daughter mine,
While counterfeit supposes bleared thine eyne.

(5.1.103-6)17

The source was George Gascoigne's Supposes. Its title-page describes it as ‘a Comedie written in the Italian tongue by Ariosto Englished by George Gascoygne of Grayes Inne Esquire, and there presented 1566’ (and there is an apparent record of a later private performance at Oxford, in Trinity College, in January 158218). Gascoigne was translating Ariosto's I Suppositi in the original prose version in which it was acted at Ferrara in 1509 and at the Vatican in 1519 (although he may have known also Ariosto's rewriting of it in verse) and his translation is thought to be the first English drama in prose (it anticipates Lyly by nearly twenty years). Gascoigne's play was easily available to Shakespeare, particularly in the collections The Posies of G. Gascoigne (1575)19 and The Whole Woorkes of G. Gascoigne (1587).

In the Ariosto-Gascoigne story, Erostrato [Shakespeare's Lucentio], after falling in love at first sight, has enjoyed for some time a secret liaison with Polynesta [Shakespeare's Bianca], daughter of Damon [Baptista]. Erostrato is able to arrange meetings because in disguise he has been employed by Damon as a servant, Dulipo, while Erostrato's real servant Dulipo [Tranio] pretends to be the master Erostrato. The feigned Erostrato pretends to woo the girl, as a way of frustrating a rival suitor, the aged Cleander [Gremio]. These two try to outbid each other with offers of lavish dowries; and to support his claim Erostrato persuades a travelling stranger [the Pedant] to impersonate his real father Philogano [Vincentio]. Erostrato arranges this both by pretending that because of a ducal decision it is dangerous for a Sienese to be found in Ferrara and by offering protection if the stranger will impersonate the father. Matters come to a head when Polynesta is found to be pregnant (Shakespeare altered this, of course: he obviously wanted for his second female character one who to appearance had all the marks of the romantic heroine). Dulipo is put into a dungeon (too ‘serious’ a fate for Shakespeare's kind of comedy); from Sicily20 arrives ‘the right Philogano the right father of the right Erostrato’, to find both that Dulipo is impersonating Erostrato and that a stranger is impersonating Erostrato's father, namely himself; but finally all is solved, and true identities revealed, and Cleander [Gremio] even discovers that Dulipo is the son he lost long ago after the battle of Otranto (and Shakespeare chose to avoid that improbability, which adds nothing of import to the story). For one character who looms large in the source but hardly affects the action—the typical parasite of classical comedy, Pasiphilo—Shakespeare found no place at all; not did his Bianca (since she was not pregnant) need a confidant-nurse. His main addition, which perhaps he saw as an alternative to these superfluous characters, was to complicate the action by giving Bianca a third suitor, Hortensio; and then—on second thoughts, if the argument of the earlier part of this Introduction is correct—he complicated it further by having Hortensio assume the disguise of Litio to compete with Erostrato/Lucentio in disguise as Cambio. In short, he added still more ‘supposes’ to those of which Gascoigne already thought so highly that he put notes in the margin pointing them out lest the reader should miss any.21

Gascoigne, as part of a whole series of quibbles on his title, explained in his ‘Prologue or Argument’: ‘But understand, this our Suppose is nothing else but a mystaking or imagination of one thing for an other. For you shall see the master supposed for the servant, the servant for the master: the freeman for a slave, and the bondslave for a freeman: the stranger for a well knowen friend, and the familiar for a stranger.’ His audience is kept amused by the misconceptions of the characters—as in the Plautine comedies of which Supposes is a direct descendant22—and is not invited (unless it be by the strong suspicion of irony in the Prologue and the marginal notes) to wonder if it has misconceptions of its own. The interest, in short, is not in characterization but in plot, the audience watching to see what happens next and how the knots are untied.

The Bianca section of Shakespeare's play, for the most part, is no different.23 It is the kind of comedy that he attempted also in The Comedy of Errors, with its two pairs of identical twins (this time beginning from Plautus' Mostellaria); he attempted it again—albeit in a very different tone—in the parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream that follow from the anointing of the wrong lover's eyes with the juice of the magic flower, so that Demetrius and Lysander are temporarily infatuated with the wrong women. Being Shakespeare, he carried it off. A reader's head sometimes spins as he tries to remember whether Lucentio is Cambio or Litio and momentarily confuses the names of Grumio and Gremio—but in the theatre all is clear, and the pace of the action is well maintained. Indeed it is increased towards the end and particularly in 5.1, where one seeming disaster after another falls on the bewildered Vincentio: he himself is being impersonated by a complete stranger; his son Lucentio's servant Biondello claims never to have seen him before; the other servant Tranio, whom he brought up in his own house, claims to be Lucentio; and for all this he, Vincentio, is threatened with imprisonment, until the problem is solved by Biondello's unfortunate entrance (unfortunate for Biondello) with Lucentio and Bianca, and his prompt exit with Tranio and the false father ‘as fast as may be’. It is all very fast indeed.

Interestingly, it is in this scene that Shakespeare seems to have worked most closely from Gascoigne. He even borrows such a small detail as having the real father knock in vain at the door for admittance to his own son's dwelling and be greeted by a stranger looking out of the window (although in Supposes the stranger is a servant and not the feigned father). There are also verbal reminiscences, albeit of commonplace phrases. One example is Philogano's ‘What hast thou done with my son villain?’; Vincentio's ‘Tell me, thou villain, where is my son … ?’ with the same expressed fear that the son has been murdered by his former servant. Another is Gascoigne's Philogano to his own servant: ‘Do you not know me?’ ‘As farre as I remember Sir, I never saw you before’; Shakespeare's Vincentio: ‘What, have you forgot me?’ ‘Forgot you? No, sir. I could not forget you, for I never saw you before in all my life.’

This last example, with its improvement on Gascoigne in its colloquial tone and the balance of its calculated repetitions, is sufficient warning against equating Shakespeare with his sources. It is also noticeable how he avoids the traps into which others fall: he will not slow up the scene just discussed, for instance, or falsify its tone, by introducing passages of self-pity amounting to attempted pathos, such as ‘Alas, who shall relieve my miserable estate? to whom shall I complaine? … Alas, you might have some compassion of mine age …’. Nevertheless it remains true that it is the Gascoigne kind of comedy that he is writing in the Bianca scenes; and (although a few caveats to this judgement will be entered later, in the general discussion of the style) he does not attempt to alter that kind by elevating or enriching the language. It would not have been an improvement for Bianca to speak or be described in genuinely romantic terms; on the contrary, she must be seen, at first, as nothing but the conventional heroine sought by the hero of fiction, and in this capacity she will be contrasted with another type of woman, at first much less attractive, her spirited ‘real-life’ sister Kate.

Shakespeare is not content, however, to leave it at that. He does not merely contrast one sister with another: he uses the younger as part of the explanation of the acquired shrewishness of the elder, and so—for better or worse—also uses Bianca in a...

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Criticism: Character Studies

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Kate of Kate Hall.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's “Taming of the Shrew,” edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 29-39. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Nevo designates the principal concern of The Taming of the Shrew as the “sexual battle,” and analyzes the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio.]

A more gentlemanly age than our own was embarrassed by The Shrew. G. B. Shaw announced it “altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch of the New Shakespeare judged it

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Velvet D. Pearson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Pearson, Velvet D. “In Search of a Liberated Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 44, no. 4 (1990): 229-42.

[In the following essay, Pearson considers stage representations of The Taming of the Shrew as they reflect the changing social perceptions of women.]

From its first performance in about 1594 to the present day, productions of The Taming of the Shrew challenge actors and directors to provide the audience with a play that supplies entertainment rather than sketches a harsh portrait of Elizabethan patriarchal society. When faced with a “problem play” such as this one, theater...

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Harriet A. Deer (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Deer, Harriet A. “Untyping Stereotypes: The Taming of the Shrew.” In The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 63-78. New York: Plenum Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Deer argues that through his characterization of Katherina and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare transcended the stock comic figures of shrew and braggart, and allowed an exploration of “the patriarchal assumptions that underlie Elizabethan marriage.”]

There is no question that The Taming of the Shrew incorporates spouse abuse. Its “knockabout” farce occurs chiefly...

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