illustration of Kate and Petruchio standing and staring at one another

The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

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Describe the situational irony of Scene 1 in The Taming of the Shrew.

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When Situational Irony occurs in theater the audience is expecting the play to progress in one direction, when in fact the story or the situation takes an unexpected turn.  Situational Irony deals with usually sharp contrasts from expected plot lines and several contradictions.  Shakespeare also uses Verbal Irony and Dramatic Irony in his plays.   

To understand the Situational Irony in the first scene of Taming of the Shrew you must be able to differentiate Verbal and Dramatic.  Verbal Irony is exactly what it sounds like: It is using a phrase that means something different on the surface than your intended meaning. Modern day, we refer to this as "Sarcasm." "I just love eating liver and Lima beans on my birthday."  

Dramatic Irony is where the audience has more information than the character. The best example of this is in Romeo and JulietThe audience is fully aware that Juliet is only asleep when Romeo enters the crypt and commits suicide. They, powerless to stop the situation from happening, are in the clutches of Dramatic Irony.

Situational Irony, which is what is being observed in Act 1: Scene 1 of Taming of the Shrew, must have two aspects- First the audience must make an assumption and be certain they know where the plot is going. Second, the assumption must be not only incorrect, but it must clash with the plot in a way that the audience becomes interested in where the new plot will go.    

An example of this in Act 1: Scene 1 involves Lucentio and Tranio.  First, the beginning of the play indicates that Lucentio is a young man who is supposed to be in Verona to go to school, but is led into partying by his servant. Even the introduction of Bianca gives a preconceived notion that this play is going to have a Romeo-esque young man chases young girl plot. The roles of the young, love stricken noble and his loyal (somewhat comic) servant are well defined and the audience is ready to enjoy the comedy.     

It is at this point, Shakespeare uses Situational Irony to suddenly change the direction of the play when Lucentio learns he cannot go near Bianca because of her shrewish sister. The traditional roles of the characters are switched-  Lucentio is going to pose as a tutor for Bianca and woo her under her father's nose. His man servant Tranio will be posing as Lucentio. Tranio pushes the Situational Irony by pointing out to the audience that Lucentio has completely ignored the huge obstacle in the way (Kate). Tranio's mock reluctance to live the life of a noble for a period of time, once nudged into acceptance, silences his warnings that this might not be as easy as Lucentio thinks it will be.

This Situational Irony in the scene provides two intriguing questions for the audience and draws them into the plot: 

1) Will Lucentio be able to present himself as a lowly tutor?  (Keeping in mind he's been sent to Verona to study.)

2) Will a lowly  servant be able to convince others that he is in fact a noble?

To add to this juicy bit of plot, enter Biondello.  A somewhat dim boy who is being pulled into the switch.  This presents a third question?

3) How is Biondello going to ruin everything?  (This in itself is situational irony, because Biondello is not the foil for the charade.)

A second bit of Situational Irony in Act 1: Scene 1 is really a setup of  Situational Irony that will be fulfilled in the next two scenes-

The two suitors of Bianca: Gremio and Tranio have been forced into a position where they must get Kate married before they can fight for the hand of Bianca. They enter into an agreement to find a man who would be willing to marry the shrewish Kate for money.   They both agree that to find a man that would be willing to do this will be incredibly hard to find, but they agree to work together to make this happen.  In the mean time they agree to call a truce. This sets up the Situational Irony that once Petruchio is found to marry Kate, Gremio tries to subvert this deal by being a tutor for Bianca.  Petruchio foils this by instead giving Gremio as a tutor to Kate, making Gremio's life miserable and his head hurt from being beaten by various musical instruments.  

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Another fantastic example of irony of situation is the suitor situation between Bianca and Kate. Baptista will only entertain suitors for Kate at this time; however, every man in presence is there to hook up with Bianca.

Irony continues throughout the course of the play in many different forms. Perhaps the most gratifying to the reader occurs at the end when Kate is finally tamed.

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Irony can mean a number of different things. In this situation, it means there is gap between what the characters say or think is going to happen and what really happens. Lucentio's opening announcement is the easiest example of this. He announces that he's there to study virtue and philosophy. He has the loftiest goals you can imagine, and he announces them to the world…and then a pretty girl comes by and all his plans go out the window. He ends up sneaking around in disguise (and pretending not to be the son of the father he says he's so proud of) to get close to her, and the only studying done is pretend, so he can get the girl.

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