Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1320
Christopher Sly: a drunken tinker (pot-mender) who becomes the subject of a nobleman’s joke
Hostess: the innkeeper who must run after a constable in order to force Sly to pay for damaged goods
Lord: a nobleman who finds Sly asleep and decides to play an elaborate joke at Sly’s expense
Servants and huntsmen: minor players who serve the Lord
Players: members of a traveling theater company
The play begins with a quarrel between an innkeeper and a drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, who has presumably consumed too much ale and has broken some glasses. When Sly refuses to pay for what he has broken, the hostess goes off in search of a constable, and Sly falls into a drunken sleep.
A nobleman, returning from hunting, finds Sly asleep in front of an English alehouse. After berating Sly’s bestial appearance, the Lord decides to “practice” on him by dressing Sly up as a nobleman and placing him in the Lord’s own house, which is just nearby. The Lord arranges for his own servants to convince Sly that he has always been a nobleman, but one who has of late fallen into a dementia wherein he only raved that he was a commoner.
A group of players arrives at the Lord’s home and asks permission to perform for him. The Lord claims to recognize a member of the group from a previous performance, but obviously errs. None¬theless, the Lord agrees to the performance, which he intends as entertainment for Sly. He instructs the players to ignore Sly, who might act strangely.
With the players gone, the Lord instructs one of his servants to dress up his page, Bartholomew, to play the noble wife of Sly. The Lord further stipulates that Bartholomew should cry like a woman for joy when Sly wakes up from the supposed dementia. To enjoy his joke all the more, the Lord plans to be present when Sly wakes up. He also comments that his austere presence will calm any mirth in his servants that would ruin the joke.
The Induction to The Taming of the Shrew is often omitted from film versions and even published discussions of the play. Its importance and relevance to the central five acts of the play, which actually constitute a play-within-a-play, is often missed by readers who understandably prefer the fast and funny action of the later scenes. Genius writer that he was, Shakespeare uses the Induction to present two key thematic elements that assume importance in the central five acts.
The opening to the Induction emphasizes the differences between social classes in Shakespeare’s England. In order of importance, there appear a member of the aristocracy (the Lord), the bourgeoisie (the hostess/innkeeper), and the proletariat (the tinker, Christopher Sly). The players belong to a new class of workers in England, and have no fixed place in this social hierarchy; they might be thought of socially as a wild card in the social strata of the English Renaissance.
The tension between classes is most readily visible in the conflict between the hostess and Christopher Sly. Notice how Sly claims that his family “came in with Richard [the] Conqueror.” Here, Sly intends to allude to the invasion of William the Conqueror, the legendary prince from Normandy who brought his court with him to England and replaced an Anglo-Saxon nobility with a French-speaking aristocracy. However Sly blunders the name of the famous king, revealing his own pretentious and unsophisticated nature.
In comparison to the culturally refined Lord, Sly appears a “monstrous beast” or “swine.” The Lord plans to entertain himself by putting on a performance of his own, one in which he plays up to the pretentions of the commoner Sly, who just tries to associate himself with England’s “old money” nobility.
By dressing up Sly in a nobleman’s clothes, the Lord is taking an extreme license. A few years before Shakespeare wrote this play, Elizabeth I had passed her first of several sumptuary laws which prohibited people from dressing above their “station,” or place, in English society. This meant that a bricklayer could not wear the clothes of a merchant. Similarly, a merchant could not don the rich apparel of an aristocrat. Since dressing down implied the loss of social privilege, that practice was not officially discouraged.
Elizabethan theater players, no less than other English citizens, had to conform to the same laws, but special privileges were accorded to certain theatrical companies so actors could portray monarchs and aristocrats. One can see now that it is no accident that Shakespeare has a band of players intrude upon the Lord’s home at the very moment the Lord plans to make a performer out of his unwitting guest.
The scene ends with the Lord giving instructions for his page to dress up as a woman and pretend to be Sly’s wife. This element of the plot points directly to the practice of male cross-dressing on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages. (“Jacobean” refers to the reign of James I.) Originally due to religious concerns, but later due to social custom, women were barred from the stage. Only with the revival of the theater at the English Restoration in 1660 were women allowed on stage. In their absence, boys were hired to play the roles of women in dramatic productions. A relic of this practice can still be seen in various British comedies, most notably “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
It is no accident that the Lord in The Taming of the Shrew asks his page, rather than a grown man, to play the part of Sly’s wife. We call this type of “coincidence” in the theater “self-consciousness,” for the audience’s attention is pointed toward the conventions of the stage rather than the action of the plot.
The ability to act a part, the central theme of the entire play, becomes crucial when the Lord focuses on Bartholomew’s ability to cry at will. This two-sided gesture points, on the one hand, to a boy’s ability to portray a woman, and, on the other, to a woman’s ability to cry on command. The Lord’s comment about a woman’s tears introduces the issue of whether human behavior is natural or actually adapted to suit the necessities of social life. This question of social convention versus naturalness will achieve paramount importance in the play’s main plot, which asks whether a woman’s natural role—not just her socially-expected role—is to serve her husband in a humble, acquiescent manner.
To complement this theme of social roles (or the “social order”), Shakespeare continues to point to the continued stagedness of the play itself. We have already mentioned the matter of boys playing the parts of women during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. We should also recall that the Lord particularly warns the players not to pay any attention to Sly should he “rave” and try to interrupt the play. With our modern notions of the stage, it is difficult for us to appreciate the self-consciousness of these instructions.
We should take into account, however, that the audience in an Elizabethan theater stood or sat very close to the stage, and even interacted with the players. The repartee between the noble Theseus and the players in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good example of the kind of banter which could occur between audience and performer in Shakespeare’s day. The fact that the Lord wishes to cut off this kind of interaction should alert us to the importance of the audience enjoying the spectacle for what it is, a staged performance or an act. This motif of voyeurism should remind us of the play’s nagging question: how fundamentally different are men and women if mere change in costume permits us to confuse one for the other?
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