The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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The Latin Lesson and the Domestication of Learning in The Taming of the Shrew

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Thomas Moisan, Saint Louis University

Sly.              Is not
     a comonty a Christmas gambold, or a
        tumbling-trick?
Page. No, my good lord, it is more pleasing
  stuff.
Sly. What, household stuff?
Page. It is a kind of history.
Sly. Well, we'll see't.
    (Taming of the Shrew, Induction 2.137-42)1

Titus. Soft, so busily she turns the leaves!
  Help her.
What would she find? Lavinia, shall I read?
This is the tragic tale of Philomel,
And treats of Tereus' treason and his rape—
And rape, I fear, was root of thy annoy.

Demetrius. What's here? a scroll, and written
  round about.
Let's see:
[Reads] "Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,
         Non eget Mauri jaculis, nec arcu."
Chiron. O, 'tis a verse in Horace, I know it
  well,
I read it in the grammar long ago.
       (Titus Andronicus, 4.1.45-49, 4.2.18-23)

That there are advantages to knowing one's Ovid, and that there are, conversely, considerable disadvantages in having forgotten one's Horace, and that there is dramatic capital to be made out of both facts are all truths Shakespeare put to use in Titus Andronicus, and from which in contexts and with consequences less grim, he derives profit in other plays, where characters operating from positions of linguistic inequality negotiate unevenly with each other along the linguistic and cultural frontier of translation. We have a celebrated example of the political uses of such inequality and translation in Henry's courtship of Katherine in Henry V (5.2.98-280), a memorably comic Latin grammarcum-Welsh pronunciation lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor (4.1.7-85), and a less celebrated but no less interesting tutorial in the scene that provides the locus of this paper, the Latin lesson of 3.1 in The Taming of the Shrew, the exchange between Lucentio and Bianca in which Lucentio, scion of the conventional "devious lover" figure Shakespeare inherited from his putative source Gascoigne and through him Italian and Roman comedy,2 is disguised as a Latin tutor and seeks to court Bianca both under the increasingly anxious surveillance of his disguised rival and pseudomusic tutor Hortensio and, literally, "between the lines" of the Ovidian text he pretends to be teaching her. It is a scene less notable for what happens than for what does not happen: for the language instruction not given, for the translation of Ovid not made, and for the seduction of Bianca that gets at least partially deflected and deferred; and it derives a good measure of its humor from our sense of it as an exercise in pedagogical harassment and manipulation thwarted, manipulation of a literal sort if, following the suggestion of at least one editor, we include Hortensio's overly zealous fingering of exercises as part of what gets thwarted,3 manipulation of a more subtle and intellectual kind.in.the form of Lucentio's attempt to exploit his position as tutor, not only to gain access to Bianca, but to use the very foreignness of the Latin text, and the powerful license of the translator both to disregard what the text says and make it say what he wants it to say, as a mask and vehicle for his overture to Bianca, interpolating seduction both between and in place of the lines.

In what is to follow I would suggest that precisely for all that does not happen in it, the "translation" scene offers an illumination of the play of which it would seem but a marginal moment and of the social issues and tensions that traverse that play. When read against the backdrop of contemporary concerns over the uses and abuses of learning, particularly classical learning, and especially when applied to the education of women, the scene presents a tavesty of what happens when learning and what Sly calls "household stuff" collide,4 when Latin becomes a part of Baptista's domestic decor and an extension of his attempt to keep his daughters a part of that decor. At the same time, in a play set so self-consciously in a "foreign" land, the Latin lesson exemplifies the uses of...

(The entire section is 8,110 words.)