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Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker (utensil repairer), is thrown out of a tavern and falls asleep on the ground. A Lord and his hunting companions find him and, as a joke, put him to bed in a fine room, dress him richly, give him delicious food, and try to make him believe that he is really a lord who has been ill and lost his memory. The Lord also tells a page to dress as a woman and pretend to be Sly's wife.
When Sly awakens in the Lord's bedroom, he at first refuses to believe that he is what they say he is, but gradually he begins to enjoy himself even though his "wife" will not go to bed with him. Then a company of actors arrives, and the Lord brings them into the joke by asking them to perform a play for Sly.
The Taming of the Shrew, the play the actors put on for Christopher Sly, is a story of two courtships. Lucentio arrives from Pisa to study at the University of Padua. As he and his servant Tranio stand talking, they observe two suitors, young Hortensio and elderly Gremio, arguing with the father of the woman both pursue. The father is wealthy Baptista Minola. Baptista will not let anyone woo his sweet younger daughter, Bianca, until the elder sister, Katherina, is married. And Katherina is so bad-tempered that no one will approach her.
While watching this meeting, Lucentio has fallen in love with Bianca. He and Tranio hit upon a plan. They change clothes. Lucentio pretends to be Cambio's tutor. The purpose of the disguise is to gain Lucentio access to the forbidden Bianca. Meanwhile, Tranio will pretend to be Lucentio.
Now the play's second and main courtship begins with the arrival in Padua of Petruchio. Petruchio intends to find a rich wife. As soon as his friend Hortensio hears this news, he realizes that he may have found a husband for Katherina. Though he tells Petruchio what a shrew Katherina is, that problem doesn't phase Petruchio a bit. He believes he can deal with any woman's temper. Because Petruchio's marrying Katherina will free Bianca, Hortensio, Gremio, and Tranio (dressed as Lucentio) tell Petruchio they will help pay the expenses of his courtship.
When the entire party arrives at Baptista's house, Petruchio immediately offers himself as a suitor to Katherina and presents Hortensio, now dressed as the tutor Litio, to teach the girls music. Gremio presents Lucentio, dressed as Cambio, to teach Bianca literature. And Tranio, dressed as Lucentio, presents himself as the third suitor to Bianca.
As soon as the others have gone, Petruchio and Baptista agree on a large dowry to be paid Petruchio for marrying Katherina. But Baptista thinks that the wedding will never occur because Petruchio will not be able to stomach Katherina nor will he be able to win her love.
When Petruchio and Katherina meet, the sparks of battle fly. The two are clearly a match for each other. Petruchio flatters Katherina, but she fights his every word. He nonetheless maintains that he is delighted with her and that they will be married the next Sunday. When the others return, Petruchio falsely reports that she has agreed to the wedding and that she acts shrewish only when other people are around.
With Katherina promised, the rivalry over Bianca comes to a head. Baptista auctions off his younger daughter to Tranio/Lucentio, who offers a higher price than does old Gremio. Unfortunately, Tranio has promised the fortune of Lucentio's father- Vincentio- without Vincentio's consent. Baptista insists that Vincentio must agree to the bargain in person. So, though one problem- the marriage of Katherina- is solved, another one- how to find a "pretend" father who will consent to Lucentio's marriage- has been created. And Petruchio has still not tamed Katherina.
Petruchio keeps everyone in suspense on the wedding day by arriving late. Worse, he is dressed in outlandish rags and rides a worn-out horse. At the wedding, Petruchio humiliates Katherina by behaving even worse than she does. After the ceremony, he insists on leaving at once for his own house and will not wait to eat the wedding dinner. When Katherina does not want to leave immediately, he declares that he "will be master of what is mine own."
The "taming" continues at Petruchio's house. He tells us that he will weary Katherina and keep her without food until she accepts his mastery. So, protesting that things aren't good enough for her, Petruchio throws the food off the table, tosses sheets and pillows off the bed, and shouts and quarrels all night. When a tailor and a haberdasher (accessory maker) come next day to show the bride new clothes, Petruchio sends everything back, shouting that the clothes are poorly made.
Meanwhile, Tranio (still disguised as "Lucentio") continues the excellent job he's doing for his master. He makes a pact with Hortensio that neither of them should marry Bianca, since she clearly prefers the schoolmaster "Cambio" (the real Lucentio). Hortensio decides to marry a widow who has loved him for some time.
Shortly thereafter, the "father" Tranio has been seeking for Lucentio turns up in the shape of a newly arrived scholar, the Pedant (a Merchant in some editions of the play). Tranio deceives the Pedant into pretending to be Vincentio. He introduces the Pedant to Baptista, who agrees to let Bianca marry Lucentio- but of course he means Tranio, who has been impersonating him. Cambio is sent to tell Bianca what has happened. But instead, he arranges to be secretly married to her at once, just in case the plot is revealed.
Petruchio has decided to bring Katherina back to her father's house. He has told her directly that she must not argue with him any more. To test her, Petruchio on the way praises the sun but calls it the moon, and then, being contradicted by Katherina, orders the whole party to return to his house. She capitulates, saying that it can be sun or moon just as he wishes. The taming has worked- she is obedient and compliant. To prove it, Petruchio orders her to greet a traveler on the road as a young girl, although the person is an old man. She does so at once. Then Petruchio corrects her and tells her to make good her mistake, and she does so. The old man is surprised and a little uneasy at these apparently crazy people, but he decides to travel with them to Padua. He is Vincentio, the real father of Lucentio.
The stage is now set for a confrontation between the real and the pretended Vincentio. It happens in front of Lucentio's house. Lucentio's servants pretend not to know Vincentio, and the uproar is so great that Vincentio is about to be arrested, when in come Lucentio and Bianca, just married. Lucentio kneels to ask his father's forgiveness.
The story ends at a wedding feast for Petruchio, Lucentio, and Hortensio and their three new wives, Katherina, Bianca, and the Widow. Petruchio proposes a gamble that the other two grooms readily accept. The husband whose wife comes immediately when summoned will win the pot. Bianca and the Widow refuse to come; Katherina arrives at once. At Petruchio's orders she goes back to get the two other women and then speaks to all assembled about the duty of women to men. Katherina and Petruchio depart in triumph, leaving Lucentio and Hortensio astonished and less than pleased with their own wives.
THE CHARACTERS OF THE INDUCTION
Other characters in the Induction include the page Bartholomew, who is dressed as a woman to tease Sly and to evoke some ribald laughter; traveling players who come to act The Taming of the Shrew; the Lord's servants, who cooperate creatively with the Lord's joke on Sly; his huntsmen, who find Sly as they return from the field with the Lord; and the Hostess of the inn, who throws Sly out for breaking glasses.
Shakespeare set The Taming of the Shrew in Padua, a town in northern Italy near Venice, but several mistakes indicate that he didn't know much about the real Padua or Italy, and the food, clothing, and customs referred to in the play are almost all of Elizabethan England. Geography and cartography (map- making) were only beginning to be developed in Shakespeare's time. Place and time were not depicted realistically on stage, and costumes were contemporary Elizabethan regardless of the setting. The Italian setting of The Taming is thus important in only one respect. Shakespeare's comedies, especially his early ones like The Taming of the Shrew, were influenced by a tradition of Italian and classical Roman farce and comedy. Like many of the stock characters, the setting derives from those models. But into this conventional locale, Shakespeare brings the richness of Elizabethan language and the originality of his own mind.
You should note two other points about the setting. After marrying Katherina, Petruchio takes her away with him to a country house outside the city of Padua. It is in this new locale, as well as on the journey there and back, that Katherina undergoes her transformation. Observe also how quickly Lucentio abandons his scholarly duties and falls hopelessly in love when he is away from his usual milieu, Pisa. In his later plays Shakespeare often uses either a voyage or a new location (especially a rural location away from the ordered city scene) as an impetus for character change.
Secondly, because The Taming of the Shrew begins as a play performed for Christopher Sly, you might want to argue that it is all set in Warwickshire, a location that Shakespeare depicts with a detailed accuracy absent in his portrayal of Italy.
Moreover, if the Induction is indeed to be taken as an integral part of the play, then the setting of the main action may even be a dream. Sly, who falls asleep under the alehouse wall, may only be dreaming that he has been taken into the comfort and luxury of a lord's house (not an unlikely dream for someone asleep on the cold, damp ground!) and then that the lord has entertained him with a play. If this were the case, we should expect a final scene where Sly wakes up and tells us it was a dream. Such a scene makes so much sense that The Taming of the Shrew is sometimes performed with it added on.
The following are major themes of The Taming of the Shrew.
As in Shakespeare's other plays, and indeed in much of the drama of his time, most of the dialogue is in verse. The specific form of verse that Shakespeare used most often is called iambic pentameter. In iambic pentameter, each line has ten syllables and the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables are the accented ones (the ones on which stress is put when speaking). Once you become used to iambic pentameter and to Elizabethan English, you should find Shakespeare's style in The Taming of the Shrew fairly straightforward. There aren't many examples of the Shakespearean grand style in The Taming of the Shrew.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays (some scholars think it may be his first). It's a characteristic of Shakespeare's earlier style to include many rhymed couplets. They usually occur as the last two lines of a scene, where they serve to clinch the action with a rhyme. Look at the ends of the scenes and you'll find the couplets, although sometimes they're a bit strained: Here's the end of Act IV, Scene i, with Petruchio speaking:
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
You can also find rhymes within the scenes, especially in lines that alternate between characters:
PETRUCHIO: O pardon me, Signor Gremio, I would fain be doing.
Rhymes and puns exemplify the Elizabethan delight in language. The characters show pleasure simply in speaking words. Look at Biondello's description of Petruchio's rags and horse as he arrives for his wedding (Act III, Scene ii)- a heaping up of images for comic effect. Look also at Biondello's and Grumio's wordplay with their masters when they deliver messages. Especially in Shakespeare's early plays you sometimes wonder whether a message will ever be delivered straight without a punning contest first.
The Taming of the Shrew sometimes uses style to differentiate types of characters. In general, characters lower in the social order speak prose and aristocrats speak poetry. Note that Christopher Sly changes from prose to verse when he begins to think he is a lord. Prose is sometimes used for ordinary transactions, while matters of feeling and intellect are usually expressed in verse. Part of the difference between Petruchio's and Lucentio's manners of wooing is also a matter of style. Note how Lucentio uses Greek and Roman references to describe Bianca. What do you think of this kind of language or of his references to "coral lips" and breath of "perfume"? Compare this high-blown language to Petruchio's use of animal imagery and sexual puns.
A play is not like a novel- it is never told from only one or two characters' points of view as a novel may be. Its point of view is everybody's in turn. That is why it is effective to act out a play with other people instead of reading it alone; it highlights the alternative points of view of different characters.
When you analyze a play, you use some of the same skills as when you are trying to understand the people around you. You find out their motivations by listening and observing. In this sense, watching a play is more "natural" than reading a novel, because the story and ideas aren't filtered through a single narrator or character- you have to work out the perspective of the play by following the differing perspectives of several characters. It is often difficult to know where Shakespeare's own sympathies lie. Can you find Shakespeare's view of marriage, for example, in this play? Is it the view of one character? A combination of two? More?
What are the different points of view on Katherina? For example, if you want to contrast Petruchio's view of Katherina with her father's, your first evidence might be those speeches in Acts II and III where Petruchio praises Katherina, while Baptista describes her behavior as so bad that Petruchio won't want to marry her. Does Petruchio ever change his initial view of Katherina?
Shakespeare didn't totally invent the plots of his plays. He adapted them from stories he read, historical accounts, folklore, poems, and other plays. In The Taming of the Shrew, you must account for three plots: the Sly framework, the Katherina-Petruchio taming plot, and the Bianco-Lucentio wooing plot.
Some scholars have believed that Shakespeare adapted an old play. However, the more current view is that The Taming of the Shrew was written as early as 1590 or so, and is a source for The Taming of a Shrew, published in 1594, rather than the other way around. Although no one knows for sure, people now generally believe that A Shrew was a poorly memorized version of The Shrew.
The Sly framework has its origins in folklore. There are numerous stories with similar incidents and patterns. The story is found throughout Europe and even in the Arabian Nights. It's basically the same in all versions: A man of the lower class is found by an aristocrat and treated like a lord, so that he thinks he has been dreaming. By Shakespeare's time, the story was popular in ballads and folk poetry, so that it would have been recognized as a familiar tale by Shakespeare's audience. And for many of the details of the Sly story, Shakespeare probably turned to his own youthful experience in rural Warwickshire.
The Katherina-Petruchio plot also is familiar in folklore as the wife-taming story. Most versions are much more brutal than Shakespeare's: often the husband kills an animal, wraps the wife in its hide, and beats her. Again there are ballads on the theme, and it appears frequently in classical and medieval literature. However, Shakespeare gives Petruchio and Katherina broader psychological dimensions than do the earlier versions of the story.
Though the Bianca-Lucentio plot has forerunners in much of Roman and Italian comedy, it also has a specific written source, a play called Supposes. Supposes was translated by George Gascoigne in 1566 from the Italian original by Ludovico Ariosto, a sixteenth-century Italian poet famous for the epic Orlando Furioso. Some of Supposes corresponds exactly to the Bianca-Lucentio plot; for example, the exchange of clothes between master and servant, and the use of a casual traveler as the lover's father. The name "Petruchio" comes from the source-play, but it's the name of a servant, not a major character.
Finding sources gives you the feeling you know a little about Shakespeare's way of writing his plays. But it says nothing about the real genius of Shakespeare- his ability to combine language, plot, and characterization to form a complete picture not only of his own world but of the world of human concerns for all ages.
The Taming of the Shrew has an Induction introducing a setting and characters that disappear after Act I, Scene v. Perhaps the main play- the one that gives the work its title- was intended to be embedded within another play, some of whose pages were lost. But, if so, we have only one piece of bread and the filling, not the complete sandwich. Do you think that the framework as it stands is defective? Do you see connections between the Induction and the rest of the play? The Lord gives a servant instructions on how his page is to behave when playing Sly's wife. Think of Katherina's speech at the end of Act V, defining wifely duty. Some readers also point to common themes of illusion and reality (the deception practiced on Sly and the deceptions used to court Bianca) and of character conversion, as both Katherina and Sly are transformed from rough diamonds to polished gems. Still others suggest that by making the main story a play within the play Shakespeare was telling us to see it as an entertainment and not as the last word on its subject matter.
Now consider the form and structure of the two main plots. As in a television situation comedy of our own day, two or more situations alternate until they intermesh. And elements in each plot help resolve the dilemmas of the other.
In The Taming of the Shrew parallel scenes, each showing the arrival of a young man in Padua, initiate each plot. Then the scenes alternate until they cross at the point where Katherina and Petruchio meet Vincentio.
It helps to look at a schematic diagram.
See how each plot offers relief from and acts as a foil to (contrasts with) the other. For instance, the Petruchio-Katherina marriage is a noisy farce, whereas the Bianca-Lucentio marriage is so quiet it's hardly noticed (although both marriages take place offstage). The two scenes in which Baptista arranges for his daughters' financial futures form another parallel, though opposite, pair: Petruchio is promised a dowry by Baptista to wed Katherina, but Lucentio has to outbid Gremio to win Bianca. Part of Shakespeare's originality lies in the intimate way he weaves together material from two such different sources. The main play is organized in the five-act structure of ancient Roman drama. The first act introduces the two plots; the second intensifies the complications; the third contains some climactic action- in this case, the marriage of Petruchio and Katherina; the fourth reintroduces an element foreshadowed in the earlier part of the play (a father for Vincentio); and the fifth resolves everything.
All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller understanding of The Taming of the Shrew.
MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES
Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day. Adjectives were frequently used as adverbs:
...You are marvellous [i.e., marvellously] forward.
or as nouns:
But in a few [i.e., a few words],
Nouns could occur as verbs:
Shall sweet Bianca practise how to bride it?
and pronouns could function as nouns:
I'll bring mine action on the proudest he [i.e., person]
CHANGES IN WORD MEANING
The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that nice originally meant ignorant, then wanton, and, more recently, pleasing. Many words in Shakespeare still exist today but their primary meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case of modesty meaning moderation:
It will be pastime passing excellent,
or more fundamental, so that embossed (Ind., i, 15) meant exhausted, cunning (Ind., i, 90) meant skill, prodigy (III, ii, 94) meant omen, idle humour (Ind., ii, 13) meant foolish fancy, and grateful meant acceptable in
Neighbor, this is a gift very grateful,...
Words not only change their meanings but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past, leman meant sweetheart, sooth meant truth, and rayed meant dirtied. The following words used in The Taming of the Shrew are no longer common in English, but their meanings can usually be gauged from the contexts in which they occur.
Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in three main ways:
Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun, thou, which was used in addressing one's equal familiarly or a social inferior. You was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:
What! would you make me mad?
But it was also used to indicate respect, as when the servants pretend to show respect for Sly:
Will 't please your mightiness to wash your hands?
A person in authority used thou to a child or a subordinate but was addressed you in return. Katherina stresses her position of authority by using thou to Bianca, whereas Bianca uses you to Katherina:
BIANCA: Or what you will command me will I do,
But if thou was used inappropriately, it could cause grave offense. Here, Petruchio deliberately annoys Katherina by his overfamiliar use of thou:
For, by this light whereby I see thy beauty,
Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today, and so you find several uses in The Taming of the Shrew that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are of for during in
But did I never speak of all that time?
for instead of in in
I am arrived for fruitful Lombardy
with for to in
For I have more to commune [communicate] with Bianca.
in for up in
And while I pause, serve in your harmony.
and to for of in
But say, what to thine old news?
Contemporary English permits only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as "I haven't none" as nonstandard. Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when Sly insists:
...for I have no more doublets than backs, no more
or the servant assures Sly:
Why, sir, you know no house, nor no such maid,
THE GLOBE THEATRE
One of the most famous theaters of all time is the Globe Theatre. It was one of several Shakespeare worked in during his career and many of the greatest plays of English literature were performed there. Built in 1599 for L600 just across the River Thames from London, it burned down in 1613 when a spark from one of the cannons in a battle scene in Shakespeare's Henry VIII set fire to the thatched roof. The theater was quickly rebuilt and survived until 1644. No one knows exactly what the Globe looked like but some scholarly detective work has given us a pretty good idea. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has a full-scale re-creation of the Globe.
When it was built, the Globe was the latest thing in theater design. It was a three-story octagon, with covered galleries surrounding an open yard some 50 feet across. Three sides of the octagon were devoted to the stage and backstage areas. The main stage was a raised platform that jutted into the center of the yard or pit. Behind the stage was the tiring house- the backstage area where the actors dressed and waited for their cues. It was flanked by two doors and contained an inner stage with a curtain used when the script called for a scene to be discovered. (Some scholars think the inner stage was actually a tent or pavilion that could be moved about the stage.) Above the inner stage was the upper stage, a curtained balcony that could serve as the battlements in Hamlet or for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the action of the play took place on the main and upper stages.
The third story held the musicians' gallery and machinery for sound effects and pyrotechnics. Above all was a turret from which a flag was flown to announce, "Performance today." A roof (the shadow) covered much of the stage and not only protected the players from sudden showers but also contained machinery needed for some special effects. More machinery was under the stage, where several trap doors permitted the sudden appearance in a play of ghosts and allowed actors to leap into rivers or graves, as the script required.
For a penny (a day's wages for an apprentice), you could stand with the "groundlings" in the yard to watch the play; another penny would buy you a seat in the upper galleries, and a third would get you a cushioned seat in the lower gallery- the best seats in the house. The audience would be a mixed crowd- sedate scholars, gallant courtiers, and respectable merchants and their families in the galleries; rowdy apprentices and young men looking for excitement in the yard; and pickpockets and prostitutes taking advantage of the crowds to ply their trades. And crowds there would be- the Globe could probably hold 2000 to 3000 people, and even an ordinary performance would attract a crowd of 1200.
The play you came to see would be performed in broad daylight during the warmer months. In colder weather, Shakespeare's troupe appeared indoors at Court or in one of London's private theaters. There was no scenery as we know it but there are indications that the Elizabethans used simple set pieces such as trees, bowers, or battle tents to indicate location. Any props needed were readied in the tiring house by the book keeper (we'd call him the stage manager) and carried on and off by actors. If time or location were important, the characters usually said something about it. Trumpet flourishes told the audience an important character was about to enter, rather like a modern spotlight, and a scene ended when all the characters left the stage. (Bodies of dead characters were carried off stage.) Little attention was paid to historical accuracy in plays such as Julius Caesar or Macbeth and actors wore contemporary clothing. One major difference from the modern theater was that all female parts were played by young boys; Elizabethan custom did not permit women to act.
If the scenery was minimal, the performance made up for it in costumes and spectacle. English actors were famous throughout Europe for their skill as dancers and performances ended with a dance (or jig). Blood, in the form of animal blood or red paint, was lavished about in the tragedies; ghosts made sudden appearances amidst swirling fog; thunder was simulated by rolling a cannon ball along the wooden floor of the turret or by rattling a metal sheet. The costumes were gorgeous- and expensive! One "robe of estate" alone cost L19, a year's wages for a skilled workman of the time. But the costumes were a large part of the spectacle that the audience came to see, and they had to look impressive in broad daylight, with the audience right up close.
You've learned some of the conventions of the Globe Theatre, a theater much simpler than many of ours but nevertheless offering Shakespeare a wide range of possibilities for staging his plays. Now let's see how specific parts of The Taming of the Shrew might have been presented at the Globe.
Those who wanted a really close-up view of a play- and who wanted to be seen as well- could get a seat right on stage. The stage of the Globe may have been slightly wedge-shaped, wider at the rear, so well-dressed young gentlemen could sit on stage without interfering with the view for the rest of the audience. This arrangement was probably specially adapted to The Taming of the Shrew, so that the characters of the Induction, the drunken Sly and "wife," could sit on stage and watch the play within the play.
Street scenes were popular in Elizabethan plays partly because the stage worked so well for them. The doors at the sides of the inner stage served as the doors of different houses. You can see how this would work in The Taming of the Shrew: In Act I, Scene ii, one of the doors is Hortensio's house; in Act V, Scene i, the other door is Lucentio's house, and the second story balcony is where the Pedant sticks his head out. The inner stage might serve for indoor scenes with only a few characters, like the first scene in Act III, with Lucentio, Hortensio, and Bianca. Larger scenes, even if set indoors, would have to take place on the main stage to accommodate all the characters. Any necessary props or furniture would be carried in, just as the servants carry in the banquet for the final scene of this play.
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