Notes on The Taming of the Shrew

Commentary by Maria Rioux

Themes:
Familial Love and Romantic Love
Identity

There are three story lines in this play, and each begins with someone pretending to be what he is not and becoming what he was not.
In the case of Christopher Sly, we have a drunkard and a fool (indicated by the use of prose) “becoming” a nobleman (indicated by his use of verse in the very moment that he accepts his new identity).

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady? Or do I dream? Or have I dream’d till now? I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak, I smell sweet savors; and I feel soft things. Upon my life, I am a lord indeed, and not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly. Well, bring our lady hither to our sight, and once again a pot o’the smallest ale.

Throughout the rest of the play, he is a nobleman, speaking only in verse. Even more interesting is the transformation of Bartholomew as the newly-made nobleman’s wife. While he is most convincing, given Sly’s reaction to him, he cannot be what he is not. At some point, this disguise must fail. It is significant that Sly, the male character, is completely transformed, while Bartholomew, the female character, is not. This sets the stage for the play that follows: all is not what it appears to be, and the females, in particular, are disguised at first, only to reveal their true selves in the end.

First Lucentio has come to study and learn: “Here let us breathe and haply institute a course of learning and ingenious studies…” . His servant is pleased by his resolve, though he should not be: “Glad that you thus continue your resolve to suck the sweets of sweet philosophy…”. In the next moment, Lucentio sees Bianca and all thought of study is gone. He plots to become what he is not, namely a teacher, in order to have the opportunity to be near and woo Bianca. Tranio, for his part, will play the part of master, which is a reflection of Sly, the tinker, playing the part of a lord. Tranio, however, speaks in verse, which is an indicator of intelligence rather than noble birth. He handles the various difficulties that arise efficiently and effectively.
Another suitor, Hortensio, disguises himself as a music instructor. These deceptions are like that of Bartholomew in that they are not intended to succeed completely; at some point each suitor intends to be recognized for who he really is and be married by the (apparently) sweet Bianca. There are more plots and side-twists, to the point of pulling in a complete stranger to play the part of Vincentio, Lucentio’s father. In having so many characters play a part, Shakespeare focuses our attention on the fact that no one is what they seem to be.

Bianca is described as “sweet”, “fair”, and “mild”, but is she? When her father tells her to “Bianca, get you in…”, she does, indeed, go in.
“Sir, to your pleasure, humbly, I subscribe: my books and instruments shall be my company, on them to look and practice by myself.”

But does she do as he instructs? Shortly thereafter her teachers reveal themselves as suitors, and she does not protest. She enjoys their wooing, and is even coy, encouraging both. “Good masters, take it not unkindly, pray, that I have been thus pleasant with you both.” Also, we find that she isn’t quite as mild and docile as we were told.

“Why, gentlemen, you do me doubly wrong, to strive for that which resteth in my choice: I am no breeching scholar in the schools; I’ll not be tied to hours nor ‘pointed times, but learn my lesson as I please myself.”

This is similar to what Kate says later on:

Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak and speak I will; I am no child, no babe. Your betters have endured me say my mind. and if you cannot, best you stop your ears. My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break; and rather than it shall, I will be free even to the uttermost as I please in words.”

Here we have an indicator as to why things are as they are. Bianca has all the appearance of mildness and womanly virtue, while Katherine has none. She is honest about what she feels. Baptista obviously favors Bianca. One wonders if the shrewish nature attributed to Katherine isn’t more of an angry response to the injustice she recognizes in her family and the pain this engenders, than a reflection of her true nature.

At the close of the play we see Bianca, now married, her goal attained. She no longer needs to hide her true self, and she doesn’t:

“Fie, what foolish duty call you this?”

“I would your duty were as foolish too: the wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca, hath cost me a hundred crowns since suppertime.”

“The more fool you, for laying on my duty.”

Bianca is revealed for what she always was, just as Bartholomew at the outset must come to be known for what he is. Katherine, also is shown to be what she always was. We were unable to recognize it in her at the outset because it was disguised and hidden by her apparent shrewish nature. Two passages point to the real Katherine.

“Husband, let’s follow to see the end of this ado.”
“First, kiss me Kate, and we will.”
“What, in the midst of the street?”
“What, art thou ashamed of me?”
“No, sir, God forbid; but ashamed to kiss.”
“Why, then, let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.”
“Nay, I will give thee a kiss; now pray thee, love, stay.”
“Is not this well? Come my sweet Kate: Better once than never, for never too late.”

Kate is gentle and honest. Their conversation is companionable, between complementary equals. They speak with tenderness, and above all, respect. A shrill, nagging woman is as ugly as an over-bearing, domineering man. Neither have the dignity proper to their nature: both have become more beasts than men. Petruchio wants something better for Katherine. I think he sees her goodness, and in an attempt to help her recognize her true self, he becomes what she has disguised herself to be. Petruchio alone loves her enough to teach her that she is better than this. He will not allow her to behave this way. Somewhat similar to the disguises the suitors of Bianca put on, Petruchio disguises himself, but it is at and after his wedding that he chooses to hide his real nature.

“A bridegroom say you? ’tis a groom indeed, a grumbling groom and that the girl shall find.”
“Curster than she? Why, ’tis impossible.”
“Why, he’s a devil, a devil, a very fiend.”
“Why she’s a devil, a devil, the devil’s dam.”
“Tut, she’s a lamb, a dove, a fool to him!”

Shakespeare let’s us know this is a disguise, because Petruchio comes dressed in tatters and rags, unkempt and unmatched, down to his boots, the antithesis of the lord and gentleman that he in fact is. Throughout the rest of the play, Petruchio remains ‘in costume’. His method is simple. He is like a mirror for her to see the ugliness of her own contrary and willful behavior. It is like the parent of an unruly child who lays down and kicks and screams right alongside him. Were we to witness such behavior we might question the sanity of the parent, but it is effective in gaining the child’s attention. Seeing the behavior in this ridiculous light, the child recognizes it in all it’s ugliness. Petruchio rants and raves more than Kate ever did; so much so, that people begin to wonder if he is mad. His ravings are extreme in order to amplify the ridiculousness of such behavior. He will brook no opposition. Again, the analogy to children is helpful: When reasonable parents stand their ground through a child’s testing, the child no longer feels the need to tests the boundaries of acceptable behavior to make sure they are there. In the same way, when Petruchio refuses to be “crossed”, she no longer feels the need to test him and determine whether or not he is strong enough to insist on acceptable, rational behavior. She recognizes the ugliness of her earlier behavior, and finds her hidden, beautiful self.
Is this too kind an interpretation? Is Petruchio rather an oafish brute, who tames his wife as he might tame a falcon?

Thus have I politicly begun my reign, and ’tis my hope to end successfully. My falcon now is sharp and passing empty; and til she stoop she must not be full-gorged, for then she never looks upon her lure. Another way I have to man my haggard, to make her come and know her keeper’s call, that is to watch her, as we watch these kites, that bate and beat and will not be obedient. She eat no meat today, nor none shall eat; last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not;
…..this is a way to kill a wife with kindness; and thus I’ll curb her mad and
headstrong humour.”

The falcon imagery is again employed at the end, when the men bet against their wives virtue:

“Twenty crowns? I’ll venture so much of my hawk or my hound, but twenty times so much upon my wife.”

It is interesting to note what the nobleman says at the outset of the play:

“Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds: Brach Merriman, the poor cur, is embossed, and couple Clowder with the deep mouthed brach. Saw’st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good, at the hedge corner in the coldest fault? I would not lose the dog for twenty pound.”

Petruchio, who is to paralleled to the nobleman, may count Kate among his possessions, but if so, she is surely well-prized. Petruchio plans to “man” his haggard” which means he plans to tame her and to be a man to her. He will not allow her to make him what he is not, namely a hen-pecked husband afraid of his domineering wife. It is her “mad and headstrong humour” he wishes to curb. His intent is not to break her will, but to curb it; to teach her to curb herself. I think the text supports this in that when she does behave as any human ought, that is, with civility, he bends his will to hers.

She rebukes her sister and the widow, in a stirring speech of wifely virtue. (The woman of today might say she takes it a bit far, but if Christ, who is God, can humble Himself and wash our feet out of love for us (as signified through the apostles), I don’t know why we would consider it demeaning to similarly serve those we choose to love above all others. It is important to note that this is not a uniquely, wifely function: husband’s are called upon to love their wives as they love themselves. Many a husband has demeaned himself in the eyes of the world, and even humbled himself in his own eyes, in order to benefit his wife or children. Service which springs from love is so beautiful that nothing can besmirch it. What is more delightful than to find the one you love eager to please and serve you? Children find comfort and security in the fact that none of their needs are too base, nor too trivial for their parents to meet. Older children witness this service on the part of their parents and their hearts are warmed by the thought that not so long ago this was the love that was shown to them. They never question the dignity of the parents, nor view them as if they were now, by these acts, rendered servants.)

Katherine could be viewed as being her true self as a shrew and disguising this to appear to be an obedient wife at the close of the play. I don’t think this is as satisfying an interpretation. I think Katherine had more honesty and spirit than that.

The Introduction to Taming of the Shrew

In this paper we ask whether the lord in the introduction of the Taming of the Shrew is kind and charitable in his treatment of Christopher Sly. We meet Sly as he exits an alehouse, having drunk more than his fill. He refuses to pay what he owes for damages incurred, and promptly lies down in the street, unwilling and unable to make his way home. We are not immediately moved to pity, for his indignities are self-inflicted. The lord, seeing Sly in this sad state, responds similarly: “O monstrous beast! How like a swine he lies.” It is then that he conceives a plan to make Sly forget who and what he is and to transform him into a lord. He executes this plan with all gentleness and apparent care:
Carry him gently to my fairest chamber and hang it round with all my wanton pictures: Balm his foul head in warmed distilled waters and burn sweet wood to make the lodging sweet: Procure me music ready when he wakes to make a dulcet and a heavenly sound, and if he chance to speak, be ready straightŠ This do and do it kindly, gentle sirs.”

If we were to look at the manner of treatment that Sly receives, we might be persuaded to think the lord something like a good Samaritan. He gives his own, best things for Sly’s comfort. However, the question of whether the lord is beneficent or not lies more in his motives than in his means. As with any action, what is done is made morally significant by why it is done. Charity, that is, real love, seeks the true good of another as opposed to the apparent good. In this case, the lord is not seeking Sly’s good, but rather his own passing pleasure. He will happily pay handsomely for some humor at Sly’s expense.
“Even as a flattering dream or worthless fancy. Then take him up and manage well the jest.”

“It will be pastime passing excellent, if it be husbanded with modesty.”

“Well, you are come to me in happy time; the rather for I have some sport in hand wherein your cunning can assist me much.”

“I long to hear him [Bartholomew] call the drunkard husband, and how my men will stay themselves from laughter when they do homage to this simple peasant. I’ll in to counsel them; haply my presence may well abate the over-merry spleen which otherwise would grow into extremes.”

He will “practice on this drunken man” and see if he cannot make “the beggar then forget himself.” He does not hope for any permanent change: in fact, the ruse at some point must fail, for the lord will not give up his own to a beggar. When it does fail, and Sly realizes he is not what he has come to believe himself to be, what will pass through his mind? The delicious food, luxurious surroundings, tender care, and sweet music are not his, and never will be again. Some comforts are better not known, for they make the return to ‘real’ life that much more painful. Epicurus thought that men should delight in simple things, for such goods are commonplace and thus more accessible. Who is more likely to be able to be happy, the man whose pleasures are costly and rare, or the man who can take joy in the simple pleasures of life? Is Sly, then, better off for having fleetingly felt the joys of the ‘good life’, a life that will never be his? More telling, how will he feel when he realizes the woman presented as his loving wife is in truth a man playing a part? He will leave the lord’s manor with less than he came, stripped of any dignity, mocked with everything he does not have, for being what he is.
“Huntsman, I charge thee, tender well my hounds: Š I would not lose the dog for twenty pound.”

“Thou art a fool: if Echo were as fleet, I would esteem him worth a dozen such. But sup them well, and look unto them all.

The lord has more real care for his dogs than for this unfortunate man.

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