The Taming of the Shrew
Induction and Act One
by Dennis Abrams
Induction: A drunken tinker, Christopher Fly, is thrown out of an alehouse and passes out. He is discovered by a Lord, who, with the aid of his servants, decides to play an elaborate prank on him. Sly is taken to the Lord’s house, where the servants convince Sly that he has been insane for the last fifteen years and is actually a Lord. After much discussion, Sly decides to believe them, and settles down to watch the players perform an Italian play, which is the “real” play we’re reading…
Act One: Hortensio and Gramio are both hoping to win the hand of the lovely Bianca, the younger daughter of Baptista. Unfortunately, Baptista has vowed that Bianca cannot marry until her sister, the “shrewish” Katherine, has gotten married herself. All of this information is overheard by Lucentio, who has recently arrived in Padua to study and who, having seen Bianca, falls for her himself. Knowing that Baptista is seeking tutors for his daughters, Lucentio comes up with a plan: he will gain access to her by disguising himself as a schoolteacher, while his faithful servant, Tranio, impersonates him. At the same time, Petruchio has also arrived in Padua, and hearing from Hortensio about the substantial dowry that Katherine brings with her, resolves to win her for himself – much to the delight of Bianca’s numerous suitors, who vow to financially support Petruchio in his quest.
Obviously, I think, the main thing here is the Induction. Before I get to that though, I’d like to begin by discussing the role that the so-called “shrewish” woman has played in oral storytelling – and the fact that tales about taming apparently difficult wives were a staple of the early modern world. One broad ballad from 1635 even has the same title as Shakespeare’s play, although its subtitle “The only wan to make a Bad WIFE God; At least, To keep her quiet” suggests that it is designed less for entertainment than as a how-to manual. Another, entitled “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin for Her Good Behaviour,” is something else again: it tells the tale of a defiant wife whose husband makes her behave by beating her violently, then wrapping her in the skin of a dead horse.
Of course, Katherine, described by Hortensio as “intolerable curst,/And shrewd and forward so beyond all measure” is not made to suffering anything so violent as does her contemporaries in ballads and tales. But in telling the story of Katherine’s “taming” by Petruchio, a man who freely admits that he plans to marry her simply for her money, Shakespeare is deploying motifs that his audience would be very familiar with.
And now onto the Induction, which although just 282 lines, is seen as one of the richest and most compacted pieces in Shakespeare’s comedies.
From Tony Tanner:
“I should, perhaps, mention here the existence of a play, published anonymously in 1594, entitled the Taming of a Shrew (my underlining). Shakespeare’s play only appeared in print in the Folio of 1623, and there have been ongoing arguments – which need not concern us – as to whether A Shrew was a ‘first shot’ by Shakespeare, or – more likely – some kind of inadequate reconstruction of Shakespeare’s play by others. I don’t think much should be made of the shift between definite and indefinite article (on the lines that Shakespeare was offering The definitive article); the plays are very similar in outline, theme, and scenic detail – though A Shrew is detectably the cruder play. The important difference concerns Sly, and the framing situation. In Shakespeare’s play, Sly drifts off into silence and, apart from a moment at the end of the first scene, when he nods off, and wishes it was all over, he is never heard from again. One can justify this, and say that, with the disappearance of sly, the play-within-the-play becomes simply the play, scaffolding jettisoned; and we, as audience, are brought one step nearer to the depicted events. That is – rather than looking at X looking at Y (us looking at Sly looking at Kate), we watch Y (Kate)_ direct (the now irrelevant Sly forgotten). I can see this as a plausible case, and personally, I am quite happy with the play as we have it. But in A Shrew, Sly interrupts the ‘play’ on four occasions, and, more importantly, the play ends back with him at the alehouse – frame completed. Distinguished editors, from Bullough to Morris, think that, for a variety of reasons, the text we have is defective, and that Shakespeare’s play almost certainly included Sly’s interruptions, and the completion of the frame back at the alehouse at the end. That ending is certainly potentially important, and I will return to it. [When we get to the end, I’ll have my own take on it, and my thoughts as to why Shakespeare would not have wanted to “complete the frame.”]
But now let us consider Shakespeare’s Induction, just about twice as long as the one in A Shrew – and much more interesting. It opens with the Hostess of the alehouse — the shrew? – fiercely upbraiding the drunken Sly. A note of struggle and discord between the sexes is immediately struck. Then the Lord enters, accompanied by his retinue and dogs – affectionately named (Merriman, Chowder, Silver, Bellman Echo – not yet time for Lear’s Tray, Blanche, and Sweetheart). This is very much rural England, and will make the shift to the bourgeois, merchant world of Padua in the ‘play’ all the more marked. Seeing Sly, drunkenly asleep, the Lord comments: ‘O monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies.’ He has undergone a downward transformation – humans into beasts (swine if Circe had anything to do with it): it is very much Ovid’s world. The Lord decides to ‘practice’ on him, and simulate an upward transformation – like a magician, or a playwright:
What think you, if her were conveyed to bed,
Wrapped in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers,
A most delicious banquet by his bed,
And brave attendants near him when he wakes –
Would not the beggar then forget himself?
In the event, the beggar does, finally, not forget himself – which may be taken to indicate that some people are unapt for metamorphosis, or that there are limits to the metamorphosing art. This is the case with Sly: it won’t be true of Kate. The Lord continues with making the arrangements to carry out his plan. He really is like a stage director, specifying the décor, supervising the props and trappings, and, in particular, giving very detailed instructions as to how people are to ‘act.’ His page, Bartholomew, is to have the crucial role of pretending to be ‘lord’ Sly’s loving wife. This is how he is to do it:
Tell him from me – as he will win my love –
He bear himself with honorable action
Such as he hath observed in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplished.
Such duty to the drunkard let him do
With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,
And say, ‘What is’t your honor will command
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?
And then, with kind embracements, tempting kisses,
And with declining head into his bosom,
Bid him shed tears, as being overjoyed
To see her noble lord recovered to health
Who for this seven years hath esteemed him
No better than a poor and loathsome beggar.
And if the boy not have a woman’s gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift,
Which in a napkin being close conveyed
Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.
Now, of course, this is exactly how a boy playing a part in an Elizabethan play (by Shakespeare, among others) would be prepared – dressed up as a woman, and then told how to simulate the emotional states of a mature woman (not easy, surely, for a young lad, who no doubt had recourse to the onion trick and other stratagems). So we may fairly say that here Shakespeare (a theatre professional after all), is, effectively, showing himself at work. And a boy into a woman is a theatrical equivalent of tutoring and changing an unbearable shrew into just such an obedient, courteous, quiet, loving wife as young Bartholomew is ordered to impersonate. The whole process of the coming drama of transformation is here anticipated, to be this time, of course, managed by Shakespeare himself. And where the Lord fails – Sly remains the same old Sly – Shakespeare will succeed. Superior magic. Just watch me do it – the Induction seems to say.
When Sly wakes up in the Lord’s bedroom, and the servants duly enact their allotted, pampering roles, he thinks they are mad (as Kate will think Petruchio is). ‘What, would you make me mad? Am I not Christopher Sly…now by present profession a tinker? Ask Mariam Hacket, the fat alewife of Winscot.’ Winscot was a village near Stratford, so we know that Shakespeare is, as it were, close to home. In addition wine and delicacies, the servants offer him music (but, in time, lutes will be broken); hunting (Petruchio will take that over); and paintings:
Dost thou love pictures? We will fetch thee straight
Adonis painted by a running brook
And Cytherea all in sedges hid,
Which seem to move and wanton with her breath
Even as the waving sedges play with wind.
We’ll show these Io as she was a maid
And how she was beguiled and surprised
As lively painted as the deed was done.
Or Daphne roaming through a thorny wood,
Scratching her legs that one will swear she bleeds,
And at that sight shall sad Apollo weep,
So workmanly the blood and tears are drawn.
This is Ovid plain, or rather Ovid illustrated (it is a good example of ekphrasis – the verbal description of a work of art). All the examples are from the Metamorphoses, and, indeed, Jonathan Bate is of the opinion that ‘what is laid out here is almost a programme for Shakespeare’s subsequent Ovidianism.’ (This is continued in the play: Ovid is mentioned by name in the first scene, line 33 – one of only four times in Shakespeare; and when Lucentio is smitten by Bianca he says:
O yes, I saw sweet beauty in her face,
Such as the daughter of Agenor had [i.e. Europa]
That made great Jove to humble him to her hand
When with his knees he kissed the Cretan strond.
In Ovid’s account, Jove changed himself into a bull; Lucentio, with less scope, turns himself into a schoolmaster.) Here, there, and everywhere, metamorphosis of one kid or another (from change of clothes, roles, identities, to some deep inner change in the self) is in the air. It might be pointed out that the Ovidian illustrations do not offer particularly felicitous examples of the results of love – Adonis killed by a boar; Io changed to a heifer; and bleeding, crying Daphne turned into a laurel. Ovidian metamorphosis is, invariably, a brutal, and ‘brutalizing,’ business; Shakespeare wants to find a better way. Sly, deciding to go along with the ‘play’ in which he finds himself, tells his ‘wife’ to undress and come to bed; he is, he makes clear – ‘it stands so’ ready for it. [This passage actually made me laugh out loud.] Shakespeare, with his boy-girl figures (not to mention his boy-girl-boy characters), often delights in taking us to the very borders of so-called sexual normality, allowing us to feel the dangerous, exciting edge of imminent and proximate deviance. (Just in case we were feeling complacent and too much at ease in our sexual identities.) Bartholomew makes his excuses; not before, in one last anticipation of a Kate to come, s/he has vowed to Sly – ‘I am your wife in all obedience.’ Then the players – the next lot of players – enter, and Sly and Bartholomew settle down to watch what is rather curiously promised as ‘a kind of history’ – never be too sure which genre you are in a Shakespeare play.) The alehouse yard becomes a bedroom, which in turn becomes a theater – fairly seamlessly. The boundaries hardly seem fixed; nor, perhaps, determinable. Is what we are about to see just a continuation of Sly’s dream (wherever that started or stopped)? Or is it as real as a row in an alehouse yard? Or stage-stuff to entertain a lord? It doesn’t really matter. One way and another, implied Shakespeare, it is all pretty theatrical – like much of life.
So, from Wincot (thereabouts) to Padua, we are soon among the would-be wooers of Baptista’s two daughters. Most of them are bidding for the hand of the apparently perfect and demure, Bianca. I say ‘bidding’ advisedly; it cannot be missed to what extent courtship is involved with money (riches, property, dowries, contracts, etc.) in this play. Romance – no, marriage is, it seems, if not indistinguishable, then inseparable from finance. We may check at this a little – Baptista is very clearly auctioning off Bianca is not perhaps how we see a father’s role. Perhaps this is Shakespeare’s version of how merchants – or Italians – view marriage; or perhaps it was for him the merest realism. Which is not to say that he put a cash value on true love; that, indeed is priceless. Make sure you find it – if you can. But it arrives, or is come by, in strange ways; and, as it transpires, the infatuated Petrarchanism of Lucentio’s wooing of Bianca is by no means a certain way of securing it. How about Petruchionism?
Where Lucentio appears to be a conventional lover (‘I burn, I pine, I perish’ and son on), Petruchio presents himself as an unashamedly mercenary fortune hunter:
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.
as he makes quite explicit – ‘wealth is burthen of my wooing dance’. He is told about Katherine Minola, who as the elder daughter of Baptista will have a very large dowry (he wants her off his hands, anyway – she is very much ‘for sale’); but he is also warned that she is ‘intolerable curst/And shrews and froward’ and, adds Hortensio, ‘I would not wed her for a mine of gold.’ ‘Thou know’st not gold’s effect’ is Petruchio’s cool replay, and he announces his intention to marry her. The other suitors think that he will not be able to abide, and prevail over, her ‘scolding tongue,’ but there are two hints which may alert us to his subsequent course of action. He dismisses the problem of her shrewish tongue:
Think you a little din can daunt my ears?
Have I not in my time heard lions roar?
Have I not heard the sea, puffed up with winds,
Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?
Have I not heard great ordnance in the field
And heaven’s artillery thunder in the skies?
Have I not in a pitched battle heard
Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets’ clang?
And do you tell me of a woman’s tongue…
The discernible figure behind Petruchio here is Hercules – an identification made explicit a moment later when Gremio, referring to Katherine, says ‘Yea, leave that labor to great Hercules.’ Gunnar Sorelius is the only commentator I know who has pointed to the importance of recognizing Petruchio as a Hercules figure, but there can be doubt that it is central. Sorelius points out that in the speech just quoted you can catch glimpsing references to various of Hercules’ labours – the Nemean lion, the Erimanthian bear, and perhaps his capture of Troy. And in his ninth labour, Hercules subjugated the Amazonian, Hippolyte. Hercules was, of course, the culture hero, the master of monsters, the controller of the barbaric; as such, he was regarded as a primary civilizing force. Petruchio’s treatment of Kate must be seen at least partially in that light.
But there was another side to Hercules, best known to the Elizabethans through translations of Seneca’s Hercules Furens (from the play by Euripides). This shows Hercules gone mad, and killing his wife Megata. This should also be remembered when considering Petruchio’s treatment of Kate, who, indeed, thinks he is ‘mad’ from the beginning. His violent and disruptive behaviour at his own wedding, biffing the priest and throwing wine over the sexton, indeed suggests a Petruchio furens. (‘Such a mad marriage never was before.’) Likewise, the bizarre, ragged, and desperately slovenly clothes he wears for the wedding, make him ‘a very monster in apparel’ as well as ‘an eyesore to our solemn festival.’ But, as the shrewd and perceptive Tranio observes: ‘He hath some meaning in his mad attire.’ Or, more generally, there is, as we say, method in his ‘madness.’ Hercules, the human hero raised to the level of a god, was famous for both his immense powers of control (including self-control), and for his anger. Not for nothing do we see Petruchio apparently controlling and commanding time ‘It shall be what o’clock I say it is,’ the planets or heavenly bodies ‘this gallant will command the son,’ ‘It shall be sun or star or what I list,’ and even gender (making Kate address Vincentio as a young girl and then as an old man). But he also shows signs of violent anger. We first see him beating his (insolent) servant; and later he throws dishes, food, clothes about, not to mention roughing up the clergy (though it should be noted he uses no physical violence with Kate, and only threatens to hit her after she has truck him – she clearly believes him!). There is something particularly menacing in absolutely cool anger – lethal wrath contained within total composure. It is, indeed, god-like, and this is what marks Petruchio.”
I’ll be posting again Thursday night/Friday morning
The next reading:
The Taming of The Shrew
Acts Two and Three