The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 2)

That commentary begins with the first lines of the induction, which feature the beggar Christopher Sly begin forcibly removed from an alehouse by the hostess. From the moment he is introduced to the audience, Sly is immediately exhibited as a henpecked buffoon. Throughout the induction, he continues to display his buffoonery as well as to have all of his desires denied by women. As the dupe of the Lord’s trick to convince Sly that he is actually a lord who has been sleeping for many years and only dreamed that he was a beggar, Sly’s frustrations with females reach their climax when the Lord’s Page, who is actually a boy pretending to be Sly’s wife, refuses his requests for sex.

Entering the stage dressed as Sly’s “madam wife,” the Page begins by proclaiming “her” devotion to “her” husband in a manner befitting an Elizabethan wife: “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband; / I am your wife in all obedience.”[1] Sly’s thoughts quickly turn toward the consummation of this relationship; he brusquely dismisses his “servants” and orders his wife to “undress you and come now to bed.”[2] Sly’s desires are once again rebuffed by a “woman” as his “wife,” unable to fulfill the requirements of the marriage bed, explains,

Thrice-noble lord, let me entreat of you

To pardon me yet for a night or two,

Or, if not so, until the sun be set.

For your physicians have expressly charged,

In peril to incur your former malady,

That I should yet absent me from your bed.[3]

Sly, then, is spurned by a woman in both of the scenes of the play in which he appears.

It is not merely that Sly is a fool, though he is, that places him under the control of women who, in the Elizabethan social hierarchy, he would otherwise be in authority over. It is Sly’s own inauthenticity, which, in turn, leads him to misunderstand these women, that places him under their control. In both of the scenes of the induction, Sly claims an authority that derives from a fictional self-understanding.

In the first scene of the induction, having been ejected from the alehouse and referred to by the hostess as a “rogue,” Sly justifies himself by appealing to an undoubtedly fictitious family history:

You’re a baggage. The Slys are no rogues. Look in the chronicles; we came in with Richard Conqueror. Therefore paucas pallabris, let the world slide. Sessa![4]

Sly’s erroneous historical information and mangled Spanish belie his claimed lineage and station. The name of the “Conqueror” who led the Norman invasion of England was William, not Richard; though William had both a father and a son whose names were Richard, he himself was not a Richard. Sly’s “paucas pallabris” and “sessa” are mispronunciations of the Spanish “pocas pallabaris,” meaning “few words,” and “cese,” meaning “cease.” The identity Sly claims for himself in the opening scene of the induction, an identity which includes an ostensible noble lineage and knowledge of a prestigious foreign language, is as much a fiction as the identity that the Lord and his henchmen will endow him with in the second half of the induction.

It is in the second half of the induction, in addition, that the relationship between Sly’s self-misunderstanding and Sly’s misunderstanding of and subordination to women is revealed. As the Page enters the scene dressed as the wife of a lord, Sly makes two simultaneous yet quite different mistakes about the Page’s identity. He fails first to recognize that the Page is dressed as a noble lady. When she at first enters and addresses him, he speaks to her as if he were speaking to a servant and asks “where is my wife?,” not realizing that the woman wearing the clothing of a noble lady must be his wife given that he is, supposedly, the lord.[5] When the Page-as-Lady identifies “herself” as Sly’s wife, Sly immediately turns his attention to “her” but fails to recognize that his “lady” is in reality a boy dressed as a woman.

These two mistakes regarding the identity of his “wife” are compounded by Sly’s need to turn to the actual Lord, who is pretending to be one of Sly’s servants, to find the proper words with which to address his “lady.” In spite of his assurances to his “wife” that “I know it well” when she explains that it is proper for ladies to refer to their husbands as “lord,” Sly then turns to the Lord and asks, “what must I call her?”[6] The lord responds by telling Sly that he should call his wife “madam,” prompting Sly to ask for clarification: “Al’ce madam, or Joan madam?”[7] The Lord explains more clearly, “Madam, and nothing else. So lords call ladies.”[8] Even with this clarification, however, Sly is still unable to address his “wife” correctly. When he turns to speak to her, he begins by incorrectly referring to her as “madam wife.”[9] He then attempts to order “her” into bed with the same tone in which he orders his servants, commanding all at once, “servants, leave me and her alone.— / Madam, undress you and come now to bed.”[10] Even with the help of the actual Lord, Sly is unable to understand women because he is unable, or unwilling, to understand himself. The result is that the women around him, who understand him better than he understands himself, are able to control, snub, and manipulate him, as do the Hostess and the Page-as-Lady.

[1] Ibid., Ind.2.104-105.

[2] Ibid., Ind.2.114.

[3] Ibid., Ind.2.115-120.

[4] Ibid., Ind.1.3-5.

[5] Ibid., Ind.2.100.

[6] Ibid., Ind.2.106.

[7] Ibid., Ind.2.106-107.

[8] Ibid., Ind.2.108.

[9] Ibid., Ind.2.109.

[10] Ibid., Ind.2.113-114.

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