Month: February 2017

Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 5)

The two major plotlines of The Taming of the Shrew are each, apparently, successfully resolved in the final scene of the play, but each in such a way as to leave lingering doubts about the nature of the resolution in the minds of attentive readers and audience members. While Lucentio and Bianca are now married, Bianca reveals herself in her bawdy speech and her defiance of her husband to be quite other than what Lucentio and her other suitors had earlier imagined her to be. Katherine, on the other hand, now presents herself as a woman whose fulfillment of the role of submissive wife so perfectly meets the expectations of Elizabethan society that it nearly seems satirical and appears distasteful to the other women present at the final wedding banquet. Yet, her final monologue earns her the approbation of Vincentio, the figure representative of the traditional Elizabethan social order, who comments that “‘Tis a good hearing when children are toward.”[1] Even buried within her final monologue, filled as it is with marks of submissiveness toward her husband and renunciation of her former shrewishness, however, there is a subtle indication that, rather than having been reformed, she has, instead, joined in on Petruchio’s game, when she makes reference to women “seeming to be most which we indeed least are.”[2] As Tita French Baumlin, a scholar of Shakespeare’s works at Missouri State University, succinctly describes Kate’s final monologue, “A dominant theme here is Kate’s complete appropriation of Petruchio’s language—a curative, healing medium which also embodies delightful deception and play.”[3] Indeed, this line is a fitting description and commentary upon nearly all of the characters, each of whom has at some point presented himself or herself as, or, in the case of Vincentio,  been accused of being, something other than his or her real identity. It is only Petruchio and, through him, Katherine, however, who are able to turn this game of “deception” regarding identity into something “delightful” and “play[ful].”

Significantly, the story of the induction is never returned to again and instead is left entirely unresolved. All of the possible source material for the story of Christopher Sly, however, features a resolution to the story in which it is revealed to the beggar that he is not really a lord and he is returned to, more or less, his original state. Indeed, The Taming of a Shrew, a contemporary analogue to The Taming of the Shrew, which features a story nearly identical to that of The Taming of the Shrew, though told with different characters and words, the relationship of which to The Taming of the Shrew remains a matter of debate, features a final scene which concludes the story of Christopher Sly. In The Taming of a Shrew, Christopher Sly, who has fallen asleep during the play, is stripped of the various lordly accoutrements he has acquired and deposited once again in front of the tavern where he first fell into his drunken sleep. Upon awakening, he assumes that the play must have been a dream and raves to the bartender about how wonderful it was. When the bartender warns him to get home quickly because his wife will be angry that he has been out so late, Sly proclaims his desire to apply the knowledge he has acquired through his “dream”: “Will she? I know now how to tame a shrew, / I dreamt upon it all this night till now, / And thou hast wak’t me out of the best dream / That ever I had in my life, but I’ll to my / Wife presently and tame her too / And if she anger me.”[4]

Given the existence of this and other possible resolutions to the Christopher Sly story in his source material, the absence of a resolution to the induction was undoubtedly intentional, and therefore meaningful, on Shakespeare’s part. As the words of Bianca and Katherine in the final scene subtly raise questions about the social order and its relationship to the representation of identity, the apparent persistence of Sly’s change social status into perpetuity is Shakespeare’s strongest suggestion that the social hierarchy lacks the permanence which has been attributed to it and that movement up or down its scale may be as simple as a costume change.

[1] The Taming of the Shrew, 5.2.186.

[2] Ibid., 179.

[3] Tita French Baumlin, “Petruchio the Sophist and Language as Creation in The Taming of the Shrew,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 29, no. 2 (Spring, 1989): 250, doi: 10.2307/450473.

[4] The Taming of a Shrew, 15.16-21.

Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 4)

Though, as Marianne L. Novy writes, “the focus of the play is not on the apparent changes in social class permitted by changes of clothes,” but, rather, on the change of identity by Katherine from shrew to loving wife, the theme of change in social status through change in clothing plays an important part even in the central plot. This is particularly true of the attitude of Petruchio toward clothing and other means of displaying identity. While the new garments of Christopher Sly, Tranio, and the Pedant are attempts to “rise in the social hierarchy,” Petruchio’s “choice of clothes for the roles he plays dramatizes his independence of the status concerns usually coded by Elizabethan clothing.”[1]

Sly, Lucentio, and the Pedant exhibit more concern for ostentation and the social status attached to the perception of wealth than to real wealth. Sly rejects the fine foods and drinks offered to him and insists instead on “a pot of small [or cheap] ale.”[2] He takes gleeful delight, however, in being attended to by others and referred to as “lord.”[3]

Similarly, Tranio’s concern is for the lifestyle of the wealthy rather than the actual ownership of wealth. In his victorious attempt, while disguised as Lucentio, to outbid the elderly Gremio for the hand of Bianca by offering the “greatest dower,” Tranio is not hesitant to offer wealth that neither he nor his real master actually possess.[4] After a bidding war with Gremio in which he claims “three or four” houses “within rich Pisa walls,” “two thousand ducats by the year / Of fruitful land,” “three great argosies, besides two galliases / And twelve tight galleys,” Tranio concludes by assuring Gremio that he will offer “twice as much, whate’er thou off’rest next.”[5] Unlike the wealth of Gremio, who worries in an aside that “my land amounts not to so much in all,” the wealth of Tranio-as-Lucentio is apparently unlimited because it is unreal.[6]

The Pedant, too, claims for himself wealth that he does not actually possess because his concern is for the appearance of wealthiness rather than for the possession of actual wealth. The Pedant, as he admits to Tranio before assuming the identity of Vincentio at Tranio’s behest, has come to Padua with “bills for money by exchange.”[7] He has, in other words, come with promissory notes with which to borrow money. Yet, when the real Vincentio arrives in Padua and offers a substantial amount of money to Lucentio through the Pedant, the Pedant-as-false-Vincentio rejects the money, scoffing, “Keep your hundred pounds to yourself. He shall need none, so long as I live.”[8] Tranio, arriving dressed as Lucentio, also takes part in the false claims of wealth, countering the exclamations of Vincentio at his clothing with his own commentary on Vincentio’s clothing as well as an admission of his concern for ostentation:

Sir, you seem a sober ancient gentleman by your habit, but your words show you a madman. Why, sir, what ‘cerns it you if I wear pearl and gold? I thank my good father, I am able to maintain it.[9]

Vincentio’s response is a reminder that pretense and ostentation are no substitute for inheritance: “Thy father! Oh, villain, he is a sailmaker in Bergamo.”[10]

Petruchio presents a substantial contrast with this obsession with ostentation over real wealth. Petruchio, who really is of good birth, mentions his recently deceased father only three times, each time in passing and in a manner that exhibits his more central concern for real wealth over the social status that his birth conveys to him. The first of these mentions of his parentage comes in his words to Hortensio explaining why he is in Padua; Petruchio explains,

Antonio, my father, is deceased,

And I have thrust myself into this maze,

Happily to wive and thrive as best I may.

Crowns in my purse I have, and goods at home,

And so am come abroad to see the world.[11]

Petruchio here mentions the inheritance he has received from his father as the source of his wealth, but quickly turns to his desire to acquire greater wealth for himself. Significantly, he has hidden his “crowns in my purse, and goods at home.” He has not come into the world to display his wealth and be seen but, rather, has “come abroad to see the world.” He again mentions his father when introducing himself to Gremio, but again turns his attention to himself and what his newly-inherited wealth can do for him:

Born in Verona, old Antonio’s son.

My father dead, his fortune lives for me.

And I do hope good days and long to see.[12]

Petruchio’s third and final mention of his father is as brief as the others and spoken only to prove to Baptista that he is a worthy suitor for his daughter Katherine:

Petruchio is my name; Antonio’s son,

A man well known throughout all Italy.[13]

Petruchio is willing here to mention his father because he knows that such displays of identity are important to others around him and he is willing to work within this framework to accomplish his goals.           Petruchio’s ends are not those of the other characters, however. While he is willing to display his wealth and parentage when it suits his need, his concern is not for recognition derived from ostentation. His desire is, instead, for real wealth.

His lack of concern for display extends to his treatment of others as well. In his search for wealth, he is willing to become a suitor to Kate no matter how shrewish her behavior. As his friend Hortensio begins to warn him about Kate’s displays of shrewishness, Petruchio silences him, exclaiming,

Hortensio, peace! Thou know’st not gold’s effect.

Tell me her father’s name and ‘tis enough;

For I will board her, though she chide as loud

As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack.[14]

Like the other characters, Petruchio is willing to alter identities, both his and Katherine’s, to attain his desires. His means and his desires, however, are different from those of the other characters in that while the others operate within the Elizabethan social hierarchy and attempt to make their way to the top of it through subterfuge, his desires lay in a reality free of this socially-concocted hierarchy and his means often subvert the hierarchy rather than working within it.

Petruchio’s disdain for the social hierarchy and the rules of dress and ostentation that exhibit one’s place within it are made evident through his own use of changes of clothing. Petruchio departs, after having secured the hand of Katherine in marriage through the blessing of her father, with promises of “rings, and things, and fine array” for the coming wedding.[15] His entrance on the wedding day, however, is quite different from what he had promised. Lucentio’s servant Biondello describes Petruchio’s wedding garment in detail:

Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced; an old rusty sword ta’en out of the town armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless; with two broken points; his horse hipped, with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred; besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose in the chine, troubled with the lampass, infected with the fashions, full of windgalls, sped with spavins, rayed with the yellows, past cure of the fives, stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten; near-legged before, and with a half-cheeked bit and a headstall of sheep’s leather which, being restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth six times pieced, and a woman’s crupper of velour, which hath two letters for her name fairly set down in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.[16]

This extended description of each detail of Petruchio’s bizarre wedding garments betrays the intentionality of the clothing. Petruchio has clearly carefully assembled this costume as a means by which to subvert the social order. Petruchio makes his unwillingness to conform to the social expectations of display of identity clear when he rebuts Baptista’s criticism of his clothing with a rejection of the relationship between identity and ostentation:

To me she’s married, not unto my clothes.

Could I repair what she will wear in me

As I can change these poor accoutrements,

‘Twere well for Kate and better for myself.[17]


Petruchio has both demonstrated his own scorn for social convention and the hierarchy it reinforces while subtly inviting Katherine into his game. As he made clear in his earlier fabricated description of his initial meeting with Katherine, Petruchio sees in her a worthy partner in his game of defiance of social convention:

‘Tis a world to see

How tame, when men and women are alone,

A meacock wretch can make the curstest shrew.[18]


Before they can become partners in this game, however, Petruchio must convince Katherine to join him by severing her own attachments to the accoutrements of the social order and transforming her passionate hatred for it into a scornful mockery of it. Clothing is again one of the most important tools applied by Petruchio to achieve this goal.

As Petruchio and Katherine prepare to return to Padua to visit her father, Petruchio calls for a tailor and a haberdasher, assuring Katherine,

We will return unto thy father’s house

And revel it as bravely as the best,

With silken coats and caps and golden rings,

With ruffs, and cuffs, and farthingales, and things

With scarves, and fans, and double change of brav’ry,

With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knav’ry.[19]


It is this none so subtle jab at the various fashion items which present their wearer as one of “the best,” itself revealing of Petruchio’s attitude toward ostentation, that sets the tone for the scene that ensues.

As the tailor and the haberdasher enter the stage, Petruchio turns to cast his scorn first upon the cap which the haberdasher has made for Katherine, exclaiming,

Why, this was molded on a porringer—

A velvet dish. Fie, fie, ‘tis lewd and filthy.

Why, ‘tis a cockle or a walnut shell,

A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby’s cap.

Away with it! Come, let me have a bigger.[20]


The words Petruchio chooses as he heaps his scorn upon the hat that has been presented to him are demonstrative of his attitude toward ostentation. It is, he says, a “knack,” which word Alexander Dyce defines in his General Glossary to Shakespeare’s Works as referring to “a bauble” or “a petty trifle.”[21] It is, in addition, “a toy” and “a trick,” says Petruchio. It is, in short, a deceitfully showy trinket. Yet, Petruchio, after hurling such insults on the cap, concludes by demanding one that is “bigger,” thereby compounding his mockery of ostentation by demanding a cap that is more conspicuous.

When Katherine briefly interjects that the cap “doth fit the time, / And gentlewomen wear such caps as these,” Petruchio launches again into a tirade of insults aimed at the cap, using terms with a similar implication of condemnation for ostentation.[22] “It is,” says Petruchio, “a paltry cap, / A custard-coffin, a bauble, a silken pie.”[23] It is, in short, an unnecessary and vain decoration. Petruchio concludes this second round of insults toward the cap with a subtle indication to Katherine to join him in his disdain for it and the ostentatious social order it represents, assuring her, “I love thee well in that thou lik’st it not.”[24]

Katherine, however, remains unswayed in her acceptance of the legitimacy of the system of social identity she despises, inducing Petruchio to turn his attention to the dress the tailor has made for Katherine. As with the cap, Petruchio immediately begins to insult it when it is presented to him, including within his insults several references to its use as an ornament of ostentation that hides one’s real identity behind a facade. He begins his derisive comments toward the tailor and the dress with an exclamation implying that the dress has been made for a masque, a form of entertainment popular among the wealthy of Elizabethan England in which participants hid their identities with a mask: “Oh, mercy, God, what masquing stuff is here?”[25] After adding several more insults, he then compares the dress “to a censer in a barber’s shop,”[26] which object Shakespeare scholar David Bevington describes as a “perfuming pan having an ornamental lid.”[27] The implication is that the dress is designed to hide the real identity of its wearer, which culminates in Petruchio’s accusation that the tailor “means to make a puppet” of Katherine.[28]

The scene concludes with a speech by Petruchio in which he makes clear his contempt of ostentation, his preference for honesty in identity, and his enjoyment of real wealth over the display of apparent wealth:

Well, come, my Kate. We will unto your father’s

Even in these honest, mean habiliments.

Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,

For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich;

And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,

So honor peereth in the meanest habit.

What, is the jay more precious than the lark

Because his feathers are more beautiful?

Or is the adder better than the eel

Because his painted skin contents the eye?

Oh, no, good Kate; neither art thou worse

For this poor furniture and mean array.

If thou account’st it shame, lay it on me.

And therefore frolic; we will hence forthwith,

To feast and sport us at thy father’s house.[29]


Petruchio refers to the more plain and simple clothing he intends to wear as “honest” in opposition to the lying cap and dress which he has rejected. Just as one bird is not shown to be “more precious” than another “because his feathers are more beautiful” nor one sea creature “better than the” other because his colors are more pleasing to see, Katherine is not shown to be less because she is wearing less ostentatious clothing. On the contrary, says Petruchio, “our purses shall be proud, our garments poor.” It is, then, the possession of real wealth, held within one’s purse, that is important, not the outward display of wealth and status through one’s clothing.

The induction of Katherine by Petruchio into his world of mockery of social convention reaches its climax when, along the journey to her father’s home, the two encounter the wealthy merchant Vincentio. Unaware of his identity, Petruchio induces Katherine to join him in reimagining Vincentio, a venerable elderly man, as a beautiful young maiden. Marianne L. Novy draws attention to the significance of Vincentio as the mutual target of Petruchio and Katherine:

Vincentio, as an old man, represents the class at the top of the social order within a patriarchal society, but when he is with Katherine and Petruchio his identity is temporarily within their power. . . . It is as if, in the new world of the game, ordinary social identities and inequalities are arbitrary and unimportant because other identities can so easily be assigned—anything can be its opposite.[30]

Vincentio will again be “mistaken” for something other than what he is when he finally makes his way into Padua and is accused by the Pedant, impersonating him, of impersonating himself. Shakespeare’s presentation of Vincentio twice as the subject of a “mistaken” identity which places Vincentio in a much lower social rank than his actual place in society highlights the questioning of the stability of the social order and the legitimacy of its means of display which has run throughout the entirety of the play.

[1] Novy, “Patriarchy and Play,” 18.

[2] The Taming of the Shrew, Ind.2.1.

[3] Ibid., Ind.2.103.

[4] Ibid., 2.1.341.

[5] Ibid., 2.1.364-365, 367-368, 376-378.

[6] Ibid., 2.1.371.

[7] Ibid., 4.2.90.

[8] Ibid., 5.1.22-23.

[9] Ibid., 5.1.68-71.

[10] Ibid., 5.1.72-73.

[11] Ibid., 1.2.53-57.

[12] Ibid., 1.2.188-190.

[13] Ibid., 2.1.68-69.

[14] Ibid., 1.2.92-95.

[15] Ibid., 2.1.321.

[16] Ibid., 3.2.43-62.

[17] Ibid., 3.2.117-120.

[18] Ibid., 2.1.309-311.

[19] Ibid., 4.3.53-58.

[20] Ibid., 4.3.64-68.

[21] Alexander Dyce, A General Glossary to Shakespeare’s Works, Volumes 1-2 (Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1904), s.v. “knack”.

[22] The Taming of the Shrew, 4.3.69-70.

[23] Ibid., 4.3.81-82.

[24] Ibid., 4.3.83.

[25] Ibid., 4.3.87.

[26] Ibid., 4.3.91.

[27] David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Seventh Edition (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 138.

[28] The Taming of the Shrew, 4.3.104.

[29] Ibid., 4.3.165-179.

[30] Novy, “Patriarchy and Play,” in Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations, 20.

Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 3)

In her article “Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew,” Marianne L. Novy of the University of Pittsburgh points out the connection between the induction and the first scene of the play-within-a-play. According to Novy,

As the “real” lord entertains us by showing that Sly can take a completely different place in the social order, the play begins to raise the question of how much that social order is a human construction whose validity is more like that of the game than that of divine or natural law. In the first scene of the inner play, the easy role change between Lucentio and Tranio, a servant clever enough to hide his precise degree of initiative from his master, repeats that question.[1]

Indeed, the play-within-a-play begins with at least two differences between displayed and actual identity. The exchange of clothing, and therefore of identities, by Lucentio and Tranio is precipitated by Lucentio’s experience of love at first sight as he observes Bianca, the younger sister of the shrewish Katherine. His infatuation with Bianca, however, arises out of a false first impression.

As he describes her after his first observation of her, “sacred and sweet was all I saw in her.”[2] In the end, however, Bianca reveals herself as neither “sacred” nor “sweet.” While exchanging barbs with the other characters at the wedding banquet in the final scene, Bianca offers a series of jests with defiant overtones and bawdy undertones. In a reference to the common Elizabethan image of a horned cuckold, Bianca takes a jab at the other newly-married couples, Petruchio with her sister Kate and Hortensio, her former suitor, with the Widow:

Head, and butt! An hasty-witted body

Would say your head and butt were head and horn.[3]

When Petruchio offers to bring her into the exchange of comical insults, Bianca responds with a double entendre, indicating her current intention to drop out of the conversation through reference to sexual imagery:

Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush;

And then pursue me as you draw your bow.[4]

At this, she exits the room along with the other women at the banquet.

Bianca completes the revelation of her true, and certainly less than “sacred and sweet,” identity in her refusal of obedience to her new husband. When called upon by Lucentio to depart from her female friends and join him at the banquet, she sends the message through the servant Biondello “that she is busy and she cannot come.”[5] Having been forced to rejoin her husband by the newly-tamed Katherine, Bianca offers mockery to the very notion that she has a “duty” to obey her husband:


Fie, what a foolish duty call you this?


I would your duty were as foolish [as Katherine’s], 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.

In this public chiding of her husband for having relied upon her to fulfill her duties as his wife, Bianca reveals herself as neither “sacred” nor “sweet,” contrary to Lucentio’s initial impression of her.

Lucentio’s mistaken first impression of Bianca leads to the exchange of identities between Lucentio and Tranio. Like the metamorphosis of Christopher Sly, this change of identities involves a change in apparent social class through a change of clothing. Tranio, slyly masking his desire for upward mobility in advice for his master, proposes an exchange of identities that will allow Lucentio, pretending to be a schoolmaster, to be close to Bianca and will allow Tranio to live the life proper to the son of the wealthy merchant Vincentio. In the form of a series of questions designed to bait his master into agreeing to the exchange of identities as if it were his own idea, Tranio makes the offer to Lucentio to

bear your part

And be in Padua here Vincentio’s son,

Keep house and ply his book, welcome his friends,

Visit his countrymen, and banquet them?[6]

The two immediately exchange clothing to make real the exchange of identities. Significantly, Tranio has tricked his master and assumed his duties and lifestyle. Just as Sly’s ability to fill the role of a lord raises questions about the permanence of the inherited social order, Tranio’s ability to mislead his young master and to fulfill his master’s duties implies an innate equality of nature that surpasses inequalities imposed by differences in wealth and social standing derived from birth.

Later, Tranio plans and carries out another trick which upsets the social order by convincing a passing Pedant to masquerade as the wealthy merchant Vincentio, Lucentio’s father. The Pedant, disguised as Vincentio, is, like Tranio, able to fulfill the duties requisite to his newly-assumed social station, passing himself off as Vincentio even to Baptista, the father of Katherine and Bianca and a wealthy merchant himself. The trick works so well that Baptista guarantees Bianca’s hand in marriage to Tranio disguised as Lucentio in his meeting with the Pedant disguised as Vincentio. Commenting that he is “please[d]” by the Pedant’s “plainness and . . . shortness,” Baptista proclaims that “the match is made, and all is done. / Your son shall have my daughter with consent.”[7]

Like the truth about Bianca, the true identities of Tranio and the Pedant are revealed in the final act as Tranio’s scheme unravels due to the appearance of the real Vincentio in Padua. Upon his arrival, the real Vincentio encounters the false Vincentio as a crowd gathers to “stand aside and see the end of this controversy.”[8] As Tranio enters the scene already in progress, Vincentio already having been denied by both the false Vincentio and Biondello, the first words addressed to Tranio by Vincentio reference his clothing and the social status they falsely claim for him:

What am I, sir? Nay, what are you, sir? O immortal gods! Oh, fine villain! A silken doublet, a velvet hose, a scarlet cloak, and a copintank hat![9]

Only Gremio is able to recognize the real Vincentio, though even he remains confused by the identity of Tranio as Lucentio. As a result of this denial of recognition by others, the real Vincentio briefly loses his social status and is nearly arrested. As the officer comes to take him to the jail for impersonating himself, Vincentio exclaims in frustration that “thus strangers may be haled and abused,” realizing his loss of recognition as a loss of social status, and therefore a loss of identity.[10]

The situation is resolved, however, and the real identities of Vincentio, Tranio, Lucentio, and the Pedant at last publicly revealed when the real Lucentio, now married to Bianca through a secret wedding ceremony, arrives and confesses the scheme to all present. Tranio, humiliated and restored to his former low position on the social scale, appears again as a servant in the following and final scene. There, the former mastermind behind the grand scheme to woo Bianca for Lucentio speaks only twice and both times addresses Petruchio, once again his social superior, as “sir.”[11] While the question of equality has been raised, the stability of the Elizabethan social structure has been affirmed.

[1] Marianne L. Novy, “Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations, 14.

[2] The Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.176.

[3] Ibid., 5.2.40-41.

[4] Ibid., 5.2.46-47.

[5] Ibid., 5.2.86.

[6] Ibid., 1.1.195-198.

[7] Ibid., 4.4.38, 46-47.

[8] Ibid., 5.1.57.

[9] Ibid., 5.1.60-62.

[10] Ibid., 5.1.101.

[11] Ibid., 5.2.52, 55.

Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 2)

While The Taming of the Shrew purports to be a play about relationships between men and women, and also features a crossdressing character, the display of gender identity merely serves to set the stage for a closer look at the way in which wealth and status, like gender, are displayed through ostentation. The Induction with which the play opens, for example, features a page who, at the behest of his lord, pretends to be a woman. This crossdressing, however, is performed only because it is one of the means by which the alteration of identity central to the Induction is accomplished, namely the metamorphosis of Christopher Sly from the status of a beggar to that of a lord.

The Taming of the Shrew’s induction acts as both a framing device for the central plot which follows the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine and as an introduction to the major themes that will continue to be explored throughout the play. The Taming of the Shrew is not the only play by Shakespeare that features a play-within-a-play. Several others feature a play-within-a-play that illuminates some important aspect of the primary story, as in Hamlet’s simultaneously fratricidal and regicidal Mousetrap play or the badly-performed retelling of the story of Pyramus and Thisby within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The use of an induction, also, is not entirely unique. Other playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare sometimes used an induction to frame their plays. Shakespeare also was not averse to framing devices and explanatory texts, as in the opening lines of Henry V, in which a Chorus offers a prologue to explain certain aspects of the play and the limitations imposed by the nature of the stage.

The induction to The Taming of the Shrew is unique, however, in its scale and in its scope. It is lengthier than the inductions of other contemporary plays, such as those of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1584-88) and Marston’s Malcontent (1604). As Marjorie B. Garber, a professor of English at Harvard University, has pointed out, “it introduces ten characters who never again appear” in this play or any other of Shakespeare’s plays.[1] The size of the induction, which is quite large in comparison with other similar devices in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, is made even more significant by the play’s lack of resolution for its plot. While Shakespeare’s source, a story originally derived from the Arabian Nights, features a resolution in which the beggar is returned to his original state, with some wisdom gained, The Taming of the Shrew never returns to the characters of the induction. Ten characters and their elaborate scheme are introduced at the beginning of the play and never again mentioned.

The induction serves to set the stage for what is to come in the play-within-a-play that is the taming by Petruchio of the shrew Katherine. It does so, first, by setting the story at a further remove from reality than a normal dramatic stage production while simultaneously drawing the audience into the story by implicating them into the trick played on Sly. The play which the real audience has come to see is performed, within the context of the induction, for the entertainment of the beggar-become-lord Christopher Sly, who, at the end of the induction, has taken his seat at the head of the audience alongside his wife, who is actually a boy page in drag pretending to be his wife.[2] The audience has been invited to take part in the farce of the induction, while becoming separated by this extra layer of fiction from the fiction of the play-within-a-play. Through this intentional mixing of the real with the merely apparently real, Shakespeare has introduced one of the key aspects of the play, namely, the relationship between identity-in-reality and identity-in-appearance.

This theme is introduced by the induction in a number of other ways as well. Sly is originally presented to the audience as both a poor man and a drunkard. His first appearance comes as he is thrown out of an alehouse for refusing to pay for several glasses he has “burst.”[3] Later, in his initial attempt to assert his actual identity in the face of the claims by the Lord and his companions that he is in fact a lord himself who has recently risen from a lengthy sleep, he lists several other occupations he has taken part in in addition to begging and drinking, all of them distinctly lower-class occupations according to the social hierarchy of Elizabethan society:

Am not I Christopher

Sly, old Sly’s son of Burtonheath, by birth a

pedlar, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a

bear-herd, and now by present profession a tinker?[4]

Sly’s protests, however, are short-lived. He is convinced perhaps more quickly than most might be if placed in his situation of his status as a lord.

The quickness with which Sly becomes convinced of the Lord’s scheme can be attributed to Sly’s drunkenness, ignorance, and gullibility. It is also clear, however, that he has conditioned himself to receive this news through his pridefulness even while in his former condition. Taking offense to being called a “rogue” by the Hostess who has ejected him from the alehouse earlier in the induction, Sly offers a rebuttal that indicates his refusal to accept his low position as his permanent identity:

Ye are 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![5]

Sly is, of course, quite confused in both his knowledge of history as well as the Spanish language. The “conqueror” he refers to here is William the Conqueror, who led the Norman conquest of England in 1066. While William had both a paternal grandfather and a son named Richard, he himself was never called by this name. Similarly, Sly’s “paucas pallabris” is his confused and mispronounced attempt at the Spanish pocas palabras, meaning “few words,” and his “sessa” an attempt at the Spanish cesar, or “cease.” While Sly is unable to get his facts and pronunciations correct, his claims to an honorable lineage and pretensions to fluency in a foreign language are in defiance of the station which fate has in reality allotted to him. He may not be better than a beggar, drunk, peddlar, cardmaker, bear-heard, or tinker, but he has certainly convinced himself that he is — or should be. In this, he has primed his mind for the reception of the “knowledge” the Lord will soon impart to him regarding his real identity and status.

In his drunken stupor, Sly collapses and falls fast asleep, in which state the Lord and his attendants come upon him and decide to fool him into believing that he is really a lord who has been asleep for fifteen years, dreaming that he was a beggar. Having abruptly resolved that he “will practise on this drunken man,” the Lord’s first thoughts of how to fool him focus upon Sly’s clothing.[6] The Lord imagines Sly “wrapp’d in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers.”[7] This, says the Lord, would cause to “the beggar then [to] forget himself.”[8]

It is, in fact, to his clothing that Sly’s attention turns almost immediately upon awakening. After briefly rejecting the titles of honor bestowed upon him as well as the food and drink offered to him by the Lord’s servants, who are pretending to be his servants, Sly reserves the majority of his objections for the “raiment” that has been offered to him. While the servant has offered a “costly suit,” according to the order of the Lord, Sly instead describes the clothing he typically wears:[9]

Ne’er ask me what raiment I’ll wear, for I have no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet—nay, sometimes more feet than shoes, or such shoes as my toes look through the overleather.[10]

Sly’s usual beggarly garb both reinforces his identity to himself and reveals it to others. It was through Sly’s appearance that the Lord first recognized him as a poor and therefore probably ignorant and gullible man; upon noticing Sly for the first time, the Lord exclaims:

Oh, monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies!

Grim death, how foul and loathsome is thine image![11]

And it is to his own “foul and loathsome . . .  image” that Sly first appeals to rebut the claims of the servants.

Sly’s transformation comes at last through the same means, however. As he allows his new material circumstances as reported by his senses to finally change his mind, Sly wonders aloud,

Am I a lord? And have I such a lady?

Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?

I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak,

I smell sweat savors, and I feel soft things.[12]

The answer, of course, to all of Sly’s questions is “no.” He is not a lord, he does not have a lady such as the servants have described for him, he is not dreaming, and he has not been dreaming until now. But Sly is unable to deny or rebut the claims of his senses in the way he attempted to deny and rebut the claims of the servants. With his sudden conviction in his apparent change of station, Sly bursts out in jubilation and orders to “his” servants,

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’th’ smallest ale.[13]

Just as he has been convinced through his senses that he is a lord, he desires that his wife be brought to his “sight,” that she become real through being made an object of the senses as well.

What is brought into his “sight” is a boy page who has been dressed as a woman to fill the role of his wife. Sly, again convinced by what his senses present to him, nearly immediately orders his “wife” to “undress you and come now to bed.”[14] The page is, of course, unable to fill this role and so invents an excuse that requires Sly to delay the fulfillment of his sexual desires.

While the page is unable to fill the role of wife in all of its duties, the induction raises questions about the permanence of social status through Sly’s contrasting ability to fill his own newfound role. The fixed and inalterable nature of sex is exhibited by the page’s inability to fulfill all of the duties of his role as “wife.” There is little difference, on the other hand, between the actual Lord who has played a trick upon Sly and Sly himself.

The Lord entered the stage giving orders to others to “tender well my hounds” and voicing his intention to continue engaging in the leisure activities available to those of his station, declaring, “tomorrow I intend to hunt again.”[15] Discovering the drunk and sleeping Sly, the Lord immediately sets upon a plan for his farce, explaining that “it will be a pastime passing excellent.”[16] Sly, too, shows his ability to give commands to his servants and to enjoy leisure and luxury. And there seems to be little difference between the Lord’s desire to engage in farce and Sly’s desire that the players who have come to present a play for him perform “a comonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling trick.”[17]

Shakespeare has here raised a number of questions about social status that he will continue to explore throughout the play. On the one hand, Sly’s metamorphosis from beggar to lord is a trick that has been played upon him. He is a lord only temporarily and tentatively. He has no real authority or wealth and he receives no real respect. Yet Sly has filled the role of lord equally as well as the actual Lord has been shown to fill his role. Sly’s ability to fill the role of a lord and the, no doubt intentional, absence of an epilogue to close the story of the induction indicate the possibility that the new role which Sly has adopted continues into perpetuity as his permanent station.

[1] Marjorie B. Garber, “Dream and Structure: The Taming of the Shrew,” in Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 5. Garber’s work is also helpful for its discussion of the imagery used in the speeches of the Lord and his attendants in their attempts to convince Sly that he is really a lord, each of which is indicative of the merely apparent nature of Sly’s transformation.

[2] In.2.138-139.

[3] Ind.1.7.

[4] Ind.2.17-20.

[5] Ind.1.2-5.

[6] Ind.1.35.

[7] Ind.1.37.

[8] Ind.1.40.

[9] Ind.1.58.

[10] Ind.2.8-12.

[11] Ind.1.33-34.

[12] Ind.2.68-71.

[13] Ind.2.72-75.

[14] Ind.2.114.

[15] Ind.1.15, 28.

[16] Ind.1.66.

[17] Ind.2.133-134.

Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 1)

As a keen observer of and commentator upon psychology and human behavior, Shakespeare, naturally, also delved frequently into social criticism. Much of Shakespeare’s social criticism finds its focus in the rapidly changing class structures of Elizabethan England and the ways the members of those classes derived and displayed self-definition through membership in their respective classes. In The Taming of the Shrew in particular, Shakespeare engages in a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, critique of the establishment of identity through the ostentatious display of wealth in clothing styles and other decorations of the body. Inspired by the costumes of the theater and the ease with which an actor altered his displayed identity with each change of clothing, Shakespeare explores the gain and loss of both social identity and self-definition made possible by changes of apparel in all three plots of the play: the metamorphosis of Christopher Sly from beggar to lord in the induction, the subplot in which Tranio and Lucentio exchange identities so that the latter may win the love of Bianca, and the main plot in which Petruchio tames the shrewish Katherine through a series of exercises exhibiting defiance of Elizabethan social norms. Through this exploration of the centrality of ostentation to the establishment and maintenance of identity, Shakespeare calls into question the solidity and stability of the social order as well as offering an admonitory commentary on the obsessive ostentation of the wealthy. In so doing, Shakespeare offers an apparent reaffirmation of the belief in the permanence of the hierarchical structure of Elizabethan society while subtly casting doubt on the entire structure.

The clothing style and items worn by a person was one of the most obvious marks of that person’s social status. The wealthier and the more ostensibly important a person was, the more ostentatious their clothing and accessories became as an exhibition of that wealth and importance. According to Amanda Bailey, an expert in Shakespeare at the University of Maryland, Queen “Elizabeth possessed over three thousand dresses the year she died. Clothes were important to the queen and not merely because she had a passion for them. Apparel was one of the primary means through which she realized her authority.”[1] In addition, says Bailey, “while Elizabeth’s clothing symbolized her majesty, the clothes of her subjects signaled their various social positions.”[2]

So readily recognizable was the dress of each of the various classes of Elizabethan English society that “along with establishing a character’s gender,” says Robert I. Lublin, a historian of theater, “the most immediate and important function costume served on the Shakespearean stage was to assert the wearer’s social status in the highly stratified dramatic world of the performance.”[3] The audience immediately ascertained the social status and occupation of any character who entered the stage based upon the clothes worn by the actor because it was the sort of clothing they saw worn by the various members of the society around them.

The use of clothing to project social status became particularly important during the Elizabethan Era due to increasing social mobility, both upward and downward. The “excruciating concern with status” characteristic of the Elizabethan Age, “the anguished self-consciousness, the necessity to define one’s position, was rendered all the more acute by the rise of the gentry,” writes historian and Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse in his multivolume study of The Elizabethan Renaissance.[4]  In addition to this increased possibility of upward mobility, the Elizabethan Age also saw an increase in the possibility of downward mobility, with many of the heirs of the nobles of earlier times being forced to take up various employments due to the necessity imposed upon them by their decreasing wealth.[5] Such decreases in wealth and the taking up of occupations requiring labor were, of course, accompanied by the diminishment of social status. The nouveau riche, meanwhile, clamored after the means by which to establish and display the increase of status acquired through their new wealth. There was, for example, says Rowse, a “pedigree craze” in which the new gentry sought to equip their families with coats of arms.[6]

One of the most immediate means by which members of this newly socially mobile society attempted to display their status was the taking up of the clothing of their new caste. Clothing which distinguished its wearer as a man or woman of importance became increasingly ostentatious throughout the Elizabethan Age. “It was,” say historians Ann Rosalind and Peter Stallybrass in their treatment of clothing during the Renaissance, “in the late sixteenth century that the word ‘fashion’ first took on the sense of restless change” in styles of clothing.[7] Previously, the word “fashion,” derived from the Latin facio, meaning “to make,” had referred to the production of artists and artisans, “the act of making.”[8] As individuals were increasingly able to fashion, or make, themselves into something new through changes in occupation and social status, fashion in clothing became a central means by which to mark one’s body according to one’s new station and so publicly proclaim that station. According to Rowse,

Costume clearly reflected not only class and rank, but also profession — the clerical and academic, legal and mercantile. . . . In those days the expression of class-status in one’s costume was regulated by statute, though there must have been wide margins of divergence. Middle-class women were not supposed to dress in velvets, except for sleeves; blue was the colour of servants, so the upper classes forwent that delightful colour. Peasantry and working people wore serges and fustians of drab, natural colours, like themselves. . . . In general we may say that the grand costume of the leading classes, nobility and gentry, was immensely rich and exhibitionist, conspicuous and competent, artificial, addicted to hard, brilliant colours. There was much use of black, but that served as a background to bring out other hues. Renaissance society was extravagant and extrovert, so was the costume.[9]

The word “fashion” also began at this time, however, to take on “the sense of mere form or pretence” as well as connotations of something “counterfeit or pervert[ed].”[10] Just as the gentry attempted to establish a fictitious nobility of their lineage through the acquisition of a coat of arms for their family, the wearer of ostentatious and fashionable clothing was presenting himself according to a status greater than that allotted to him by birth. He was, implicitly, calling into question the whole of the Elizabethan social order, with all of its strict codes of conduct and rigid hierarchies, including the traditional passage of occupation and status from parent to child.

While this clash between the increased social mobility and a traditional hierarchal world picture consumed Elizabethan society, it also found a central place on the Elizabethan stage. Drawing upon the work of G. K. Hunter, Lublin summarizes, “the early modern stage engaged individuals first and foremost as expressions of their social rank.”[11] This was accomplished, says Lublin, primarily through costuming. “Without recourse to dialogue,” Lublin writes, “the characters established their identity onstage immediately and almost entirely from the apparel they wore.”[12] Even for those characters with substantial amounts of dialogue, “dialogue did not serve to constitute otherwise blank identities, but rather to modify the identities posited by their social station as it had been established by their apparel and understood by virtue of the sumptuary legislation of the period.”[13] Because of the importance of clothing to the establishment of the status and occupation of the character, acting troupes like that of Shakespeare were willing to spend large sums to ensure the authenticity and accuracy of the clothing worn on stage.

This importance of costume to character became a central comedic motif in the early works of Shakespeare and continued to play a substantial role through his career as a playwright. Shakespeare includes, for example, a number of comedic references to the practice of dressing boys up as women to play female parts due to laws which prohibited stage performances by women, as in Cleopatra’s lament shortly before her suicide in Antony and Cleopatra that in the future she

shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ the posture of a whore.[14]

The simultaneously pitiful and comedic effect of the statement was surely obvious to a crowd who was watching just such a boy-actor dressed as Cleopatra “squeaking” these very words.

As You Like It features what is perhaps the greatest example of the comedic uses to which Shakespeare could put the issues of gender raised by his crossdressing boy-actors. There, the boy playing Rosalind, a female character, dresses up as and pretends to be a male character, Ganymede, who, in turn, pretends to be Rosalind. This complicated multilayering of identity as it relates to gender and the display of identity through costume is at once both humorous and intriguing.

[1] Amanda Bailey, “‘Monstrous Manner’: Style and the Early Modern Theater,” Criticism 43, no. 3 (2001): 249, doi:10.1353/crt.2001.0023.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert I. Lublin, Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 41.

[4] A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 86.

[5] Ibid., 123.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ann Rosalind and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1.

[8] Ibid., 1-2.

[9] A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Cultural Achievement (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 200-201.

[10] Rosalind and Stallybrass, 1.

[11] Lublin, 43.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.