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.

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