william shakespeare

As You Like It

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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.