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Portrayal of Theatre in The Taming of the Shrew: Analytical Essay

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The works of William Shakespeare, most specifically his plays, are cornerstones of western literature. Pieces that were merely intended for public entertainment are now considered timeless, and are still being researched, adapted, and enjoyed hundreds of years later. One of the reasons for this is the strong thematic nature of his stories. The Taming of the Shrew is a play that on the surface seems like an example of “wife-taming” literature typical of the time, but if we look closer, it is clear that the concept of identity is a major focus within the work. This fixation on identity can be interpreted as a meta-textual statement on theater as a whole. In this essay, I will explore the ways in which The Taming of the Shrew is about theater.

From the very beginning of the play, all of the way in the first scene of act one, we are presented with this theme of identity, and more specifically, the changing of identity. We are introduced to the drunkard tinker, Christopher Sly, sleeping in a ditch after being kicked out of a local tavern. Returning from a hunt, an unnamed nobleman finds the unconscious Sly and has an idea to play a prank on the vagabond, or perhaps more accurately, conduct something similar to a social experiment:

What thinks you, if he 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? (citation)

The lord and his men proceed to kidnap Sly and gaslight him into thinking he is noble, groveling at his feet and surrounding him with decadence. While Sly is originally resistant to the proposition of his prestige, the lord and his servants are able to convince him that he has just recovered from a long bout of insanity, living through delusions of poverty. Once Sly begins to come around, he is presented with a wife (notably one of the lord’s servants dressed in drag) and is given “doctor’s orders” to watch a comedy put on by traveling players. Sly is supposedly advised to watch the play, what we know as The Taming of the Shrew, to regulate the excessive melancholy which has been attributed as the root of his madness.

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On its own, this induction seems to be mostly innocuous, if a bit cruel, but the context of not just the play, but the Shakespearean theater itself makes this scene extremely interesting. The Taming of the Shrew was produced and performed in Elizabethan England, a monarchical society with a fairly rigid class system. Aristocrats lived in luxury while common people toiled in fields or foyers, with an artisanal middle class settling somewhere in between. The vast disparity between these lifestyles naturally separated the various peoples of the time, with one of, if not the only exception being, theater. Even with that being said, Shakespeare’s plays would be performed in one of two settings. The first of which would be a private theater being almost exclusively attended by people of wealth, with specialized plays written for this setting, characterized by more elaborate wordplay and topical humor. The more interesting of the two, and the one in which The Taming of the Shrew was performed, was the public theater. The prime example of a public theater at the time being none other than Shakespeare’s very own Globe theater.

The theater itself was broken into multiple sections corresponding to the price of admission and, for the most part, the social standing of guests. The cheapest accommodations were on the ground around the stage, with prices increasing with rising elevation of seats. Just about everyone other than the queen (who would get private performances in her castle) would come and watch plays at the globe, regardless of class. The universal viewership of Shakespeare’s work sheds new light on the induction. In an act of boredom, an elite member of society decides to grab some random beggar out of a ditch and pretend to be in his service. In doing this, the lord and his servants function as a director and a group of players acting for the entertainment of two patrons, a nobleman stepping down from his pedestal, and a lowly peasant basking in wealth and prosperity, if only for a little while. This situation, by no coincidence, is a nearly one-to-one parallel to the demographics of the consumers of Shakespeare’s plays and their perspectives, respectively. What makes this allegory even more interesting in the portrayal of Sly once he begins to believe that he is a noble. Until that moment, all of Sly’s lines were in prose, typical of common characters, but as soon as he is presented with his false bride, he begins to speak in blank verse, something usually reserved for aristocratic characters in Shakespeare’s plays. This subtle change has interesting implications.

The deliberate difference in the speaking patterns of commoners and nobles in Shakespearean literature could only be assumed to symbolize some kind of fundamental difference between these two classes, whether it be education or perhaps divine favor, so the notion that someone who merely thinks that they are a noble would suddenly start speaking differently is eye-opening. This could be saying that the perceived differences between people of different classes may not be anything inherent, but instead a product of the environment. The theater is a place where societal roles are transformed from immutable facets of character to something infinitely more flexible, even to the point of frivolity. In the world created on the stage, function follows form. The actors physically on the stage would have been all male and middle class themselves, but with nothing more than a fancy outfit (often donated from real aristocrats) they could live and act as royalty, rugged rags could make them peasants, and dresses could even make them women.

This dynamic of reversal is ever present in the play within the play as well. When Lucentio comes up with his plan to woo Bianca, who Baptista was withholding from potential suitors, he swaps clothes with his servant, Tranio. With Tranio impersonating Lucentio, and Lucentio taking on a fake persona as Cambio, a Latin tutor, the servant, and master have changed places, just like in the induction. The two are able to play the roles quite convincingly, Tranio was able to negotiate Bianca’s jointure and maintain all of Lucentio’s affairs without being caught (other than by Lucentio’s father, who knew them both already). Lucentio was able to successfully woo Bianca, and when it became clear that she had feelings for Cambio, Litio, Bianca’s other tutor, revealed himself to Tranio (thinking he was Lucentio, a fellow suitor) as being Hortensio. In this scene, Hortensio swears off his affection for Bianca, being appalled by the fact that she could fall for a common man like Cambio, while Hortensio himself was trying to accomplish the same thing, also posing as a common tutor. His reasoning here can only seem to imply that Bianca would be able to identify his nobility through his disguise (while he himself could not identify Lucentio’s). This insinuation that some level of individuality persists under the societal roles imposed on members of Elizabethan society complicates my interpretation of the play, but it is just as interesting and well supported.

The character that embodies this idea the most is Katherine’s husband, Petruchio. In (act scene), Petruchio shows up for his wedding dressed in mismatched rags, looking like a madman. Baptista tries to convince Petruchio to change, threatening to call off the wedding if he does not.

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Portrayal of Theatre in The Taming of the Shrew: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-theatre-in-the-taming-of-the-shrew-analytical-essay/
“Portrayal of Theatre in The Taming of the Shrew: Analytical Essay.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-theatre-in-the-taming-of-the-shrew-analytical-essay/
Portrayal of Theatre in The Taming of the Shrew: Analytical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-theatre-in-the-taming-of-the-shrew-analytical-essay/> [Accessed 5 Dec. 2022].
Portrayal of Theatre in The Taming of the Shrew: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2022 Dec 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-theatre-in-the-taming-of-the-shrew-analytical-essay/
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