by Suzanne Gossett
The Taming of the Shrew begins with a trick that establishes the two main themes of the play: the fashioning of identities and the complexities of “gentle” behavior. In the Induction a rich lord finds a drunken beggar sleeping on the ground and proposes to make him “forget himself.” Instead, he and his servants will convince poor Sly that he is actually a nobleman. They are sure such transformations are possible: “he shall think by our true diligence/ He is no less than what we say he is.” As part of the game, the Lord orders his page to pretend to be Sly’s wife, to “bear himself with honorable action/ Such as he hath observ’d in noble ladies/ Unto their lords,” and to “usurp the grace,/ Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman.” It takes only two brief scenes for the credulous Sly to conclude “I am a lord indeed,” but the rest of the play to modify stronger personalities. The greatest challenge is to convince the women to make themselves over into noble ladies.
The main play is ostensibly an entertainment for Sly, and both its plot and subplot demonstrate how flexible identities can be. To win Bianca, Lucentio changes places with his servant Tranio. Dressed in silken doublet and velvet hose, Tranio becomes so fluent that Bianca’s other suitors fear “this gentleman will out-talk us all.” In this topsy-turvy world, false tutors and false fathers seem as convincing as real ones. Thus, when Petruchio tells Kate, “I am a gentleman,” it is not surprising that she mistrusts him. Yet, despite inappropriate clothes, wild talk, and mad tricks, Petruchio really is the man he claims to be, and in this way gradually gains Kate’s trust and even her affection.
Throughout The Taming of the Shrew, love is deeply intertwined with money and class. Petruchio has come “to wive it wealthily in Padua,” and he teaches rich but shrewish Kate how to bear herself by making her suffer everything Sly has escaped—exposure to cold, dirt, hunger and sleeplessness. When she protests the final indignity—his rejection of her new hat—because “Gentlewomen wear such caps as these,” he punningly rejoins, “When you are gentle you shall have one too.” Kate proves herself by obediently greeting old Vincentio as a “young budding virgin,” kissing Petruchio in the street and, most stunningly, lecturing the other brides on women’s place.
Things do not go smoothly for Petruchio’s future brother-in-law. Stricken by love at first sight, Lucentio was certain that he saw in Bianca a “maid’s mild behavior and sobriety.” While Petruchio educates his future wife consciously, Lucentio does not realize that, by involving Bianca in false Latin lessons and persuading this apparently pliant daughter to elope, he encourages her to disobey. Thus the first act of Bianca’s married life costs her new husband a hundred crowns, with the added insult of hearing himself called a fool for betting on her submissiveness.
Kate’s final speech on women’s duty “to their lords and husbands,” echoes the Lord’s instructions to his page. But its interpretation is highly contested and has been staged in many ways. Is she only “usurping” the voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman? Is she enjoying her revenge on her sister Bianca? Is she entirely beaten down and “tamed”? Or is she “playing,” in all sense of the word? In a world in which men make bets on their wives, in which fathers sell their daughters to the highest bidder, and in which Sly may at any time be “beaten out of door” to the cold and the wet, Kate has achieved love, respect, comfort, and social status. We will never know if she suffers from “aweful rule and right supremacy.” She certainly seems as likely as Bianca to enjoy “peace, and love, and quiet life.”