A Queer Induction for a Queer Comedy

Shakespeare’s plays, ingeniously formulated to entertain the crowds of the Globe, contain many famous introductions: Richard III’s opening soliloquy, Twelfth Night’s famous “If music be the food of love,” and of course, Romeo and Juliet’s “Two households, both alike in dignity.” Such beautifully crafted sentences are what one comes to expect from Shakespeare, at least in his more serious works. One can easily envision a hushed and huddled crowd hearing, for the first time in history, the utterance of Shakespeare’s most famous opening lines. One does not, however, like to envision these lines being the stark-mad ravings of an embittered drunkard refusing to pay for broken mugs. Despite history’s lamentation, this is how Shakespeare began to start his seventh play and third comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. This play, noted by many in history and modernity to be one of Shakespeare’s raunchiest, opens with an appropriately raunchy induction. We see first the feckless, sagging face of Christopher Sly, drunkard extraordinaire, belching indignities at an unfortunate hostess who demands payment for shattered glassware. Amongst many other colorful responses, Sly suggests that the waitress haste to home and “warm” herself. This isn’t exactly an elegant way to begin a play, even a comedy. So why does Shakespeare elect to initiate his play with the disgusting Mr. Sly? To understand this, one must get past the first few lines and read the rest of the induction. Sly, having scared the hostess into fetching the law, passes out on the ground. A lord and his entourage wander by Sly’s ungracious body and, purely for giggles, decide to hatch the most unnecessarily elaborate and cruel practical joke ever conceived. The lord bids his servants to take Sly to his estate and convince him that he is a nobleman, providing for him all the luxuries and comforts contained therein. The induction ends with a convinced “Lord” Sly sitting in bed and being treated to a play, the events of The Taming of the Shrew. The unimaginably cruel joke in the introduction accomplishes three things: firstly, it sets into motion the actual happenings of the play. This is how Shakespeare introduces the scene at Padua, through the eyes of a newly noble drunkard. Secondly, it communicates a common theme in The Taming of the Shrew, that being the cruelty and misfortune suffered by those of lower status. Be it unattractive women, foolish cooks, or naïve drunkards, the induction displays through the actions of the lord the one-sided and mean-spirited nature of class interaction, that Sly might be led to believe a lie simply for the amusement of his host. In a way, this is similar to Petruchio’s marriage to Katharina later in the play, as Petruchio feigns love and woos Katharina exclusively for the dowry tied to her marriage. Thirdly, the induction serves to lighten the tone of the play. The audience attending this comedy did not do so in hopes of seeing the dark, heavy, and sorrowful chronicles typical of a tragedy, they attended because they wanted to laugh. When one understands that the events of The Taming of the Shrew are being observed by a foolish and dozing drunkard, they don’t seem nearly as serious in nature. This is especially important to remember during the events of the final act, when Kate seems to have been turned into a hopelessly obedient servant.

In summary, the seemingly unusual and superfluous way in which Shakespeare introduces The Taming of the Shrew is in actuality very purposeful and clever. It serves primarily as a means of lightening the tone of the comedy and relaying some of the messages thereof.

~J.H.L.P. Vandewinckel

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