In this podcast, the Brawlers take on the first act of the confusing and controversial Taming of the Shrew.
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The Taming of the Shrew opens with a prologue which takes place in front of an alehouse. It seems the drunk Christopher Sly’s been kicked out of the bar by the hostess after refusing to pay for his tab. The hostess threatens to call the watch but instead of leaving Sly falls asleep in front of the tavern. Soon, an unnamed lord and his huntsmen show up and, for some reason, the nobleman decides it would be fun to take Sly back to his estate, clean the drunkard up and make him think he’s an amnesiac lord whose just awoken from a long illness. Just then an acting troupe shows up and the lord hires them to help him with his prank.
By the start of scene 2, Sly has just woken up and he calls out for some more booze. He’s expecting Pabst Blue Ribbon but greeted by servants who offer him wine and want to know which of his many outfits he plans to wear today. Sly argues with them but the servants and the lord manage to convince him at last that he’s a rich lord and that the cross-dressing page is his wife. Sly wants to sleep with his wife, but the page instead convinces him to watch a play first, in case having sex might bring about a new bout of madness. Doctor’s orders. So instead they decide to watch a play.
The actual play itself begins in act I, scene 1 with the young bachelor Lucentio’s arrival in Padua where he hopes to pursue his studies. He’s accompanied by his servant Tranio who reminds him that while he’s here he may as well have a good time. While they talk, Baptista, his daughters Katharina and Bianca, as well as Bianca’s suitors Gremio and Hortensio, walk by them. The suitors are trying to plead their case with Bianca’s daughter but Baptista won’t budge: neither of them can marry Bianca unless his eldest daughter Katharina (Kate) is married off first. The problem? Katharina’s a shrew which no man in Padua wishes to marry. As soon as they leave, Lucentio admits that’s he’s smitten by Bianca and he and Tranio devise a plan to allow Lucentio to woo her freely: Tranio will pretend to be Lucentio and take care of his master’s affairs in the city while Lucentio will pretend to a scholar which Gremio will offer to Baptista as a tutor for his daughters. This will give him access to Bianca. When Biondello, one of Lucentio’s father’s servants, arrives, Lucentio convinces him to go along with their plan.
The start of act I, scene 2 is similar to the previous scene: a young bachelor, called Petruchio, arrives in Padua with his servant Grumio (not to be confused with the suitor Gremio). There’s a short slapstick scene where Grumio gets slapped around by Petruchio just outside Hortensio’s house. The two friends talk for a few moments and Hortensio learns that Petruchio is in the market for a rich wife. Seeing an opportunity to open the way to Bianca, he tells Petruchio about Katharina. Petruchio decides that he’s the one to take on Kate and the two head off to Baptista’s house. When they get there, they see Gremio, Bianca’s older suitor, and with his is Lucentio disguised as a tutor who promises to woo Bianca on the old man’s behalf. Hortensio and Gremio exchange words until Tranio – disguised as Lucentio – shows up and tells them he also intends to woo Bianca. While they’re not happy to see him, they realise that neither of them can get Bianca unless they first marry off Kate. They agree to collaborate to help Petruchio win Katharina.
If you’re already confused about who’s who in the play, you’re not alone. Taming of the Shrew is a tough play to read because the characters are constantly disguising themselves. Some invent entirely new names while others (to make it even more confusing) pretend to be other characters in the play. With that in mind, here’s a short list of some of the characters and the roles they take on in the play:
- A young bachelor and scholar. He pretends to be one of Katharina and Bianca’s tutors,
- , so he can woo Bianca.
- Lucentio’s servant. He pretends to be Lucentio so his master can woo Bianca without arousing suspicion.
- A servant of Lucientio’s father.
- The father of Katharina and Bianca.
- Baptista’s eldest daughter, a shrew which Petruchio will marry for money.
- Baptista’s youngest daughter, who has three suitors: Gremio, Hortensio and Lucentio.
- An old man and friend of Baptista’s who wants to marry Bianca. He hires the tutor Cambio (Lucentio in disguise) to woo Bianca on his behalf.
- A younger suitor to Bianca and one of Petruchio’s friends. He disguises himself as a music teacher named
- Petruchio: a young impoverished bachelor looking to marry into money. Katharina’s suitor.
- Petruchio’s servant. He often gets slapped around by his master.
- Later on, this character will be recruited to play the part of Lucentio’s father.
I’d bookmark this page: I’m sure you’ll want to jump back here more than once over the next few weeks.
If you’ve ever seen this play staged, or watched an adaptation of it, you won’t remember the prologue. That’s because it’s almost always edited out. In fact, if anyone out there is aware of any production that does include the prologue, let us know.
Truth is, ignoring the prologue is the easy thing to do and removing it doesn’t affect the action of the play at all. So why is it there in the first place? This is a tough question to answer.
Let’s try to imagine how The Taming of the Shrew might have been stage back in 1592. For that, it might be helpful to know what the actual theatre might have looked like as well:
If we’re lucky, we can afford to by a spot in the covered balconies but most likely we’re just groundlings who paid a cheap rate to stand in the pit all around the stage.
Once the play starts, Sly, the hostess, the lord and his attendants come on stage. They play out the first scene of the prologue. Then, after they’ve dragged Sly off-stage, he reappears on the balcony at the back of the playhouse with the page disguised as Sly’s wife. There’s a good chance the lord and the household servants are up there as well. However, at the end of the scene, the players hired by the lord walk out onto the main stage and start performing a play. This is where act one of the actual play starts.
Sly has a few more lines after act I, scene 1 so we know he’s still around. And it’s likely that he’ll stay up on that balcony for the entire show. That means that we’re watching Sly and the page watch the Taming of the Shrew as we watch the Taming of the Shrew. It also means that the actors the lord has hired for his prank on Sly are the same ones acting out the Taming of the Shrew for us, the audience. Are we supposed to be the butt of a strange joke like Christopher Sly? I’m not sure. If so, I don’t really get it. What this weird half-frame does though is make us aware that we’re watching a play because it keeps the audience of the play – Sly – in view the whole time.
Shakespeare’s big on theatre metaphors in his plays. He’s constantly reminding us that we’re watching a play, and that everything else in our lives also involves a lot of acting and pretending too. However, Taming of the Shrew is an early play, one of Shakespeare’s first. Later in his career, Shakespeare will really become a master of using theatre to comment on theatre and life. He just hasn’t really figured it out yet and this experiment falls a little flat.
That about does it for this week. Be sure to read Jay Reid’s critique of Ralph Fiennes’ recent film adaptation of Coriolanus. If you don’t want to miss anything, subscribe to the blog as well as the podcast on iTunes.
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