This is the Bard Brawl and we’re back – post-nuptuals – with act II of Shakespeare early Italian-style comedy, The Taming of the Shrew.
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By the end of act I, Bianca’s three suitors – Gremio, Lucentio and Hortensio – have called a temporary truce to their wooing war in order to help Petruchio win and marry Kate. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, but because Bianca’s father Baptista won’t let any of them have his youngest daughter until he manages to marry off the older one, Kate.
The only scene in act II starts with a cat fight: Bianca asks Kate to get married ASAP so Bianca can marry one of her three suitors. When Kate asks her who her favourite one is, Bianca assumes that Kate must be jealous of her. Kate doesn’t like that and she strikes her and stars running after her. Their father shows up and breaks up the fight. As he’s busy feeling sorry for himself, Petruchio arrives and declares that’s he’s looking to hook up with Kate. To show his seriousness, he offers his friend Hortensio – disguised as the music teacher Licio – to tutor Baptista’s daughters. The Gremio shows up and offers Lucentio (disguised as Cambio the language teacher) as his tutor.
Petruchio and Baptista then work out the financial details of the wedding. Baptista’s happy to agree to let Petruchio marry Kate provided he can win her over. Petruchio says “no problem, I got this.” While they talk, Hortensio comes back on stage wearing a broken lute. Seems that Kate didn’t like his fingering lesson. This just gets Petruchio excited. Baptista calls Kate over to meet Petruchio and leaves them alone. Petruchio and Kate get into a pretty intense battle of wits. By the end of it, Petruchio tells Kate they’re getting married.
Baptista and the others return. Petruchio says that Kate has agreed to marry him. Kate protests but Petruchio just says that she’s just pretending to be upset not to break character. The wedding is arranged for Sunday. Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) waste no time and now make their case to Baptista as to who should get Bianca. Hortensio drops out of the race early but Tranio (as Lucentio) and Gremio get into a bidding war. The old man loses and Baptista agrees to have Bianca marry ‘Luciento’ (who is actually Tranio in disguise at this point). There is one condition however: Lucentio’s father Vincentio will have to agree to all of the promises ‘Lucentio’ has just made.
Everyone still with me? Good.
Unlike both Merchant of Venice and Coriolanus, where the primary source text adapted by Shakespeare is pretty clear, that’s not really the case with The Taming of the Shrew. The most likely scenario is that Shakespeare adapted the Christopher Sly episode and the Kate and Petruchio storyline from popular folk tales. (Apparently, ‘shrew taming’ stories were pretty popular back in the day.) In the case of The Taming of the Shrew, the only source text which most people seem to agree on is an Italian play called I Suppositi. It was translated into English by George Gascoigne as Supposes (first staged in 1566, published in 1574) and it’s the basis of the Bianca and Lucentio plotline.
I tried to find us some online versions but I haven’t been able to get my hands on it. If you do find them online, leave us a comment and we’ll add some links! That means you’ll have to take my word for this but the main difference between Gascoigne’s The Supposes and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is this: in Shakespeare, the whole point of the deceptions and of Petruchio’s actions (we’ll talk about those next week) is to get married; in The Supposes, the whole point is to get laid. The play is important less as a plot and much more as an indication of the type of comedic tradition that Shakespeare inherited in the 1590s.
Taming of the Shrew, for all of the ways in which it’s different from the rest of Shakespeare’s other comedies, does mark the first step in Shakespeare’s ongoing investigation of the purpose and usefulness of comedy. In the older play, the story ends once the guy gets the girl. It’s all in good fun. It’s entertainment. In Shakespeare, getting the girl is only half of the problem. While it’s still good fun, there’s generally something at stake which is more than a quick fling.
If you read through Shakespeare’s comedies in order, you’ll notice a trend: as he ages and matures, he leaves more and more of the funny antics, penis jokes and slapstick humour out of it and he increases the seriousness of what’s at stake. (If you want to test that out, I suggest you subscribe to The Bard Brawl!)
Here’s what Italo Calvino has to say:
The weightless gravity […] reappears in the age of Cervantes and Shakespeare: it is that special connection between melancholy and humor[:] As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight (a dimension of human carnality that nonetheless constitutes the greatness of Boccaccio and Rabelais). It casts doubt on the self, on the world, and on the whole network of relationships that are at stake. Melancholy and humor, inextricably intermingled, characterize the accents of the Prince of Denmark, accents we have learned to recognize in nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays on the lips of so many avatars of Hamlet. (Italo Calvino’s Six memos for the Next Millennium, p. 19)
I love this quote. One of my favourites.
I mentioned in my previous post that Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s first plays. It’s sensibilities are still a far cry from a Hamlet or a Twelfth Night but it marks one of Shakespeare’s first real efforts to make comedy serious, to use it not only to entertain but to teach… though what the lesson is exactly, I’m not sure.
Go here if you’re interested in a short rundown of some the possible sources for Taming of the Shrew.
Bonus Sonnet 20 read by Melissa Myers.
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