The Taming of the Shrew

Petruchio is the most flamboyant and eccentric male in the play. He dresses, talks and acts loudly and is sometimes drunk:”… Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned… ” [III, ii, 41-42]. This refers to Petruchio’s late arrival at his own wedding, drunk, and dressed so that guests look upon him as “a wondrous monument”. Further amusement is found in Gremio’s reports of Petruchio’s behaviour during the wedding, an account which would afford the actors much scope for slapstick and exaggeration:

‘I’ll tell you, Sir Lucentio, when the priest Should ask if Katherine should be his wife, ‘Ay, by gogs-wouns,’ quoth he, and swore so loud That all amaz’d the priest let fall the book, And as he stoop’d again to take it up, The mad-brain’s bridegroom took him such a cuff That down fell priest and book, and book and priest. ‘ (156-160) Although this is written in blank verse, there is an insistent rhythm in the harsh and monosyllabic words which adds to the humour. Petruchio is a good source of comedy for the audience, who find much hilarity in his capers.

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Even in the final scene of the play he is jesting, wagering against his two friends that his new wife is more obedient than theirs: ‘I’ll venture so much of my hawk or hound,/But twenty times so much upon my wife. ‘ (72-73) Through him, Shakespeare continues the high spirits of the play right to the end The two suitors of Bianca, Gremio and Hortensio, are also entertaining, though not so eccentric. They keep returning to Bianca, trying to win her love and, with wonderful irony, are beaten by Lucentio!

He comes to Padua, unknown in the city, and falls in love with Bianca. Hearing Baptista’s proclamation – “That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter / Before I have a husband for the elder. ” [I, i, 50-51], he disguises himself as a schoolmaster, allowing him to be with Bianca while Tranio takes his place in courtship. This deception and disguise would have provided much comedy for audiences 400 years ago as well as today on account of the dramatic irony: we, the audience, know what is going on while the characters do not.

This causes amusement in scenes such as Act II, Scene 1 where Tranio and Gremio are quarrelling over Bianca, and Tranio is witty at his rival’s expense: A vengeance on your crafty wither’d hide! Yet have I fac’d it with a card of ten. ‘Tis in my head to do my master good. I see no reason but suppos’d Lucentio Must get a father, call’d suppos’s Vencentio. And that’s a wonder. Fathers commonly Do get their children. (397-403) A good example of a dim servant would be Petruchio’s man, Grumio.

When they first come to Padua, there is a comical scene where Petruchio bids him knock on Hortensio’s door – “Knock sir? Whom should I knock? Is there any man has rebused your worship? ” [I, ii, 6-7]. The word play here would amuse an audience, as well as the obvious opportunities for slapstick humour in lines such as ‘I’ll knock your knave’s pate’ and the stage-direction ‘He wrings him by the ears. ‘. The verbal punning on ‘knock’ is a typical comic device, especially when employed by a lowly character such as a servant.

There is also humour in Petruchio’s attempts to make a grand impression, which are being undermined by Grumio’s foolishness. Tranio, Lucentio’s man, is different however. He is educated and does not play the part of a fool like Grumio, as we see when he takes his master’ place to court Bianca. For example, in the RSC production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at Stratford, Roy Kinnear – playing Tranio- made the most of his teasing lines in Act IV, Scene 2 : ‘And here I take the like unfeigned oath/Never to marry with her though she would entreat.

‘ He used a variety of gestures and expressions to share the joke of the dramatic irony with the audience. Tranio’s dry wit is amusing because of its rebellious humour – it displaces stereotypes of master on top, servant below, as in this ironic response in Act I, Scene 1: ‘In brief, sir, sith it your pleasure is, And I am tied to be obedient – For so your father charg’d me at our parting, ‘Be serviceable to my son’ quoth he, Although I think ’twas in another sense – ‘ (211-215)

Another comic device used by Shakespeare in the play is to challenge the audience’s perceptions of normality, such as when masters exchange positions with their servants and characters go into disguise. Shakespeare has done this in several comedies, notably in ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’. “And offer me disguis’d in sober robes / To old Baptista as a school master” – Hortensio becomes Litio, a schoolmaster so that he can be with Bianca. Later in the play, a false Vicentio must also be found to take the place of Lucentio’s father. As well as being physically amusing, these tricks further the dramatic irony in the play.

Many of the funnier scenes are indebted to the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, or comedy of professional actors, where comic plays were improvised by travelling companies of ‘Players’, revolving around a standard plot. The comedy in ‘The Taming of the shrew’comes from changing and adding parts to stock characters such as Bianca and Katherina, Petruchio, Hortensio, Lucentio and Gremio). By altering stereotypes, Shakespeare makes each character amusing in an individual way: Petruchio with his loudmouthed and arrogant remarks, Lucentio’s and Tranio’s personality-swap, and Katherina’s rebellious attitude towards men.

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