Comedy in The Taming of the Shrew

Penny Gay investigates how The Taming of the Shrew both draws on and challenges comic conventions.

Comic traditions

Comic battles between the sexes, and highly physical clowning by servants and other working-class figures, have a long tradition in European and English drama – medieval English audiences, for example, enjoyed the bickering of Noah and his wife in the religious plays about Noah’s Flood. The Taming of the Shrew, a relatively early play by Shakespeare, draws recognisably on the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte: semi-improvised plays performed by troupes of actors that travelled around Europe from the mid-16th century onwards. Commedia companies are known to have visited England from the late 1570s onwards, even playing at court. English travellers would also have brought home accounts of the improvised, gag-laden shows they saw, which were based on traditional scenarios featuring frustrated young lovers, tyrannical fathers, helpful (or stupid) servants, and self-important pedants and soldiers. Shakespeare obviously found these models useful; his plays from the mid-1590s such as The Merchant of Venice and Love’s Labour's Lost also freely draw upon these comic stereotypes, and it is arguable that many of Shakespeare’s clowns throughout his playwriting career display strong characteristics of the Italian zanni or ‘zanies’ (a word used by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour's Lost 5.2.464, describing a ‘slight’ fool, not necessarily quirky and fun in the way used today).

Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

The foolish, elderly Pantaloon, in his red costume and Turkish slippers, is one of the best-known character types from commedia dell’arte depicted in this French volume.

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The Taming of the Shrew is particularly rich in these comic types, possibly because the play is set in Italy, in Padua and Verona. The word ‘pantaloon’, referring to the commedia’s standard old man Pantaleone, is used in the stage direction after 1.1.47 and in the dialogue at 3.1.37 for Gremio, Bianca’s unsuitable elderly suitor (Jaques’ phrase in As You Like It, ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon / With spectacles on nose and pouch on side’ (2.7.158–60), suggests his appearance). Her father Baptista is clearly another such deluded old man, easily tricked by the resourceful young lovers (the innamorati) Bianca and Lucentio.

Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

The seductive innamorata – or young, female lover – was another stock character that might have influenced Shakespeare in his creation of Bianca.

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The main plot of Katherina’s ‘taming’ has no obvious literary source, but plenty of analogues in folk tradition; she herself is part of a long tradition of ‘shrews’ or uppity, talkative women in popular European culture (Christian doctrine preferred women to remain silent and submissive). Petruchio, however, can also be recognised as two commedia types – the Capitano or boastful swaggerer, and the Cavaliere, a more successful wooer of women. We might see Petruchio’s fantastic outfit at his wedding, and his behaviour thereafter, as a deliberately provocative theatrical performance of a Capitano figure for his own ‘taming’ purposes.

Broadside ballad on the Cruel Shrew

Broadside ballad on the Cruel Shrew

Both Shakespeare’s play and this ballad are part of a long tradition of tales, jokes and songs about female ‘shrews’ or uppity talkative women.

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Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

Commedia dell’arte figures by Maurice Sand, 1860

Petruchio might remind us of the swaggering Capitano from commedia dell’arte.

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Most notably, the proliferation of comic servants in the play echoes the style of commedia: Grumio, Tranio, and Biondello, and even the Tailor of Act 4 all take part in fast-moving scenes with their ‘betters’ (Petruchio and Lucentio) that are dependent on physical comedy – what the commedia tradition calls lazzi (gags) – involving beating or cuffing, throwing around of food or clothes, and generally gross behaviour. In addition, the clowns usually show great facility in making up on the spot fantastical excuses to get out of a difficult situation.

Photographs of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Simon Scardifield in all-male production of The Taming of the Shrew, 2007

Photographs of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Simon Scardifield in all-male production of The Taming of the Shrew, 2007

The physical brutality of the ‘taming’ scene was shown in this all-male production, where Katherina was thrown around the stage and dragged through the mud by Petruchio.

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‘Comic’ violence

Frenetically paced scenes of this sort are characteristic of farce, a form that we still see in modern stage and screen comedies. The problem with such highly physical performance, however, is its potential to become real violence and cause real pain. Pace and the actors’ confident ability to bounce back are important factors in keeping the audience laughing and comfortable – but what if, in a production of The Taming of the Shrew, the actors choose to show that Petruchio’s bullying is distressing and hurtful, and that his ‘taming’ of Kate is sadistic? Depriving a starving and exhausted woman of food and sleep, and constantly beating one’s servants, is not considered funny in the modern world. The threat of violence erupting occurs in the very first scene between Katherina and Petruchio (Act 2, Scene 1), and it is to be found in every subsequent one, including those in which the famous line ‘kiss me, Kate’ is uttered (5.1.143, 5.2.180). Kisses, after all, are not necessarily given willingly.

Kiss Me Kate film poster

Kiss Me Kate film poster

This poster for Kiss Me Kate – the 1953 film inspired by The Taming of the Shrew – seems to suggest that the violence is only a flirtatious part of the battle of the sexes.

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Copyright: © © MGM

Of Domesticall Duties by William Gouge, 1622

Of Domesticall Duties by William Gouge, 1622

Petruchio bullies Katherina, but he never hits her. In Shakespeare’s day, it was legal for husbands to beat their wives, but writers like William Gouge saw ‘buffets’ and ‘blows’ as unjustified cruelty towards women.

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Such considerations come to a head in the play’s famous last scene, in which Kate is instructed by her husband to ‘tell these headstrong women / What duty they do owe their lords and husbands’ (5.2.130–31). She does so in 43 lines of gravely elegant blank verse, concluding:

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot.
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease. (5.2.176–79)

In the phrase ‘if he please’ is the potential for a romantic, or comic, conclusion: the speech can be seen as part of a mutually enjoyed erotic game. Or it can be seen ironically, spoken with dripping sarcasm; or we might hear the cowed speech of a broken and brainwashed woman. An argument against the latter might be that a speech of such length and eloquence could not come from a person who had lost her sense of self-worth – but the interpretation of this final problematic scene will always remain open to actors and readers.

An equally relevant question here is what does Petruchio do as Katherina speaks? Might he look embarrassed at what he has forced her to spell out? Might he be stunned that he has ‘won’ against the odds? Might he find it thrillingly romantic? Or a shared joke? Then there is a final piece of business as Petruchio reminds Lucentio that he has ‘won the wager’ (5.2.186), and presumably collects his money. With what demeanour does he do this, and how does Kate finally react to see herself and her new marriage the subject of a bar-room gamble?

All these questions are built into the play’s dramaturgy, so that the audience is educated (even if unconsciously) via an exploration of the power and limits of farce, and its tendency to objectify the victim of any gag. We see that good comedy is never simplistic, and its relation to conventional morality is often ambivalent.

The frame

What makes this perspective even more convincing is that the play has a ‘frame’: the whole thing begins as the drunken delusion of Christopher Sly the tinker, who is himself subject to a type of bullying by the anonymous Lord as he convinces Sly that he, Sly, is an aristocrat and the ‘taming’ play is put on for his delight. The frame is uncompleted at the end of Shakespeare’s play in the 1623 First Folio text, and thus the play is disconcertingly open and incomplete – that is, it throws the issues raised by the narrative back onto the actors and the audience. What we have in The Taming of the Shrew is, arguably, a young playwright looking at the traditions and sources of contemporary comedy and deciding that he can take it further – turning a classic farce, where artificial chaos is finally resolved in a simple solution, into something far more unstable, that uncomfortably exaggerates the structures of ‘real life’ as the Elizabethans lived it.

The Taming of a Shrew, 1596

The Taming of a Shrew, 1596

This anonymous drama is like Shakespeare’s in many ways, but its frame narrative is completed. Sly awakens from the ‘bravest dreame’ and returns to life as a tinker.

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  • Penny Gay
  • Penny Gay is Professor Emerita in English and Drama at the University of Sydney, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She has published extensively on Shakespeare, particularly on the comedies. Her book As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women was published in 1994, and The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies in 2008. She has also written a substantial new Introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare Twelfth Night. Her ongoing research interest is in the performance history, both historical and contemporary, of Shakespeare and other English drama, particularly as regards women’s roles.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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