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Disguise plays a crucial role in The Taming of the Shrew, throughout both the Induction and the main story. While most of the disguises are removed in the end, those who use them to achieve a specified goal generally succeed—particularly Lucentio and Tranio. What can we infer about Shakespeare’s take on the effects of disguise? Can clothes really make the man?
Disguise in The Taming of the Shrew enables characters to temporarily change their social positions. By donning a disguise, Lucentio transforms himself in the eyes of everyone around him from a young gentleman into a scholar, and Tranio transforms himself from a servant into an aristocrat. Clothing facilitates this effect because outward appearance controls the perceptions of others: because Tranio appears to be a gentleman, people treat him as a gentleman. However, as Petruchio says, no matter what a person wears, his inner self will eventually shine through—Lucentio, for instance, may appear to be a tutor, but as soon as the courtship with Bianca develops, he must revert to himself again. Additionally, one cannot escape one’s past simply by changing one’s clothes. People are bound together in intricate webs and, interwoven as such, cannot escape their identity. The webs tend to reveal true selves regardless of attire or intent—a point that Shakespeare illustrates when Vincentio encounters Tranio in disguise.
Read more about Shakespeare’s use of disguises in Twelfth Night.
The Induction plays a mysterious role in the play. In fact, we never see the conclusion of the trick played on Christopher Sly. What is the purpose of the Induction, structurally, narratively, or thematically? In the end, does the Induction serve merely a cursory role in introducing the play proper, or does it provide commentary on the themes throughout?
Many of Shakespeare’s dramas utilize the concept of “plays within plays,” in which characters in the play attend the performance of another play; prominent examples include the “Mousetrap” scene in Hamlet and the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But The Taming of the Shrew is unique in that the “play within a play” is the main play: the story of Petruchio and Kate is presented as a play viewed by the otherwise insignificant character of Christopher Sly. The Induction, the section at the beginning of the play that introduces Sly, may be narratively unsatisfying, especially as we are not privy to the conclusion of Sly’s story. However, the Induction incorporates many of the major motifs of the main play, such as that of disguise. Sly’s identity changes when his clothes are changed, just as Lucentio’s does. Sly must act according to the role in which he finds himself, just as Kate must. Finally, Sly is interested in having a wife over whom he can hold sway, just as most of the male characters in the main story are.
What techniques does Petruchio employ to “tame” Katherine? Why do they work? Is Petruchio’s manipulation of Kate plausible?
Petruchio uses a number of different techniques to “tame” Kate: he proves to her that he can match her verbal acuity and quick wit, then he wields his extreme confidence, and his status as a man, when he boldly tells her father that she has already agreed to marry him when, in fact, she has not. At the wedding, he humiliates her by wearing absurd clothing, arriving late, and riding a broken-down horse, and then he exerts his authority over her by forcing her to leave immediately. When they reach his house, he decides to “kill [her] with kindness,” pretending he cannot allow her to eat his inferior food or sleep on his inferior bed because he cares for her greatly. As a result, she grows tired and hungry and must depend on Petruchio’s goodwill to fulfill her needs, reinforcing in her mind the idea that he controls her. Because Petruchio couches his attempt to tame Kate in the rhetoric of love and affection, it is impossible for her to confront him with outright anger, and the possibility remains that the two will develop a genuinely loving relationship in the future. Of course, The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy, and Petruchio’s techniques are somewhat fantastical. But both Kate’s apparent willingness to comply with Petruchio’s demands and Petruchio’s desire to court Kate’s love make considerably more logical sense if we accept the explanation that, beneath their conflicts, they legitimately love one another.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!