The Taming of the Shrew

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Theater, Performance, and Identity Theme Analysis

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Theater, Performance, and Identity Theme Icon

The Taming of the Shrew is a play that thinks a great deal about theater itself. This kind of self-reflexivity and theater about theater (often called meta-theater), allows the play to raise questions about performance. To begin, the central plot involving Baptista's daughters and their suitors is a play within a play, performed by a group of traveling actors for Christopher Sly and a small audience who are themselves acting, pretending to be the attendants (and wife) of the supposedly noble Sly. And within this play, numerous characters don costumes and pretend to be people they are not—Lucentio, Tranio, Hortensio, and the merchant, in particular. Even Petruchio can be seen as performing, when he pretends to be mad and find fault with Katherine's food and clothing. Moreover, it is unclear to what degree Katherine is only pretending to be obedient to Petruchio in the later parts of the play, merely playing the role of a dutiful wife. As all of these acts of performance suggest, appearances crucially affect how people are perceived and treated by others. The importance of appearances is emphasized by Petruchio's insistence on wearing bizarre clothes to his wedding and his refusal to let Katherine wear the gown and hat that have been made for her to wear to Bianca's wedding-banquet. Petruchio uses the social importance of clothing and appearances in constructing one's identity to his advantage in manipulating Katherine.

All of this emphasis on performance questions to what degree anyone can have a stable or natural identity, or whether such identity is really only formed through continual performance (acting like a nobleman or acting like a lady, for example). An individual playing a role in society may ultimately not be so different from one of the play's characters dressed up like someone else, or from one of Shakespeare's actors playing a scripted part on the stage. This opens up possibilities in the play to criticize traditional hierarchies of gender and social class, since there may be nothing natural or inherent about the identities that these systems make so much of.

Finally, the swapping of roles and questioning of identity that happens throughout the play suggests that the theater, in particular, is often connected with some kind of reversal of social roles. Indeed, we find in The Taming of the Shrew servants dressing up as noblemen and noblemen acting like servants. This topsy-turvy, upside-down world is characteristic of comedic drama and allows comedies to question social norms. However, like all comedies, The Taming of the Shrew has to come to an end, where everything is resolved and social norms are restored. Lucentio confesses to his deceit, while Tranio and the merchant are revealed for who they really are and go back to their original roles. The playful profusion of performance and role reversals might have some subversive potential, but at the end of the play the masks and costumes come off, we return to normal, and the performance must end. Nevertheless, if we go as far as to say that all social identity is a kind of acting, does the performance ever really end?

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Theater, Performance, and Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Theater, Performance, and Identity appears in each scene of The Taming of the Shrew. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Theater, Performance, and Identity Quotes in The Taming of the Shrew

Below you will find the important quotes in The Taming of the Shrew related to the theme of Theater, Performance, and Identity.
Induction, Scene 1 Quotes

What think you, if he were conveyed to bed,
Wrapped in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers,
A most delicious banquet by his bed,
And brave attendants near him when he wakes,
Would not the beggar then forget himself?

Related Characters: A Lord (speaker), Christopher Sly
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: Ind.1.38-43
Explanation and Analysis:

The Taming of the Shrew begins with a strange "Induction," in which a drunken Christopher Sly, a beggar, refuses to pay what he owes, gets kicked out of a bar, and passes out. A Lord enters after finishing a hunt and notices Sly, unsure if he is "dead, or drunk." Finding the drunkard to be breathing, the Lord begins making fun of Sly and devises a prank to humiliate him.

The prank turns out to be more of a social experiment. In the quote, the Lord wonders what would happen if the sleeping Sly were brought to a nice bed, dressed in "sweet clothes" (which symbolize social status), brought delicious food, and given servants to tend on him when he woke up. What would happen, the Lord wonders, if Sly suddenly woke up and found himself in the position of a nobleman? "Would not the beggar then forget himself" and think that he truly was a wealthy nobleman? The Lord orders his men to orchestrate this elaborate plot, directing them like a troupe of actors. He asks them to do as he has described and refer to Sly as "your Honor" and "your Lordship" when he wakes. He also arranges for his page Bartholomew to crossdress (a common occurrence on the Elizabethan Stage, as all parts, male and female, were played by men) and pretend to be Sly's fictitious wife.

Just as the Lord is setting up his plan, a troupe of players (actors) enter. He asks them if they will put on a play for a Lord so that they will perform for Sly during the ruse. Their performance will be the actual play, the Taming of the Shrew. Thus Shakespeare stages scenes filled with theatricality, acting, performance, and changing identities to introduce a play within a play which is also filled with theatricality, performance, and changing identity.


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Induction, Scene 2 Quotes

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak,
I smell sweet savors, and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.

Related Characters: Christopher Sly (speaker), Bartholomew the Page
Page Number: Ind.2.68-73
Explanation and Analysis:

The Lord's preparations have been made and Sly has woken up; he is extremely confused. To complete the inversion of the social hierarchy, the Lord is dressed up as a servant, and addresses Sly as a lord. When Sly denies his new identity, the Lord tells the confused Sly to stop acting crazy and to remember his noble birth, cataloging the privileges that the new position offers and mentioning Sly's 'beautiful wife.' Here Sly begins to question his identity and reality, wondering, as the Lord predicted, if he really is a lord. 

"Do I dream?" Sly asks, "or have I dreamed till now?" This line describes the profound uncertainty that comes with being unsure if you are dreaming, or have woken up into your real life from a long, convincing dream. Sly concludes he is not asleep, reporting "I see, I hear, I speak, / I smell sweet savors, and I feel soft things." Trusting his sensory experiences, he determines that he is indeed a lord, not Christopher Sly. He forgets himself. The Lord's ruse is successful, and 'lord' Sly, alongside his crossdressed wife, ultimately sits down to watch the rest of the play.

Note that this experience is a favorite of Shakespeare's: characters often enter identity crises, lose themselves, awake from and live strange dreams, or find themselves suddenly somewhere and someone else. Sly's acceptance of his new role can be seen as a statement on the fluidity of identity; social roles, gender, and self are all performance and subject to change.

Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

Thou shalt be master, Tranio, in my stead
Keep house, and port, and servants, as I should.

Related Characters: Lucentio (speaker), Tranio
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 1.1.208-209
Explanation and Analysis:

The players have begun the play within the play, and the central plot is underway: Baptista has two daughters, Kate and Bianca, and will not permit the younger Bianca to marry until her older, "shrewish" sister gets married first. A student Lucientio has arrived in the Italian city of Padua, the setting for the play, along with his servant Tranio. Lucentio almost immediately falls in love with Bianca, and is so captivated by her beauty that he needs Tranio to summarize Baptista's conditions. Learning that Bianca will only accept tutors instead of suitors, Lucentio decides to pose as a Latin tutor (later named Cambio, which in Italian means "change").

In the quote, Lucentio responds to prompts from Tranio, who reminds his master that someone aught to pose as Lucentio. The master says to his servant, "Thou shall be master, Tranio," and instructs him to carry out all of the masterly duties. The two then exchange clothes and start on their courtship plan, with Lucentio changed into Cambio and Tranio changed into Lucentio. Note that in this way the first scene of the play within the play echoes the outer play: masters become servants and servants become masters; social hierarchy is inverted and everything is performance. This scene is also the last scene in which Christopher Sly (or any one from the induction) speaks, and the only scene in which the induction bleeds into the play within the play. 

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

To me she's married, not unto my clothes.

Related Characters: Petruchio (speaker), Katherine
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 3.2.119
Explanation and Analysis:

Petruchio has finally arrived at the wedding, but he is wearing the clothes of a poor man. Baptista is disgruntled, and an argument begins surrounding Petruchio's attire. Tranio (disguised himself as his master Lucentio) suggests that Petruchio change, and Baptista says that he will not let Katherine marry when Petruchio is dressed this way.

Petruchio, however, insists she will marry him just as he is, stating that Katherine is marrying him, not his clothes. While clothes symbolize social status and gender, Petruchio is here asserting that they are changeable and ultimately unimportant. What matters, according to Petruchio, is Petruchio's own wit, will, and power, which he boldly asserts in this scene.

Within the structure of the larger play, from Sly who gets dressed up as a lord and begins to think he is a lord, to the suitors who dress up as tutors to try to trick their way into getting close to Bianca, Petruchio's comment here is almost revolutionary. Every other character acts as if their clothes do define them. Petruchio insists otherwise. And by imposing his will over Baptista and the other male characters of the play, Petruchio establishes himself as a sort of alpha male, with unquestionable authority over his self and his wife. This gesture assures that none can intervene with his taming of Katherine.

It is worth noting that Petruchio is not asserting that everyone is an individual worthy of respect. He is asserting that he is – he has no interest in Katherine's individuality for example, and showing up to his own wedding dressed as a beggar is part of his plan for taming any of her individuality out of her. 

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

Well, come, my Kate, we will unto your father's.
Even in these honest mean habiliments.
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,
For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich,
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honor peereth in the meanest habit.

Related Characters: Petruchio (speaker), Katherine
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 4.3.175-180
Explanation and Analysis:

Petruchio has informed Katherine that they will be attending the celebration of Bianca's wedding back at Padua. He has brought in a tailor with a hat and gown, but with each design he pretends that there is something wrong, denying Katherine what she desires. In the quote, Petruchio says that they will go to the wedding in their everyday clothes. They will dress like they are poor, but "tis the mind that makes the body rich," and like the sun breaking through clouds, honor will shine through even the meanest clothing.

Here Petruchio asserts his dominance yet again, while showing that status is mainly performance and exterior. However, he notes that certain features, like honor (or power), are constant; true character matters more than surface-level qualities.