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?
Theater, Performance, and Identity ThemeTracker
Theater, Performance, and Identity Quotes in The Taming of the Shrew
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?
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.
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.