OK, readers (and I am assuming you’ve all read the play, nudge nudge wink wink), what do we make of the first 277 lines of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew?
As I’ve noted before:
The Taming of the Shrew begins with a false start, as the play as we know it (or as we THINK we know it) is actually a play-within-a-play (kinda). In the two-scene “Induction,” a Christopher Sly is introduced, shown to be a drunk and one who doesn’t pay for his drinks to boot, and promptly passes out in the street. He’s found by an unnamed lord, who thinks it would be a great practical joke to take the unconscious Sly, set him up in the lord’s own manor, and see what happens when he wakes up not as Christopher Sly but a wealthy lord.
Some wackiness ensues as Sly does wake, does begin to think himself a rich man, and does begin to watch a play… our play.
And in OUR play, we revisit the Sly storyline for only an additional seven lines at the end of Act One, Scene One, and then it disappears completely from the play. But before we ask why it’s there, or even why it disappears, let’s take a closer look at what is exactly there in the first place.
Christopher Sly enters the stage as he exits a tavern, and as we can see (or, rather, hear), that exit is NOT of his own volition; he calls out, “I’ll feeze you, in faith” (Induction.i.1), meaning either “I’ll fix you” or “I’ll kick your @ss!”. As the Hostess retorts that he’s a “rogue” (in Shakespeare’s day, either a “beggar or vagabond” or “a dishonest, unprincipled person” [both Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM v. 4.0)] and threatens him with being place in a “pair of stocks” (both Induction.i.2), it is obvious that he is being kicked for not paying his bill (as well as for broken glasses, as we learn later).
Sly, either through ignorance or drunkenness (or both), proclaims his virtue through his lineage back to “Richard Conqueror” (Induction.i.4), creating some sort of bizarre amalgam of William the Conqueror and King Richard Lion-Heart. It’s a cheap wordplay gag, but it also sets up Sly’s (either conscious or subconscious) desire to be greater than he is; and it is this desire that sets up his come-uppance. Within another ten lines, Sly has passed out in the street, and has been found by that unnamed lord… and the wackiness begins.
Huh? Why? Is this crucial to the main storyline? Quite possibly.
The lord decides to take Sly to his own manor, and put him into the “fairest chamber / And hang it round with all my wanton pictures” (Induction.i.44-45). He wants Sly surrounded by paintings that are “lascivious, unchaste, lewd” (OED)… or, for lack of a better term, porn. When a group of travelling actors arrives, the lord asks that they perform a play for Sly as he’s sure the drunk has “never heard a play” (Induction.i.95). Then he orders his page Bartholomew to put on a dress and act as if he’s, er, she’s Sly’s wife, and say, “What is’t your honor will command // Wherein your lady and your humble wife // May show her duty and make known her love?” (Induction.i.114-116).
He awakes and calls for ale, but his “servants” offer him sherry and candied fruit. When he proclaims his own lower birth, they offer him music, a “lustful bed” (Induction.ii.36), horses, and hawks. They must not have been able to bring the “wanton” porn stash to the chamber in time, as they offer to bring him pictures of Adonis and Venus (the painting seems “to move and wanton with her breath” [Induction.ii.50]), Io “beguiled and surprised” by Jupiter “as lively painted as the deed was done” (Induction.ii.53-54), and Daphne pursued by Apollo. These certainly sound like visuals meant to induce a certain “rise” in Sly’s curiosity. When his “wife” arrives and tells him that she is his “wife in all obedience” (Induction.ii.105), he tells the servants, “Leave me and her alone” (Induction.ii.114), and as they leave tells her, “Madam, undress you and come now to bed” (Induction.ii.115). She demurs, citing physician’s orders which she hopes “stands for (her) case” (Induction.ii.122), to which Sly can only say, “Ay, it stands so, that I may hardly tarry so long” (Induction.ii.123), a bawdy reference to his aroused state. The lord re-enters, thus saving the honor of his page Bartholomew and the continuance of his practical joke, and announces the beginning of a play, “a kind of history” (Induction.ii.138), a story, one of fact. So the play he watches, Sly–poor, drunken, ignorant, deluded Sly–thinks is factual.
By the end of the first scene of the play-within-a-play, he’s no longer in the mood for a play, and he wants it over (most likely to continue his amorous advancements on his “wife”… but that’s not going to happen, or if it does, we don’t see it. As mentioned before, we never see or hear from Sly again. At least not in The Taming of the Shrew.
As we noted yesterday, however, in The Taming of a Shrew, he and his story do return after the play ends:
Then enter two bearing of Sly in his own apparel again, and leave him where they found him, and then go out. Then enter the Tapster.
Now that the darksome night is overpassed,
And dawning day appears in crystal sky,
Now must I haste abroad. But soft, who's this?
What, Sly? Oh wondrous, hath he lain here all night?
I'll wake him; I think he's starved by this,
But that his belly was so stuffed with ale.
What, how, Sly! Awake for shame!
Gi's some more wine! What's all the players gone?
Am not i a lord?
A lord, with a murrain! Come, art thou drunken still?
Who's this? Tapster? Oh, lord, sirrah, I have had
The bravest dream tonight, that ever thou
Heardest in all thy life!
Ay, marry, but you had best get you home,
For your wife will course you for dreaming here tonight.
Will she? I know now how to tame a shrew!
I dreamt upon it all this night till now,
And thou hast waked me out of the best dream
That ever I had in my life.
But I'll to my wife presently
And tame her too, and if she anger me.
Any, tarry, Sly, for I'll go home with thee,
And hear the rest that thou hast dreamt tonight.
— University of Oxford; Taming of a shrew [Electronic Resource]
We don’t have a resolution for the practical joke; he’s Christopher Sly again, passed out on the street again. The Tapster (the bartender… is this the same Hostess that opened the play?) finds him and wakes him and sends him home to his wife… a wife that Sly now professes he will bend to his will as he “know(s) now how to tame a shrew.” He doesn’t remember his moments as a “lord” but he remembers the play as “the best dream” he’s ever had, as it has provided this new philosophy and methodology, one that he intends to use “presently.” The Tapster ends the play, saying that he’s going to follow Sly, to hear what happens.
So we have an opening Induction by Shakespeare that few dispute. But it doesn’t complete itself nor come to any conclusion. And we have an ending (in another play) whose authorship is up to debate (to say the very least).
Why does the Sly storyline disappear? Does our text come from an incomplete Quarto or a bad Folio? We may never know. Did Shakespeare tire of it? And if so, why is the opening fragment of a framing device still there? It doesn’t make sense. It’s dangerous to attribute intention to anything any writer writes (unless the author in question has left behind compositional journals… and even then can we trust those completely?), but it IS fun to try and make sense of the seemingly nonsensical.
Personally, I find the play pretty disappointing on a first read (years after having read it the first time), but as I learn more about the a Shrew text, and as I begin a second reading, I’m warming up to a theory, one that reconciles the feminist haters of the play, the folks who believe Shakespeare wrote a Shrew, and those Bard-olaters who believe he can do no wrong (I’m not one of them; he can most certainly do wrong, I just think he may have been doing quite right here):
Sly watches the “history” and thinks it’s factual, but it’s not. Far from it. It’s over-the-top sexist, perfect for a man wakened to (at least the description of) porn, and a wife whom he hasn’t seen in “fifteen years” (Induction.ii.79). It’s ridiculous, but played with a straight face by the actors. I can picture Sly falling asleep in the final scene of the play-within-a-play (maybe even before the final Kate speech), then dumped outside for the closing of the frame story. It was a wonderful dream for the drunken Sly.
And maybe we, as a sober audience, should take Petruchio’s taming of Kate in the same way, as a fever dream of a horny drunk.
Nothing more, nothing less.