Christopher Sly, a beggar, is tossed out of an alehouse because of his disruptive behavior and quickly falls asleep in front of a Lord's house. When the Lord returns from hunting, he decides to have some fun at Sly's expense and quickly devises a plan to have his household convince Sly that he is a lord, rather than a beggar. Sly is placed in the finest chamber and dressed in the finest clothes so that he will be convinced that he owns the lavish setting in which he finds himself. Should Sly not believe he is and always has been lord of the estate, he is to be told he was ill and had lost his memory. While Sly sleeps off his binge, a group of players appears and are quickly enlisted in the Lord's duping of Sly. He requests they perform a play later that evening (which will mark the play we have come to think of as The Taming of the Shrew). The Lord enlists his servant Bartholomew's help in making Sly's duping complete. Bartholomew is to disguise himself as a gentlewoman and pretend to be Sly's wife.
An induction is traditionally "an introduction; preface or prelude," a definition which easily fits what Shakespeare is doing here. However, an induction can also be "a bringing forward of separate facts or instances, [especially] so as to prove a general statement." In many ways, this, too, is what Shakespeare is doing. The Taming of the Shrew's Induction leads us into the play proper, as the first definition suggests, but it does much more than that. In keeping with the latter definition, the Induction cleverly introduces several key themes such as identity, disguise, illusion, and reality which are developed fully in the play itself. Because we are introduced to these themes from the very beginning, we are consciously and unconsciously preparing ourselves to look for them as the action unfolds.
Although the Induction may seem merely a precursor to the play itself, it is more cleverly conceived than that. It invites audiences to consider individual identities and whether or not people can either impersonate others (generally of another class — inferior to superior or vice versa) or, in the case of Christopher Sly, be convinced that he is someone other than who he is. It is as if Shakespeare is winking to us from the play's onset, telling us we'd better be on the lookout because we'll soon find things are not quite what they seem! If we miss his early warning, we'll find ourselves duped, and the joke will be on us.
Because the story set forth in the Induction is not carried throughout the entirety of The Taming of the Shrew, it is often cut or minimized in performance. Such a decision, though, undermines some of the key messages of the play, especially those related to notions of identity and disguise. However, the lack of follow-through with the Induction is admittedly a fault of the play — at least in the version we have inherited. Scholars theorize that another version of this play no longer extant ended with a return to Christopher Sly, bringing the Induction full circle.
Sly, himself, is an interesting character. We see little of him in the first scene of the Induction because he passes out by the fourteenth line and is not heard from until the Induction's second scene. However, the brief glimpse we get quickly establishes him as a drunken, belligerent sot unwilling to settle up with the Hostess. His initial lines show he is a comic, buffoon-like character (such as we would later see in Much Ado About Nothing's Constable Dogberry), unable to string an accurate sentence together and destined to become the butt of jokes. Sly tells the Hostess "The Slys are no rogues . . . we came in with Richard Conqueror" (3-4). Of course, Sly really means William the Conqueror. Next, he quibbles on the Hostess's declaration she will fetch the constable. Although his next action is to fall asleep, we can be sure Sly will provide great entertainment down the road.
The Lord's entrance sets the plan to dupe Sly into motion and introduces the notion of illusion to the story. The Lord, as if having nothing better to do, creates a comic inversion, enlisting the assistance of the entire household. His desire to take the drunken Sly and give him every luxury of a lord in an attempt to make "the beggar then forget himself" (40) goes far to address a very real concern for Elizabethan audiences. In Shakespeare's day, great discussion surrounded the idea of what we would now term "social mobility." In short, those in power wanted to keep the power and part of how they did that was by attempting to prevent others from dressing (and therefore acting) outside their birth. The underlying fear was that one born into a lower class could, by assuming proper clothes, pass oneself off as a social superior. Of course, as the Lord and Sly show us in Scene 2 of the Induction, the clothes alone do not make the man — at least not when an inferior attempts to take the place of a superior.
Of particular interest is the Lord's ordering his man Bartholomew to take on the role of Sly's wife, doting over him and even crying when appropriate (with help of an onion, if needed). Of course, the joke would have been entirely clear to Shakespeare's audience, who would have been all too aware that all women on the British public stage were played by boys and young men. In addition to calling direct attention to one of the most hotly debated aspects of the stage, Shakespeare also uses Bartholomew to introduce us to the idea of marital accord (or discord, as the case may be). The next scene of the Induction features Bartholomew and Sly interacting, giving us the first of what will eventually be many views on the subject of marriage. This time, however, we can't miss the comic effect. Shakespeare has made sure we are in on the joke.
paucas pallabris (5) In Modern Spanish, pocas palabras means "few words."
denier (8) a small, obsolete French coin of little value.
third-borough (10) constable.
"Breathe Merriman — the poor cur is embossed" (16) "Let the dog, Merriman, breathe. The poor dog is foaming at the mouth from exhaustion."
diaper (56) a napkin or towel.
"husbanded with modesty" (67) "managed with decorum."
overeying (94) witnessing.
veriest antic (100) oddest buffoon or eccentric.
buttery (101) a place where the food supplies of a household are kept; pantry.