Critical Essays Role Playing


"You are come to me in happy time, / . . . for I have some sport in hand / Wherein your cunning can assist me much" says the Lord to the players in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew. These seemingly simple words of welcome resonate, setting the context for the story about to unfold before us. We know that theatricality will be paramount to the story as the clever Induction pulls us into the drama through the story of Christopher Sly's duping. The Induction focuses our attention on the idea of appearances being deceiving, as well as on the importance of acting and role playing, but then it stops abruptly once The Taming of the Shrew proper begins. Why then take the time to introduce us to Sly and the merry jest of the Lord and his household? We can see the Induction as functioning in a number of ways (see the Induction commentary for more), but one of its most important purposes is to clue spectators into one of the play's main themes: role playing. In Shrew, Shakespeare provides disguises of all shapes and forms, from obvious physical disguises to more subtle psychological ones, and in the confines of a play within a play allows us to see a world which, not unlike our own, is teeming with role players.

The first and most obvious type of disguise employed in Shrew is the physical disguise. The notion of physical role playing is introduced at the very beginning of the play and continues throughout. When Christopher Sly falls asleep, the Lord decides to play a trick on him by having him carried to his manor and dressed as a nobleman. Lucentio, in Act I, Scene 1, assumes the role of Cambio, Bianca's tutor, while his servant, Tranio, disguises himself as Lucentio. Later, at the end of Act II, Scene 1, Tranio/Lucentio realizes he will need to present Vincentio, Lucentio's father, so he decides "suppos'd Lucentio/ Must get a father, call'd suppos'd Vincentio" (II.1, 407-408), and in Act IV, Scene 2, he finds a Pedant to play the part (72-121). We are introduced to yet another masquerader in Act III when Hortensio disguises himself as Litio, Bianca's music tutor. Aside from proper clothing, the only other thing these role players seem to need in order to ensure their masquerades is someone to corroborate their stories. Certainly the ease with which these players enact their roles suggests that as spectators (both inside and outside the theater) we need to be aware that nothing is as it seems and that we are continually surrounded by people who may just be acting a part in order to obtain a desired outcome.

A bit less obvious than the physical disguises are the psychological disguises in The Taming of the Shrew. Both Kate and Petruchio assume psychological disguises. Kate becomes a shrew to compensate for the hurt she feels because of her father's favoritism toward Bianca. In addition, she refuses to be saddled with an unworthy husband and so assumes the role of a shrew, insulating herself from the hurtful world around her, no matter how much she may secretly wish to join in the fun. Likewise, Petruchio assumes the role of shrew-tamer, exaggerating Kate's bad behavior until she cannot help but see how infantile and childish her actions have been.

Bianca, too, assumes a psychological disguise, changing her perspectives drastically once she is safely married. Although she appears initially as a demure and pure soul, by play's end we see that is not the case. As the play draws to a close, we see more and more of Bianca's true disposition and learn that, ironically, it is Bianca, not Kate, who really is the shrew! In her case, her psychological disguise provided her the opportunity to appear better than she really was, suggesting again that we must be wary of the role playing going on around us. Physical disguises are fairly easy to detect and defuse, but psychological disguises are quite a different and more complicated matter.

Psychological and physical disguises, though, aren't the only ways to look at the role playing in The Taming of the Shrew. The play is also, in many respects, self-reflective. It is metadramatic in the sense that it is self-reflexive, calling attention to the fact it is a play and the actors are all taking a part. Use of metadramatic devices is not unique to Shrew, however. Shakespeare often uses these devices in his plays to offer spectators inside jokes about the players, the drama, or the men playing the roles, as well as to draw attention to the artificiality of what we see before us and to urge us to recognize the elements of drama that permeate our daily lives. For instance, in Shrew, the Induction provides a framework for the obvious performance we are about to witness. There must be no mistake about it: What we are about to see is not a mirror held up to life; rather, it is a fiction created by a troupe of actors (note, too, how calling attention to the play as a fiction rather than a slice-of-life lessens the seriousness of the play's message of male authority).

Besides the Induction and the obvious physical disguises (costumes, if you will), we can also see Shakespeare calling attention to his play as just that, a play, through the characters of Kate and Petruchio. Rather than seeing them as the shrew and the tamer, we can also see them as analogous to an actor and a director. In very literal terms, the character of Kate is created by a young man playing a woman who creates a shrewish persona for herself so she can more easily deal with the world around her (largely through avoiding it). When her disguise is no longer useful to her (or when the director, Petruchio, has finally convinced her to abandon the disguise) she assumes another role — this time the dutiful wife (thinking of Kate as an actress also helps with interpreting her speech in Act V, Scene 2).

Petruchio is the director who orchestrates the production we see before us. He theorizes on how to get Kate to do what he wishes and begins planning his performance early. Although the staging of Petruchio's performance starts at the wedding when he assumes the costume of a wild man, he stages his largest production when he vows to kill his wife with kindness. In helping Katherine to a more mature state of being, Petruchio dictates all the particulars, just as a director dictates a production. He runs the show, so to speak, governing when his wife will enter and exit, when she will eat and sleep, when the action will advance and when it will repeat itself, and even attempts to oversee time itself. He very carefully sets up the elaborate production at hand, helping move his shrewish wife into desirable mate.

Disguising and role playing of all sorts fill the scenes of The Taming of the Shrew. In addition to advancing the general plot, the pervasive disguising and metadramatic nature of the play suggest that role players abound and that, as wary spectators, we must be like Petruchio, careful not to take things at face value because we are surrounded by duplicitousness.