The Power of Submission in The Taming of the Shrew
December 10, 2007
ENGL 418 – Stevens
The Power of Submission in The Taming of the Shrew
In his essay entitled “The Induction as Clue in The Taming of the Shrew,” Jay L. Halio contends that “When in his otherwise excellent television production of The Taming of the Shrew for ‘The Shakespeare plays,’ the BBC producer, Jonathan Miller, decided to omit the induction, he erred” (94). As his essay’s title suggests, Halio writes that the Induction holds special significance that resonates throughout the whole play, and the loss of this crucial section affects the televised performance in a negative way. Withholding the Induction not only assumes the BBC’s right to significantly butcher a classic Shakespearean text, but the choice also deletes an important piece of context for the conflict between Katherine and Petruchio that unravels in Acts 1 through 5; the Induction “provides an important clue to how we should understand the main action of the play proper, as close analysis of the induction and the Katherine-Petruccio plot reveals” (95). Here Halio signals a meaningful connection between the Induction and the relationship of Taming’s foremost couple; the logic in the early incident will echo in the later one. Yet Halio himself errs when he asserts that
By treating Sly so royally, as if he truly is an aristocrat, the servants and their master convince Sly that what he seems to be he is. It is essentially the same technique that Petruccio uses in dealing with Katherine, only in that case, unlike Sly’s, what he sees in her really is there. But it requires hard work, persistence, and devotion to bring it out.
Halio presents readers with two character parallels: one between the Lord and Petruchio, and another between Sly and Katherine. He perceives the Lord and Petruchio as the beguilers of Sly and Katherine—the Lord tricking Sly into believing in the untrue scenario of his faux royalty, and Petruchio tricking Kate into believing in her own inner tendency for obedience. This logic only works if one takes Kate’s final speech at face value. Her monologue honors Petruchio at her own expense, lowering the status of women to submissive servants of their hardworking husbands (5.2.137-80). According to Halio, Katherine’s true self comes out in the end, that her shrewish behavior in the beginning of the play does not represent the real Kate. Halio’s argument stretches the limits of plausibility; how can he prove the nature of Kate’s true personality if she only changes in the end, and readers see no evidence of her tame self in any earlier instance? In short, Halio’s logic claims more than it can prove.
This essay opposes Halio’s viewpoint, and instead seeks to draw parallels between the Lord and Kate as beguilers of Sly and Petruchio, even though Petruchio thinks he tricks Kate. The problem lies not with Kate but with her family and Petruchio. As Halio writes, Kate’s true self is not shrewish, but unlike what Halio’s analysis declares, Kate ends the play not a shrew because she never was a shrew—not because Petruchio fixed her. Although Halio’s points out Sly’s downfall through the Lord’s staged mindgames, it fails to identify the correct victor in the conflict between Petruchio and Katherine. The Lord’s feigned submission to Sly and Kate’s feigned submission to Petruchio give the Lord and Kate dominance over the unwitting men they fool. Their respective agency stems from their skill in trickery. These consistencies demonstrate The Taming of the Shrew’s unified structure, in which twice the brash idiot in the wrong receives what he deserves. Therefore, the comedy of Taming comes not in the happy ending of man’s successful struggle to overcome the will of a hardheaded woman, but in the Lord and Kate’s success in controlling Sly and Petruchio. Allowing the conquered to think of themselves as the conquerors produces comic gold.
Christopher Sly’s name establishes a humorous tone of irony from the very beginning of the Induction. Sly is anything but sly; he stands for the exact opposite, a fool tricked by the slyness of his host. Christopher Sly’s lack of judgment surfaces in the first two lines, when Sly says to the Hostess, “I’ll feeze you, in faith,” and the Hostess replies with “A pair of stocks, you rogue” (Ind.1.1-2). When Sly takes advantage of the Hostess’s hospitality by threatening to “feeze” (beat) her, he wrongs her on several counts. First of all, his willingness to strike a woman shows his failure to meet the standard of gentlemanly behavior. The proprietors of high class culture looked down upon woman-beating even then, especially if the man in question bore no relation, marital or familial, to the woman. Secondly, common courtesy dictates that a guest should be humble and grateful for his invitation—not threatening to hurt the lady of the house. Someone sly would at least go through the motions of following the rules, then play tricks on others in secret. A sly man would know how to save face while making others feel like fools.
And the irony does not stop there. Only a few lines later, we find out from the Hostess that Sly has broken her glassware and refuses to reimburse her for it, implying that he not only drank enough to let glasses slip out of his hands, but he will not own up to his fault (Ind.1.6). Drunkenness reflects poorly on a character, especially when he blathers on about his made-up ancestry. He says that “the Slys are no rogues. Look in the Chronicles, we came in with Richard Conqueror” (Ind.1.4). There is no Richard the Conquerer. As one can learn from Brian Morris’s notes on line 4, Sly confuses Richard Coeur-de-Lion and William the Conqueror. This mix-up evidences his drunkenness, as well as his willingness to make up facts to clear his name.
Soon Sly falls asleep, and the Lord returns to find out what has transpired, and he resolves to handle Sly’s behavior in the following manner:
Sirs, I will practise on this drunken man.
What think you, if he were convey’d to bed,
Wrapp’d 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?
“Practise” in line 34 uses an archaic meaning of the word, synonymous with tricking. The Lord says that Sly would believe that he were actually a rich man if only the Lord’s servants dressed Sly nicely for bed, gave him jewelry, and offered him with food and a multitude of other services upon his awakening. After decades of life, only a few moments of the Lord’s men practicing subservience to Sly would convince him that everything else was a dream. That the Lord’s scheme ultimately works clarifies a few important points. Most obviously, it reinforces the conception of Sly as an idiot, extending the irony of his surname just that much further. Yet it also illustrates another crucial theme of the play for the first time: the power of submissiveness, even when it is phony.
The Lord addresses the strategy of submission when he tells his men, “And if he chance to speak, be ready straight / And with a low submissive reverence / Say ‘What is it your honour will command?’” (Ind.1.50-52). His men will respond as soon as Sly speaks by asking how they can serve him as his humble, reverent servants. The Lord charges them to address the drunkard with heightened language. Calling him “your honor” would artificially elevate Sly. The Lord insists his men’s demeanor must be “low,” because lowering themselves automatically heightens Christopher Sly. Sly does not deserve exaltation, so they will be mocking him without his knowledge.
In the Induction scene 2, the Lord’s plan works. Upon his awakening and request for a “pot of small ale,” three servants bombard him with questions: the first asking “Will’t please your lordship drink a cup of sack?”; the second asking “Will’t please your honour to taste of these conserves?”; and the third asking “What raiment will your honour wear today?” (Ind.2.1-4). These questions come in rapidfire procession without giving Sly a chance to answer, overwhelming him with confusion—and with covetous desire for the privileges of a rich man.
The option to drink a cup of sack, to taste conserves, and to choose his own raiment all represent options Sly would not have without wealth. Sly’s request for ale shows his low class, for ale cost little enough for a beggar to afford. When he mentions ale, a servant offers him sack, Spanish imported wine (according to Brian Morris’s footnote). Why drink cheap beer if he could drink wine? Furthermore, why beg and feed on the cheapest of foods if he can eat conserves—candied fruits—or wear the same old rags if he can choose his clothes? The material temptations that come with wealth, of which the poor can only dream, begin the Lord’s trickery of Sly. The sheer impossibility of the situation—three servants offering him the luxurious goods befitting a high class nobleman—must at least begin to fool Sly into falling for the Lord’s trick. After all, he probably wonders, how else on earth could he enjoy such a following of humble servants? Their submission strikes awe in him, and opens possibilities for them to control him due to his dumbstruck amazement.
At first, Sly continues to deny the three servants’ insistences of his faux royalty, but finally begins to believe when the Second Servant that “These fifteen years you have been in a dream” (Ind.2.80). The Page’s entrance in drag clinches the deception. He woos Sly, saying “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband; / I am your wife in all obedience” to which Sly responds with “I know it well,” confirming his foolish acceptance of the Lord’s trickery (Ind.2.107-109). The Page’s sweet-talking technique of calling Sly his “lord” and “husband” twice each, along with Sly’s subsequent belief, hints that repeated insistence suffices to convince fools. The Page’s pledge of obedience to Sly continues the theme of submission as a means to trick Sly. Readers perceive the Page’s submission to Sly as distinctly feminine, appealing to Sly’s heterosexual libido. By reminding Sly of his pretend status as “lord” via repetition of the complimentary term, the Page pleases Sly at the thought of dominance, which must have been a vague fantasy for the lowly beggar before the Lord’s complicated jest began. Even the word “lord” connotes control and ownership, which rings with humorous irony because, in reality, Christopher Sly owns no land and controls nothing in his life, forcing him to beg for the generosity of others. If Sly is her lord, indicating ownership, then Page is Sly’s property. Declaring himself as mere property downgrades the Page to the subhuman status as a material object for the purpose of Sly’s enjoyment, much like the cup of sack, the delicious conserves, and the many options of raiments—albeit registering higher on the pleasure scale, as even the fanciest food, drink, and clothes cannot satisfy a man’s sexual desire as can a woman. A parallel trick involving a feminine figure using sugarcoated language with an air of kindly feminine appeasement recurs later in the play, in Kate’s final speech, as do the presence of material pleasures as temptation, in Petruchio’s torture of Kate in Act IV Scene 2.
By 1.1, Sly settles into his role and questions the matter no further. As the stage direction “The Presenters above speak” indicates, Sly and the Page are located in the balcony (1.1.247). In his footnotes, Brian Morris interprets them as being in the elevated stage space for the entire duration of the play, which would confirm the Induction story’s importance. The stage direction’s permanent placement of Sly in the balcony not only emphasizes the frame story’s relevance to the rest of the play, but it also signifies one final joke on Sly. Sitting in the balcony, Sly presides over this play within a play put on for his benefit. Shakespeare locates Sly in a literally high location, giving him a falsely heightened social status.
One might argue that Sly’s behavior in his final noted appearance in the stage direction proves his resistance to the Lord’s trickery. The First Servant awakens Sly, saying “My lord, you nod, you do not mind the play,” to which Sly responds, “Yes, by Saint Anne, do I. A good matter surely. / Comes any more of it?” (1.1.248-50). By remarking on Sly’s nodding, the First Servant implies that Sly has begun to nod off—allowing his head to droop and his eyes to close, then jerking back up just before falling into definite sleep. In such a state, Sly cannot know much about the play the Lord ordered for his benefit. He seems to prove this again by asking if much of the play remains, even though it started only 247 lines before, and the first scene has not yet ended. In his confused state of near slumber, he loses track of time. If Sly fails to watch the performance, how can he show his continued belief in the Lord’s deception?
All doubts as to whether Sly remains the resistant subject and not the imagined king can be quelled when considering the fact that, not born of royal blood, Sly cannot know the conventions he should follow as king. Using a play as an excuse to sleep signifies power as much as paying attention, because Sly may believe that his status as lord allows him to sleep or stay awake as he pleases. Since he receives all the material goods and humble service he desires from the Page and the three servants, why should he not expect to be able to sleep at will? Moreover, as a poor man, Sly may never have attended a play, preventing him from knowing the expected length of a theatrical production. Perhaps he believes that plays last just a few minutes. Sly, however, appears to learn with time. The First Servant’s disruption of Sly’s nodding-off teaches Sly that his power does not permit him to sleep during a show. The last stage direction involving Sly says “They sit and mark” (1.1.252), “they” meaning Sly, the Page, and the First Servant. In short, even if Sly watched none of the play-with-a-play between 1.1.1 and 1.1.247, all signs point to him watching it after 1.1.252. Having learned from the context clue of the First Servant’s implication that he should “mind the play,” Sly may very well watch the rest of The Taming of the Shrew in order to preserve his status as king. In this reading, the Lord’s trick triumphs over the feebleminded Christopher Sly because he adapts to his growing knowledge of a lord’s lifestyle in order to keep up the dream, which must ultimately crash down on Sly after the ruse of the play concludes.
Keeping Sly onstage, thereby remaining an important part of the play, makes sense because the body story imitates its frame. Just as the Lord’s men fake submissiveness to Sly, Kate’s submission to Petruchio can be seen as a pretense. She makes him her lord just to humor him and make life easier for herself, much like the Lord treats Sly as a lord as a practical joke in order to make light of the bad situation inherent in hosting a drunkard.
As previously stated, the theme of material elements as seductive trickery repeats in Kate and Petruchio’s conflict. In 4.3, Grumio, Petruchio, and Hortensio tempt Katherine with the prospect of eating meat (1-52) and wearing a fancy wedding dress, rings, and other clothes and jewelry that signify great wealth (55-164). Instead of giving Kate the material goods he promises, he bids Hortensio eat the meat and casts the tailor and haberdasher out, along with their elaborate adornments. At this point in the play, it seems that Petruchio has the upper hand over Katherine. He positions himself parallel to the Lord, tempting Kate to conform to his vision of womanhood just as the Lord tempted Sly. This follows Halio’s line of thinking that Induction transforms into the play proper in such a manner that the Lord’s role as deceiver manifests itself in Petruchio and Sly’s role as deceived manifests itself in Kate.
Yet the parallel does not work. Kate’s father is Baptista, who Brian Morris’s dramatis personae list describes as “a rich citizen of Padua.” Kate cannot compare to Sly because she hails from a wealthy background, while his origins are murky. Petruchio’s flaunting of luxury items cannot tempt her because she expects them as part of her social class—why should she expect any less? Halio misplaces his sympathy by giving it to Petruchio, proclaiming him as the discoverer of Kate’s agreeable nature: “His ‘taming’ consists of getting her to abandon that persona and become herself” (Halio 98). The blame for Kate’s violent reaction (beating Grumio in 4.3.31 and mouthing off to Petruchio for the rest of 4.3) at the presentation and subsequent retraction of food, clothes, and jewels should rest on Petruchio’s shoulders for his flagrant unkindness, not Kate’s for her distaste at the torturous acts perpetrated by Petruchio and his friends.
Nevertheless, the experience of torture changes Kate. She performs a complete about-face from her previous attitude toward her husband in her final speech (5.2.137-80). She praises Petruchio, as well as men in general, for 43 lines, although earlier she tended to strike them and spout backtalk at them. But can one equate it to the end result of “taming,” as Halio does? This essay denies that Petruchio succeeds in converting his wife to a tender, caring wife who concerns herself only with her husband’s wellbeing. Kate triumphs over Petruchio in the same way that the Page triumphs over Sly: with feigned submissiveness achieved by speaking with a convincing—and deceptive—rhetoric of love.
Kate uses many of the same rhetorical tricks as the Page, including the following familiar simile: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign” (5.2.147-48). The equation of the husband to lord nods at the Page’s seduction of Christopher Sly. Once again, a woman figure reduces herself to mere property, but with even more indicative words. “Thy keeper” seems especially demeaning, as if Kate were Petruchio’s pet or prisoner. “Thy head” improves Kate’s situation little; she accepts her husband’s desire to make decisions for her as the family brain. Without a man, Kate is headless. Kate’s overabundance of imagery with complimentary implications to her husband and derogatory implications for herself indicates exaggeration. Lines 147-48 display only a minute fraction of Kate’s massive speech, which she packs so full of humility that it reads as disingenuous.
Womanly seduction comes into play in lines 153-54, in which she declares that a husband, subjecting himself a lifetime of labor “craves no other tribute at thy hands / But love, fair looks, and true obedience.” Kate argues that men work hard for their families’ benefit, asking only that their wives repay them with their feminine charm and willingness to obey to any demand—sex and childrearing included. Her words smack of irony. The sentence, “All men are want from women is sex,” means almost the same as what Kate says. Thus, she believes men view women as objects with which to have sex, not as people, making women’s tribute a high price to pay for marriage. The phrase “no other tribute” implies that men do not ask much, but in reality, they ask too much. Just as the Page exposed Sly’s inexorable desire for sex in the Induction, Kate exposes Petruchio’s base urges in the last act of Taming.
Kate’s speech closes with the ultimate gesture of submission, where she beckons all the women present to “place your hands below your husband’s foot” (5.2.178). That she names such a degrading act with such zeal seals the humorous irony. With the exception of someone stricken with insanity or embittered to the point of speaking with jaded irony, no woman could convincingly discard her ability to think for herself, her sovereignty, her personhood, her virginity, and her reputation.
The ironic reading pointed at by the Induction dictates that Petruchio does not really tame Kate; she merely learns to play the obedience game in order to make life easier for herself. Kate knows that in order to not be teased and tortured by Petruchio any longer, she needs only to speak sweet, obedient odes to him. Her phony submission responds to Petruchio’s poor treatment of her, much like the Lord’s response to Sly’s impudence. Without the pseudo-submission of the Lord to Sly in the Induction and the obvious misnaming of Christopher Sly there would be less evidence to support the perception of Kate’s final speech as darkly humorous irony.
The parallel Halio draws between Sly and Kate as the earlier and later manifestations of the fool in The Taming of the Shrew underestimate Kate’s ability to speak without literality. Halio rightly understands Sly as the babbling drunkard who earns himself little sympathy, but who did not understand that? The Page and Kate both trick men who have no idea. The Page uses a veil of femininity to fool Sly into believing he dreamed up the last fifteen years of his life while in a coma. Kate over-feminizes herself to the point of making social commentary on men’s perception of women and women’s acceptance thereof, but Petruchio, who thinks (along with Jay L. Halio) that he fools Kate into being her true self, blinds himself to Kate’s obvious exaggeration. Her ability to make subtle social commentary endows her with agency, or at least enough to prove her mental independence from her husband, who thinks he has won her over.
Instead of using a bland happy ending that reinforces men and women’s distinct social roles, Taming achieves the comic effect of confusion, letting the foolish men believe they have the upper hand when they, without knowing, are the fools. This reading of Taming offers a slice of subversion and reestablishes Shakespeare’s reputation as a social commentator instead of just an artist addressing universal themes. While Shakespeare’s plays offer grand statements that resonate in all historical eras, much as the Induction resonates in the play proper, they especially condemn social truths current to his time, such as the reduction of wives to vessels of human reproduction.
Halio, Jay L. "The Induction as Clue in The Taming of the Shrew." 'A Certain Text': Close Readings and Textual Studies on Shakespeare and Others. 94-106. Newark, DE; London, England: U of Delaware P; Associated UP, 2002. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. University Library, Urbana, IL. 7 December 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2004296404&site=ehost-live>.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Ed. Brian Morris. 2nd Ed. London: Arden, 2002.