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Perhaps the unknown purpose behind an induction, which even the most experienced readers have failed to explain, has finally come to light. Christopher Sly, the principal character in the brief Induction of The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, acts as a drunken tinker tricked by a mischievous nobleman into thinking that in reality he is a lord. These characters and their short introductory story manage to depict all of the major themes of the entire play in just the first few pages. However, spotting these themes has proven difficult for many readers, who remain confused after reading this brief introduction and who overlook the big picture it presents. Indeed, the induction in this play-within-a-play has an oft-neglected yet important purpose in the comedy.
The first important topic covered in the prelude is power, a concept which becomes a preoccupation of the play’s characters. The Nobleman’s decision to entertain himself at Sly’s expense by using the tinker’s poor condition hints at how power is used during the rest of the narrative. Some characters decide to take their authority to the next level, in such a way that they abuse it. For example, Petruchio, a gentleman from Verona, beats a serving man for accidentally spilling water and throws food at his servants because he finds fault with his dinner. However, others refuse the taming attempts from their superiors. When Petruchio announces his intent to court Katherine Minola, the fiery and spirited daughter of Baptista Minola, a wealthy man from Padua, Katherine protests by acting out with aggression and telling him to “get out of here, fool, and give orders to your servants, not me.” (II. I. 248) Her “shrew”-like behavior illustrates the defiance of power relations presented in the literary work. Within the plot, power comes as a form of control or dominance which becomes either used, abused, or subverted by every character, according to their intentions.
At the time that Sly partakes of the job of being a nobleman just with a change of clothes, the crucial role of both physical and psychological disguise is introduced, only to continue through the play. When Katherine uses the obedient, loving wife facade to mask her true, bad-tempered self, she manages to put on a cognitive guise. Likewise, Tranio, Lucentio’s servant, goes through a change of identity when the young and rich student from Pisa orders him to “be me…—live in my house, instruct the servants and do everything in my place just as I would” (I. i. 172-173) as part of Lucentio’s plan to get Bianca Minola, younger daughter of Baptista. When Tranio follows his master’s orders to impersonate him while pretending to woo Bianca, he, much like Sly, goes through a change of identity by simply altering his physical appearance. The servant finds himself forced to take on the duties and tasks of those from the higher class and to act like one of them. Certainly, Tranio rising to the powerful position of an aristocrat like Lucentio mirrors Sly’s own donning of a lord’s manner. All characters must act accordingly to a role even when it serves as a disguise.
The type of comedy to which this play pertains to is called slapstick. Such comedy is merely part of the fun in the play and is enjoyed for the sheer silliness of it. The reader might notice the category’s characteristics from the beginning, with Sly’s exaggerated and hostile behavior due to alcohol intoxication. Within the farce, one may find plenty of humorous misunderstandings, such as when Petruchio and Grumio enter the play. When the master asks his servant to “knock” at the door of his friend Hortensio, Grumio twists the meaning of “knock” as to “slap” and asks: “Knock, sir? Whom should I knock? Is there any man has rebused your worship?” (I. ii. 6-7) In true comic fashion, Petruchio fails to notice that Grumio has mistaken what he meant and simply continues to insist. Grumio clearly directs a potential threat of attack at the audience, since there are no other actors onstage. This would be considered slapstick and made even more fun by the proximity of and potential danger to the audience.
The Induction introduces essential aspects of the play, such as the slapstick genre and themes like power and disguise. Here, not only does Shakespeare present context and genre, but he also utilizes the action as a catalyst for foreshadowing events within the main plot. By making the audience familiar with several crucial features since the beginning, the narrative’s Induction unconsciously prepares the reader for the play, making its significance within The Taming of the Shrew fundamental.
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