“Thou Shalt be Master in my Stead”:
Shakespeare’s Mockery of Class Tensions in “The Taming of the Shrew”
Theatrical performance can be used to great effect as a means of altering one’s current reality, and one such reality that seems to figure heavily into Shakespeare’s work is the idea of tension wrought of social or class distinctions: distinctions between lord and peasant, master and servant, and so on. The Taming of the Shrew , in particular, offers myriad instances in which characters of low and high birth alike all use performance as a means to separate themselves from the lots society has given them-- to don a new mask, a new social role for a time as either a means to an end, an act of service, or a bit of ostensibly harmless sport. Within this comedy’s “play within a play” framework, noblemen like the crafty Lord of the Induction and the earnestly love-struck Lucentio deliberately “debase” themselves to roles that subject them to the treatment and habit of those in more subservient societal positions, while peasants and servants like Christopher Sly the drunken tinker and Tranio the doggedly loyal manservant are presented with the likely unprecedented chance to “see how the other half lives” by assuming the guises of lords. All, to varying degrees of success, come to embody-- if not embrace-- their respective roles, demonstrating to the external audience the extent to which performance can warp one’s conventional understanding of reality . In essence, the performance transcends itself and can become a character’s reality-- and might not this apparent facility of social transfiguration serve as Shakespeare’s underhanded way of criticizing the rigid class distinctions of his time? Why, for example, should social hierarchies exert such puissant influence over a society if they can so easily be transformed, or even cast off? The shifting balances of power between Taming’s characters in conjunction with their social statuses, real or assumed, certainly seems to suggest that that power is transient, even trifling, if the “low-born” can wield it with just as much authority as their so-called “betters” when given the opportunity-- and in the mad world of Padua, such opportunity abounds.
Even before the true “play” has begun, Shakespeare creates in his induction a situation so contrary to his early modern audience’s expectations of “normal behavior” within class structures that one cannot help but wonder at its purpose. What could be gained from such an elaborate jest as the one constructed, with lords dutifully serving drunken peasants and page boys dressing themselves as docile wives, but humor , and the audience’s helpless laughter at this blatant mockery of social class distinctions? Certainly the true Lord and his servants both take great pleasure out of the prank they play on the hapless Sly; the Lord’s careful detailing of the particulars of his “practise on this drunken man” is vividly wrought to a fault as he instructs his servants to “take him up...carry him gently to my chamber...do it kindly, gentle sirs; it will be passtime passing excellent, if it be husbanded with modesty” (Induction 1, 32, 41-64). To go to such lengths to convince a poor drunkard that he is, in actuality, a lord now recovered from a long, strange disease-- to bathe him, present him with fine food and good liquor and erotic artwork, to play him sweet music, to dress him in rich apparel, to serve and dote upon him and present him with a wife -- such a plot could only be concocted by someone with a great deal of time on his hands and uncontested authority in place to carry said plot out. Such a plot could only be carried out by a member of the upper class .
One could argue, then, that Shakespeare, in presenting this caricatured figure of a rich man lording his power over his social inferiors for the sake of his own amusement, subtly criticizes the power games played by the Elizabethan nobility in such a way that would appeal to the “groundlings,” or common folk, at whom the majority of his plays’ references, bawdy jokes, and catches are probably aimed. The Lord himself alludes to this targeting of humor when he muses that he ought to “counsel” his servants, that his presence “may well abate the over-merry spleen which otherwise would grow to extremes” as they did “homage to this simple peasant;” the servants, more so than the Lord himself, are moved to fits of laughter when faced with Sly’s bluff, blustering, plain-speaking vulgarity in response to their preening gentility (Induction 1, 131-133). Sly rebuffs soft suggestions of “will’t please your lordship drink a cup of sack...taste these conserves...what raiment will your honor wear today?” with the bold declaration of “I am Christophero Sly; call me not ‘honour’ nor ‘lordship,’” and proceeds to describe in crude detail his preferences for ale, salt beef, and simple attire (for he has “no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet”) despite the insistences of all around him that no , he is not , and has never been, the tinker Sly (Induction 2, 2-5, 7-9). Even when the Lord and his entourage manage to convince the addle-pated fellow that he is that which they would have him play, “he doesn’t do it very well;” his language never changes, revealing him to be “ignorant of the tastes and customs of the nobility,” and his style of ‘command,’ as evinced by his imperious requests to Bartholomew (the page whom the Lord called upon to dress and act the part of wife to Sly) to call him “husband” and “goodman,” is clownishly dogmatic, as befits one who has no experience whatsoever with nobility (Howard 175, Induction 2, 101-102). To be sure, that lack of experience is largely where the Induction’s comedic factor lies, but beyond that, it unmasks and, moreover, mocks the apparent impenetrability of the social class structures of Shakespeare’s time. How absurd such a thing must have seemed to groundlings and nobles alike, for the genteel rich man to don the guise of a lowly servant, and for a crass peasant to loll about and give robust orders as though he were master of all, when both betray themselves, through speech, to be the antithesis of what they play! In this case, the clothes most emphatically do not make the man, but despite that fact, it is the ease with which the Induction’s class barriers are breached that hints at the inherent insubstantiality of their existence. Sly might not have acted or sounded like a lord, but he truly did become one for a time, in habit if nothing else, just as the Lord himself became a servant in full throughout the duration of the jest. Surely class distinctions cannot really be so very integral to the function of society if they can so readily be melted away like nothing.
The case for the transience of class boundaries grows stronger still when moving into the actual “play,” and into the Lucentio/Tranio arc in particular, as they come to embody their assumed social roles so fully that they are able to convince the majority of Padua’s nobility that they have never been anything but what they claim to be: “Cambio” the “tutor” and “Lucentio” the “lord.” This ease of transformation is compounded by the fact that, despite the reality of their respective social statuses (Lucentio as a young nobleman, Tranio as a manservant), these two men have a great deal of familiarity with each other and each other’s social role, and therefore are better able to successfully execute what essentially amounts to a status exchange. Case in point: after sighting Bianca, the ‘virtuous’ daughter of Baptista with whom Lucentio falls madly in love, one of the first things the young lord says to Tranio is “counsel me...for I know thou canst; assist me...for I know thou wilt” (1.1.151-152). Beyond a sense of intimate familiarity, even camaraderie, that is born of long years of service and accompaniment, these lines allude to the dynamic whose influence is most puissant in governing the relationship between Tranio and Lucentio; the latter takes the intellect of the former to equal, if not surpass, his own, but is yet secure enough in his own upper-class position that he can order Tranio to do his bidding, or beg his counsel as he would beg the counsel of a friend, as the mood takes him. That being said, Tranio himself, though he is “tied to be obedient,” accepts Lucentio’s bold entreaty to make him assume the guise of Lucentio , the lord , just as much out of his love for his master and friend as his duty as a servant: a marked contrast to the servants of the Induction, whom the Lord must carefully counsel and observe, lest they ruin the jest (1.1.206). It is a lack of trust in his servants on the Lord’s part that forces him to take the proverbial lead in practicing upon Sly, but this lack is notably lacking in the Lucentio/Tranio dynamic, allowing their respective ruses to move independently of each other and achieve life of their own.
In fact, Lucentio trusts Tranio so much that he is perfectly willing to give him free reign over his affairs in Padua while he remains within the vicinity of the Minola household to act as Bianca’s tutor. “Thou shalt be master, Tranio, in my stead; keep house, and port, and servants, as I should” he says in answer to the servant’s inquiries as to who will possibly uphold Lucentio’s responsibilities while he gallivants about dallying with hidden courtship, and Tranio fills his master’s shoes admirably (1.1.196-197). He comports himself with the casual grace and noble bearing of a lord while still maintaining the air of calm, conciliatory graciousness that is so unique to him, as evinced by such lines as “gentlemen, God save you; if I may be bold, tell me, I beseech you,” which affect both an air of cultured command and one of nearly servile politeness, blurring the lines between master and servant even as his adroit utilization of a gentleman’s elegant diction and witty repartee serve to bind his guise firmly in place (1.2.214-215). He even goes so far as to command his own master in revealing his plan to cement Lucentio’s engagement to Bianca (negotiated solely by Tranio as Lucentio, of course) by bringing in someone to act as Lucentio’s father, Vincentio. After hearing Biondello’s (another servant of Lucentio’s) report of a “marcantant or a pedant...formal in apparel, in gait and countenance surely like a father” coming down the hill, Tranio tells his master that he will “make (the pedant) glad to seem Vincentio and give assurance to Baptista Minola as if he were the right Vincentio; take in your love, and then let me alone;” both the clever scheme and the clipped imperative seem out of place coming from a servant’s mouth, but Tranio has assumed the role of the nobleman with such facility and aplomb that one finds it difficult to even recall the truth of his typically subservient status (4.2.64-66, 69-72). He has, essentially, become the lord -- and one gets the sense that he plays his part better than the true Lucentio would play his reality . Tranio was born as, and is content to remain, a servant, but when the opportunity to associate with the upper echelon as a part of it presents itself, he slides across the class gap masterfully.
Lucentio, for his part, does not make quite so far a leap in social status as either Tranio or the Induction’s Lord do, but despite that, is only able to maintain his guise through silence in a social setting. When spoken to (ordered about, even) by Baptista, he wisely keeps “mum” to avoid betraying himself by either diction or impartation of sentiment, but Act 3, Scene 1 shows him addressing the noble suitor Hortensio (also disguised as a humble music tutor) with saucy impertinence, peremptory authoritativeness, and smooth eloquence that belie his “mean” usurped role. Going still further, he has made absolutely no effort whatsoever to hide his true identity from Bianca, for at some indeterminate time, he has revealed himself and his and Tranio’s plan to her. “...As I told you before...I am Lucentio...son unto Vincentio of Pisa...disguised thus to get your love” are his weapon-words of choice, and though Bianca quails about a bit with her coy declarations of “I know you not...I trust you not...take heed he hear us not,” it is evident that she sees no ill in this elaborate ruse; both of the young lovers view this extended performance as a means to their ultimate end: the other’s hand in marriage (3.1.31-33, 41-42). For the audience, however, their making light of the potential consequences of so blatant a disruption of traditional class structures further underscores the idea that such structures are inherently without base. Perhaps Shakespeare is actively inviting his audience to think as the young lovers do, and pay no heed to the binding behavioral constraints of one’s social class...but perhaps he is also teaching his audience that to pay no heed is to liberate oneself from a class system that futilely attempts to confine power that cannot and should not be so bound.
To elucidate: in the Induction, we see the authority of a lord of gentle birth and breeding being supplanted by an uncouth, lewdly jocular peasant, and while he never gives up his rough manner of speech or coarse tastes, his word is nevertheless construed to be the law for the duration of the Lord’s jest. In Taming itself, we see a servant undertake the responsibilities and habits of a nobleman with such grace and success that we forget that he is, in fact, a member of a lower social class. Conversely, the Induction’s Lord and Taming’s young Lucentio both assume the miens of servants as a means to derive either amusement or pleasure in love, and neither are challenged for it despite their inability to get fully “into character,” as it were. Both cases, then, appear to turn conventional Elizabethan class structures on their heads by presenting characters that break, either by ascension or descension, the dictated boundaries of their respective social classes-- and these boundaries, therefore, are shown to be, in a word, ridiculous. Though he may not have been advocating outright the total demolition of class systems, Shakespeare nevertheless presents a compelling argument in his text for criticism of those systems’ proclivities for inutile assertions of immutable power dynamics. Power in society can transcend class levels; it can be wielded deftly by those condemned to a life of servitude or abused by those born into its coddling embrace! Power in society is not fixed , but transient , and by letting its transience play out upon a stage, Shakespeare was able to impart some part of that message unto his audience, letting his words demonstrate what displeasure that he himself could not, that his own society was unable to see how it had blinded and crippled itself through rigidity in social class. Only upon the stage, through performance, could the true folly of hierarchically bound society be brought to light.
Stephen Greenblatt, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2008. Print.