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Module Two

Discuss The Taming of the Shrew as a play of "supposes"

The Taming of the Shrew is often described as a play of ‘supposes’. Different kinds of deception and misconception form the bases of its plots, and all the interesting characters are wearing some kind of mask. With the eventual removal of the mask, truth is revealed. The idea of metamorphosis runs through the whole of the play, from the surface-level disguises of Lucentio and Tranio to the psychological change Katherina undergoes. To emphasize the classical tradition from which the play is in great part derived, the Metamorphoses of Ovid are referred to at various points in the play: Tranio recommends that Lucentio should study Ovid as well as Aristotle; and Lucentio uses Ovid’s The Art to Love to court Bianca by stealth when he is disguised as a tutor.

The most obvious connection with ‘supposes’ is in Shakespeare’s use of the Gascoigne play Supposes (itself a translation of Ariosto’s I Suppositti— The Substitutes or The Imposters) as the source for much of the Bianca plot. Supposes is modelled on the classical tradition, and is a lively story of intrigue and deception, essentially a comedy about the efforts of a young man to outwit the old men who stand between him and the girl he wants. The hero changes identities with his own servant, and becomes a servant in the heroine’s father’s house; the ingenious servant is faced with the necessity of providing a ‘father’ for himself, and beguiles a stranger into taking the role. Similarities with the Bianca plot are obvious. There are, however, considerable differences, with Shakespeare presenting a more romantic version of the story, with such complications as the heroine’s pregnancy being omitted altogether. In addition, Hortensio is added to the scene as another counterfeit tutor. The result is a kind of farce, a comedy of situation in which confusion is piled upon confusion until, when the goal is achieved and Bianca wed, Lucentio finally comes clean. At this point, Shakespeare overtly acknowledges his debt to the earlier play, when Lucentio says:

“Here’s Lucentio,
Right son to the right Vincentio,
That have by marriage made thy daughter mine,
While counterfeit supposes bleared thine eyne.” (V, 1, 103-106)

Within this story, the deceptions are obvious to the audience—provided we can remember which man-io is which, at any rate. Lucentio, and his servant Tranio, and the Pedant, all assume false identities in order to achieve a stated purpose. The young men run the con, the old men are taken in. Hortensio attempts the same thing, although without success, as he is deceived as well as deceiver. The two who know exactly what is going on, Lucentio and Tranio, are the ones who manage to pull off the purpose of their trickery. However, they in their turn are deceived: Lucentio’s own deception is purely surface-work—change the name and garments and the man is sufficiently changed for his purpose. But because he does not think it necessary to look beneath the surface (indeed, as far as Lucentio is concerned, it is probably undesirable to do so, as his disguise is all surface), he fails to notice the hints that his beloved object is not precisely what he takes her to be.

There are in fact other deceptions in progress during the play, which are not immediately obvious, though they may be for a purpose. The character of Bianca is one such. She has the persona of a meek, biddable, properly feminine young woman, and is hailed as such by all who know her. There are some hints early on that this persona may not be the ‘real’ Bianca (eg her assumption of authority over the tutors to whom, in front of her father, she professes to submit; her willingness to flirt with the tutor ‘Cambio’), but it is not until her own ends are achieved, in other words, she is married to the man of her own choice, that she reveals anything more of her actual self. It seems that Bianca has been willing to allow the men around her to suppose her what they wish her to be. Interestingly, Hortensio, in his disguise as the tutor Licio, perceives enough of the real Bianca (who favours ‘Cambio’ over his own undisguised suit) to make him change his mind about marrying her.

Whether Bianca deliberately deceives those around her, or merely allows them to deceive themselves, is not altogether clear. Different stage productions could well vary on this point. Petruchio, on the other hand, certainly makes a positive choice. He is a rumbunctious and self-important character, but not, initially, quite as obnoxious as the exaggerated version of himself he creates, a hyper-Petruchio, in order to deal with Katherina—but she and the other characters are largely deceived into thinking him quite mad, from his behaviour. (Alarming that Baptista does not bridle at giving up his own daughter to a madman.) He puts on motley to attend his own wedding, he pretends to believe in insults where obviously no insults are meant, and even pretends to see what is not there at all, when he meets Vincentio on the road to Padua. This is all deliberately done, with the purpose of transforming Katherina from the shrew that reputation calls her into the proper wife Petruchio wants.

There are also characters within the play who are ‘supposed’ to be something, and then become that thing. Katherina is generally held to be a shrew, and behaves like one—but it appears that the label exacerbates her bad behaviour, so it might be said that she is living up to it. Thereafter, Petruchio gives her a different character:

...hearing of her beauty and her wit,
Her affability and bashful modesty,
Her wondrous qualities and mild behaviour...” (II.1.48-50)

By his peculiar treatment of her, but also by giving her an alternate image of herself, he manages to transform her into just the person he has declared her to be. Notably, however, he seems to believe she already possesses these qualities. As he says, her virtues and beauty are talked of,

“Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs” (II,1, 193)

But Katherina has to be convinced to be the person Petruchio tells her he sees. Everyone can perceive her wit, and, presumably, her beauty, but only when Katherina herself is willing to enter into Petruchio’s own ‘supposes’, accept the moon as the sun, and address the baffled Vincentio as a young budding virgin, has she embraced the new character he has drawn for her. As she says,

“What you will have it named, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.” (IV.5.21-22)

The same notion of re-defining a person is presented in the Induction, where the unfortunate Christopher Sly is bamboozled into believing himself an aristocrat. For less laudable reasons than Petruchio’s, the Lord seizes upon this lowly drunkard and tricks him for his own amusement. However, it works, and Sly is eager to become what everyone around him ‘supposes’ him to be. Perhaps it is as well that we do not see any denouement at the end of the play, with Sly turfed out of his lordly domain and returned to his proper station. It would be a pity to negate the lesson of Katherina’s reform.

Supposes, therefore, might well have been the title for Shakespeare’s own play. It incorporates the traditional farce of Lucentio’s courtship, and also the far more interesting treatment of Katherina’s character. The Induction focuses our attention on the idea that identity does not have to be a solid and unchanging thing, but can depend on the ‘mirror’ of other what other people suppose.


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