Duplicity and disguise

Reasons for disguise

In The Taming of the Shrew, many characters employ disguise in order to further their own schemes, generally by duplicitous means:
  • Lucentio becomes Cambio, and Hortensio, Litio, in order to get around Baptista’s embargo on Bianca
  • Tranio becomes ‘Lucentio’ so as to knock out the rival suitors
  • The pedant becomes ‘Vincentio’ in order to (as he believes) save his own skin from military aggression
  • Bianca acts the submissive innocent in front of her father, yet enjoys wielding power over her suitors and acts autonomously in her choice of partner
  • From Hortensio’s reaction, we can assume that the Widow is all ‘kindness’ to her suitor until the knot is tied, after which she reveals her true colours.

Comedic value

The disguises of Lucentio, Hortensio and Tranio are comic devices which not only further the plot but also reveal their own characters and expose the motivation or moral compass of those around them. They also provide the opportunity for much ingenuity and wit as the disguised characters sustain their alter-ego throughout much of the play. There is much humour when more simple characters such as Gremio or Baptista are gulled by them. This is in the same vein as the way in which Christopher Sly is gulled by the Lord, his attendants and the male actor who dresses up as his ‘wife’.

The dangers of disguise

There are also more serious aspects of disguise which Shakespeare plays on in his drama:
  • The Pedant’s (apparently serious) usurpation of Vincentio’s status results in a genuine threat to the generous old man
  • Both Lucentio and Bianca’s relationships with their fathers suffer because of the duplicity that was occasioned by disguise and subterfuge
  • The pleasing exterior which hides a selfish heart is a reality which is dangerously seductive and capable of leading a person into errors of judgement and character – as the audience fears has happened for the husbands of Bianca and the Widow.
The duplicity that accompanies deception would be recognised by Shakespeare’s audience as an attribute of the devil who Christians believe lies and disguises himself as an angel of light in order to entice people away from God (see 2 Corinthians 11:14). While The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy which uses disguise and duplicity for comic purposes, the underlying idea of the dangers of deception is not far from the surface.

Petruchio’s motives

Petruchio assumes a disguise for a different motive. When he arrives at his own wedding dressed as a madman, it is not in order to cheat anyone but is part of his plan to tame Katherina. Just as Sly is disorientated from his habitual behaviour, so Petruchio is aiming to free Katherina from the constraints of her perceived persona as a ‘shrew’. He wants her to recognise the reality of a relationship with him, rather than habitually chafing against the social constraints of her culture: ‘To me she’s married, not unto my clothes.’ (Act 3 Scene 2). By destabilising her expectations he reduces the opportunity for her to display her usual behaviour, as well as increasing onlookers’ sympathy for her by being more outrageous in his behaviour and appearance than she is.
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