Illusion, metamorphosis and reality


The Taming of the Shrew, Sly and the LordSly

In The Taming of the Shrew, the theme of illusion, metamorphosis and reality is established in the opening scenes of the Induction, where Christopher Sly is persuaded that he is a lord and treated with respect and honour. The distinction between illusion and reality is blurred as Sly is gradually convinced that he is other than who he thought he was. Having had a firm grasp on a very tangible Warwickshire reality (Wincot and Burton Heath/Barton-on-the-Heath are real places, the latter where Shakespeare’s aunty lived), there is humour for all when he begins to believe that he is what those around him say. For a penniless drunkard to discover there is free ale on tap, as well as servants to meet his every need (and a ‘wife’ to satisfy physical desires!) is a dream come true, and Sly starts to behave the way in which he thinks a lord should behave. 
Whatever metamorphosis Sly undergoes is a superficial one which touches his language and behaviour rather than his identity or character. It is also unclear what purpose the joke has and whether Sly will even know it was real when he awakes from his second drunken slumber. Will the Lord and his attendants send him on his way with memories of a wonderful experience, or will they disabuse and dishonour him, so that he is in the same condition as when he first arrived on stage?


Vincentio provides an example of when illusion goes beyond a joke and causes very real distress. As Tranio and the Pedant brazen out their ruse of being ‘Lucentio’ and ‘Vincentio’ respectively, they carry their local community with them, leaving Vincentio with no support. The generous old man is first confounded by the threat of arrest and even Petruchio’s disbelief, then faces the rebuff of servants he has brought up since childhood, next fears for the life of his beloved son and finally faces serious threat to his own person as the forces of law are brought into play. His anger at having been so abused is understandable when the illusion is finally shattered by the timely arrival of his son.

Temporary metamorphosis

Whilst Vincentio resists the illusion forced upon him, Tranio and the Pedant are willing participants and there is humour for the audience as they relish the opportunities conferred by their new status. With no apparent effort, they metamorphose into a learned, rich and witty gentleman and grave and wealthy father respectively, as if born for the roles.
Shakespeare conveys the liberation conferred by disguise. Reflecting a more fluid Elizabethan society, young men can make themselves into whatever they would like to be, no longer held back by distinctions of wealth or family. However, Shakespeare is perhaps also making a point about how precarious such social metamorphosis is. Although the exposure of Tranio, Biondello and the Pedant is humorous and leads only to a hasty ‘scarper’, Vincentio’s beating of Biondello and recognition of Tranio as the son of ‘a sail-maker in Bergamo’ punctures the bubble of illusion by returning people firmly to their ‘proper’ social station. Too much metamorphosis is seen to threaten social stability, a wry warning from the playwright who was himself derided as an ‘upstart crow’. 

Lasting change

In some ways Petruchio carefully creates an intricate illusion similar to that used with Sly in order to ‘tame’ Katherina. He takes her out of her familiar environment and on a journey of self-discovery through a series of dilemmas that cannot be resolved by shrewish responses. Katherina’s metamorphosis is a gradual process of renouncing her shrewish behaviour and forming a new understanding of both herself and Petruchio. 
In Padua Katherina had been known as an aggressive, shrewish young woman and men such as Baptista, Gremio and Hortensio had confirmed the role she played by treating her as a stereotypical shrew. Petruchio’s approach was to remove conventional responses, to implement a somewhat outrageous theory of behaviour modification and to present her with the opportunity to re-invent herself. 

Changing others’ perception

Petruchio also engineers this metamorphosis so that it challenges and re-shapes the attitudes of others towards his bride. He is different to the Lord who remains aloof from Sly because he immerses himself in his wife’s ‘rescue’ so as to deflect negative attention away from her towards himself. By flouting social convention and dismissing public opinion in much the same way as Katherina does, he allies himself with her against social opprobrium, whilst also robbing it of its power over Katherina. 

A new reality

By the end of the play Petruchio and Katherina are able to create their own reality by working together. Initially, they do this by themselves creating a playful illusion, pretending that an old man they meet is a young woman:
Katherina: Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,
Whither away, or where is thy abode?

Happy the parents of so fair a child;

Happier the man, whom favourable stars

Allot thee for his lovely bed-fellow!
Petruchio: Why, how now, Kate! I hope thou art not mad:

This is a man, old, wrinkled, faded, wither'd,

And not a maiden, as thou say'st he is.
Katherina: Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes,

That have been so bedazzled with the sun

That everything I look on seemeth green:

Now I perceive thou art a reverend father;

Pardon, I pray thee, for my mad mistaking. Act 4 Scene 5     
When they reach Padua and the machinations of the sub-plot unravel around them, Petruchio and Katherina stand aside and watch it, laughing together and commenting on what is going. Their new relationship gives them a fresh perspective on the relationships of others and their enjoyment of their revitalised partnership is evident. Katherina has been liberated from her background and metamorphosed into a woman apparently fulfilled. 
Ultimately, the new reality Petruchio and Katherina create in their relationship is shown by the way in which they win the wager in the last scene. In her final speech addressed to Bianca and Hortensio’s wife, Katherina describes the duty a wife owes her husband using social and religious references that demonstrates how order is restored at all levels of society by a marriage of mutual respect and honour. The religious imagery and biblical allusions in Katherina’s last speech give enduring weight to their newfound identities and partnership. 
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