The framing device in The Taming of the Shrew

First Quarto title page of The Taming of the Shrew, image available through Creative CommonsCommentary

The Taming of the Shrew opens with a framing device featuring the intoxicated tinker Christopher Sly. The Induction sets the stage for the action that unfolds in the main plot – literally, as Sly sits down to watch this ‘play-within-a-play’ which very quickly overwhelms the induction. For at least the first scene of the play, the characters from the Induction remain onstage and watch the main plot unfold. As a framing device, this is also a dramatic way of (initially) providing commentary on the events of the main plot. Sly’s reactions to what is happening on stage can influence how the audience understands and responds. 
Is Shakespeare inviting his audience to see the main plot through the eyes of Christopher Sly? In which case elements of the main plot could be seen as no more than a fantasy that would appeal to a drunken tinker. Or could the joke being played on Sly by the Lord and his men also carry over into the main plot, so that audiences regard all that happens to the marriage partners as an unrealistic joke? If this is the case, Katherina’s performance at the end could simply be seen as a mirroring of the role of Sly’s dutiful wife, as played by the page. Soon Sly will find out that such a lady as he imagines does not exist (because he’s a man). Does the audience therefore see in Kate’s final speech an illusion which Petruchio falls for but will disappoint him? Alternatively, all the rhetoric and verbal dexterity in the play could simply be seen as a demonstration of how words can create a new reality (as has happened for the tinker) which may or may not have substance.

Thematic resonance

Many of the themes raised in the Induction are developed in the rest of the play, such as: 
  • Issues of identity
  • Marriage
  • Social status
  • Wealth. 

The forming of identity

Sly’s crisis of identity, prompted by the deferential treatment of the Lord’s servants and their insistence that he is a great Lord, foreshadows the identity crisis that Katherina undergoes in the main plot. In Padua, she had crafted for herself the reputation of an aggressive, shrewish, young woman, but Petruchio’s treatment of her goes beyond the conventional responses of men like Baptista, Gremio and Hortensio and is also accompanied by an equally outrageous ‘education’. Petruchio’s antics are at times as elaborate and as disconcerting as the Lord’s joke on Sly. The outcome in Katherina can be seen to mirror the changes that occur in Sly’s character and behaviour in the Induction, although of course Katherina’s transformation is much more complex.

Marriage and status

Petruchio’s desire to find a rich wife in Padua may seem to mirror Sly’s eagerness to meet his own new, rich wife, but his ambitions to have a happy marriage are far more complex than the tinker’s. 
Social status and wealth are also significant in the sub-plot, forming part of the obstacles that keep Lucentio and Bianca apart and cause them to resort to deceit and subterfuge. With the help of Tranio, Biondello and the Pedant, their deception of Baptista and the other suitors is as comprehensive as the deception practised on Sly. In the Induction, the ruse played on Sly elevates his status, rather than demeaning it, as Lucentio experiences. However, whilst Bianca and Lucentio will re-emerge with their social status enhanced through the acceptance of their marriage, it is unlikely that Sly’s trajectory will continue upward once the Lord tires of his joke.

Half a frame

Interestingly, Shakespeare does not conclude the play by referring back to the Induction and the framing device remains open-ended. It is possible that Sly fell asleep while watching the play – since he is not seen or heard after a brief interruption early on in the action of the main plot – and this might explain why there is no return to the characters and events of the Induction at the end of the play. It is also possible that Shakespeare was using the framing device in this way in order to leave the audience within the world of the main plot. Without the closure offered by the return to Sly and the Lord’s joke, the audience would be called upon to draw their own conclusions and relate the themes and ideas of the play to their own world. Although set in Padua, the events and characters of The Taming of the Shrew are distinctly English! 
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.