Comic structures

The conventions of comedy

In The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare both works with, and against, the conventions of comedy which would have been familiar to his audience. Early modern audiences would expect to experience entertainment through humour and some element of education through laughter: i.e. not only would they be entertained, they would also learn how not to behave or how to escape such mockery in their own lives. 
The conventions of the comic genre included:
  • Mistaken identities
  • Disguises and confusion of identity
  • Young lovers who face many obstacles
  • Multiple plots often intertwined and at times complicated
  • Physical slapstick as well as more intellectual humour
  • Stock characters, such as the clever, unruly servant
  • Strong female characters, who are often disguised as men
  • Journeys to another country or place
  • A happy ending (often based on multiple marriages).

The Taming of the Shrew as a comedy

Most of these elements can be seen in The Taming of the Shrew. The mistaken identities that abound in the sub-plot when Hortensio, Lucentio and Tranio take on disguises in order to secure Bianca’s affections or the confusion of identity that occurs when Lucentio’s father seeks his son are all conventions of the genre. Similarly, the young lovers who face many obstacles are familiar characters and are seen in Lucentio and Bianca and, less obviously, in Petruchio and Katherina. Other familiar characters include Grumio as the clever, unruly servant who gets knocked about by his master, and Gremio as the old, lascivious man. There are journeys which develop plot – such as Lucentio’s father’s arrival in Padua – and journeys which transform character – such as Katherina’s journey to Petruchio’s house after their wedding. 

A departure from convention

However, Shakespeare also ignores many of these conventions. Most obviously, he ignores the implication that all the unions at the end of a comedy are happy. The Taming of the Shrew does not end with a marriage in which all the comic complications are resolved. Instead, Shakespeare places a marriage – occurring offstage and described by characters onstage – in Act 3 Scene 2, almost at the centre of the play. 
Unusual in a Shakespearean comedy, the focus is not on the lead-up to a wedding, but on marriage and the life of the characters after they are married. Such a focus raises questions about the other marriages that take place at the end of the play in the usual resolution of mistaken identity and thwarted love. The long-term happiness of the newly married couples is not necessarily as straight forward as is implied in other comedies such as As You Like It.
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