Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Induction to "The Taming of the Shrew": The Taming and Transformation of Christopher Sly

Both social status and tension between the sexes come into play the moment Christopher Sly appears on stage. He is named as a “beggar” in the stage directions, but we could guess that he is a low character both by his predicament and by the way he talks. He tells the Hostess of the Inn from which he has just been ejected that he’ll “feeze” her. According toThe Oxford English Dictionary, he’s threatening to “frighten,” “beat,” or “do” for her. He also calls her a “baggage.” OED quotes this very line to illustrate the sense of “baggage” as a “worthless good-for nothing woman; a woman of disreputable or immoral life, a strumpet.” In other words, Sly isn’t a gentleman and isn’t behaving like one.

Nonetheless, Sly makes the comic assertion that his family, “the Slys,” are an ancient one who came in with “Richard the Conquerer.” This is multiply comic. Some old aristocratic English families could trace their ancestry back to the nobles who accompanied William the Conqueror in his invasion of 1066. Not only does Sly get the name wrong (“Richard the Conqueror”), he doesn’t seem a likely member of any old noble family!

When the “Lord” then immediately enters and finds Sly asleep, presumably drunk, the absurdity of Sly’s comic pretensions are intensified by the contrast. Here is a ‘real’ Lord who talks and acts like on. He has just come from the favourite aristocratic pursuit of hunting, and he uses the characteristic language of that pursuit, naming and praising his hounds and giving instruction for their care: “Breathe Merriman – the poor cur is embossed.” He also addresses his huntsman as “boy,” which sounds almost as rude as “baggage.” Here, however, it indicates that the Lord’s status is much higher than that of his servant the huntsman, who is certainly an adult male but in an inferior social station.

Real vs. illusory aristocratic identity of course drives the main action of the Induction scenes, where the Lord and his servants work hard to convince Sly to “forget himself” and believe that is “a lord, and nothing but a lord.” They change Sly’s sense of himself by supplying him with the props and even the language of aristocratic identity – from “wanton pictures” to models of speech in iambic pentameter, which Sly begins to speak for himself when he wonders, “Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?”

It’s significant for the coming action between prospective husbands and wives that this dubious “Lord Sly” now modifies his relations with the opposite sex. He is much more respectful of his “Madam wife” and even agrees to practice restraint in order to complete his “amendment:” “I would be loath to fall into my dreams again. I will therefore tarry in despite of the flesh and blood.”

The unrestrained and beggarly Sly has been transformed and tamed! This looks forward to other tamings and transformations in the play proper.

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