The Taming of the Shrew does not begin with the story of Katherine and Petruchio, or even with Katherine and her sister. Instead, it begins with Christopher Sly, the tinker who passes out drunk and is made to believe he is a lord. The manor stages The Taming of the Shrew for Christopher Sly, though he disappears after the Induction and never returns. (The Taming of A Shrew, quite possibly the play Shakespeare used as his model, brings back Sly at the end.)
Why is the Induction in the play? On the one hand, the Induction certainly highlights the farcical nature of the play. Many people have pointed out that the Induction does not permit us to take the plot of Taming of the Shrew too seriously. Taming of the Shrew is not only a play within a play, it is a practical joke.
The other aspect of the Induction that I find fascinating is the idea of a tinker becoming a Lord, even as a joke. The more I think about this, the more this idea seems to relate to the central conflict between Katherine and Petruchio.
A central philosophical idea of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being classified all of creation, with God, of course, being at the top of the hierarchy as the creator. The angels came next, followed by humans, animals, plants, and minerals. Of course, each division had subdivisions and hierarchies.
In the human subdivision, the king was at the top, followed by nobles and commoners. In a largely agrarian economy, it is perfectly logical that the king, the man with the largest land holdings, would be at the top of the hierarchy. (Yes, he also had political power of course, but money didn’t hurt him either.) Since the Great Chain of Being was set by God, the king is naturally superior to the noble, who is superior to the commoner.
In the Induction, the tinker has been promoted beyond his natural role. It is essential to remember that, according to the Great Chain of Being, a person’s state in life, whether king, noble, or commoner, was assigned by God. The commoner cannot become a nobleman any more than a bird can become a cat. And yet, the noblemen try to convince the tinker that he is a lord.
This becomes far more intriguing when we consider the curious time in which Shakespeare lived. Shakespeare lives at the end of the Renaissance and at the dawning of the age of mercantilism. At this point in history, wealth is beginning to move out of the hands of the land owners and into the hands of the merchants and business owners, a trend which will only accelerate when the Industrial Revolution dawns a couple of hundred years later. Added to mercantilism will be colonialism. The Taming of the Shrew premiered contemporary to the failed British colony of Roanoke. In less than 20 years time, the British will try again at Jamestown, and that colony will succeed. It’s worth remembering that one of the purposes of colonies was to dump criminals and other undesirables. Many of these undesirables will find ways to prosper and accumulate wealth. Less than 200 years later, a bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor, grows up to be a hero and a scholar. (Forgive the Hamilton reference.) 🙂
Social mobility is becoming possible.
Shakespeare himself witnessed this first hand. His father, John, was a glove maker who operated a successful business. John was able to marry the daughter of a wealthy landowner, send his son to an excellent school, and was elected to several local public positions. William would even purchase a coat of arms for his father. Would this have even been possible in previous generations? I am not sure.
With increased social mobility must have come increased anxiety about everyone’s place in the world. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare tells the story of The Taming of the Shrew, and why he begins it with the induction. Shakespeare tells the story of a woman who does not observe her proper role in society (to be chaste, silent, and obedient) at the same time when men are becoming less likely to observe their proper roles within society. Social climbing was not always seen as a virtue, as Hamilton once again shows. 🙂
Is it possible that Taming of the Shrew reflects a broader anxiety about societal roles rather than simply the roles of forceful women? Petruchio, after all, does “come to wife it wealthily in Padua.” And is Christopher Sly ever restored to his original state? We all assume that he will return to his life as a tinker, but we do not know this for certain, Shakespeare does not tell us.
Of course, none of this even gets into the fact that, at this point in history, England is being governed very successfully by a woman, but that is a story for another time.