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Establishment of the Comedy Genre through the prism of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

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Explore the ways in which the conventions of the comedy genre are established in the first two acts of The Taming of the Shrew

While it may make contemporary audiences uneasy, The Taming of the Shrew complies with all the main conventions of a Shakespearean comedy. These are established early on in the first acts of the play, beginning with a setting of the scene and the characters to dictate the traditional plot of a resolution of “loose ends”. The introduction of Lucentio, Bianca, Petruchio and Kate present the young lovers and their need to unite in order to conclude the play (despite the latter being a uniquely un-romantic relationship). Alongside this, Shakespeare applies a number of different types of humour – ranging from verbal to situational – which ensures it is deeply set in this genre. Coupled with hints of the Italian Commedia dell’ arte tradition and stock characters, there is no doubt that this play is a comedy in the Elizabethan sense, yet still by its very nature it continues to be the subject of severe questioning and widespread criticism.

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For Shakespeare, romantic comedy dictates that young lovers must begin apart, distanced and prevented unison by other forces, but by the end of the play they overcome this; it is often symbolised by a marriage. Matrimony inferred a sense of completion and harmony, the physical manifestation of a comedy’s required “happy ending”. In his first act, Shakespeare presents the characters which will conclude the play with their union, thus establishing this crucial convention. Lucentio, through his hyperbole, is identified as one of these young lovers upon sight of the beautiful Bianca – ‘I burn! I pine, I perish’. In comedies it was usually the case that they were kept apart by their parents or other such seniors, creating an opposition between the young and old. Here both the ‘pantaloon’ Gremio and her father Baptista (with his conditions) provide the barrier. This plot is intertwined with another, arguably more central; Petruchio’s quest for Kate, ‘as wealth is burden of [his] wooing dance’. This relationship, ‘altogether disgusting to modern sensibility’ , is the main reason this play is questioned as a comedy at all.

This is the matter which divides many critics. Seen by some as the sadistic and ‘inhuman’ destruction of a fiery woman, to an Elizabethan audience this would have been viewed as a disrespectful ‘Shrew’ taught her proper place in the Great Chain of Being (albeit through unusual methods). While these techniques may even have caused some members of an Elizabethan audience to become uneasy, the final submission of Kate which is foreshadowed by Petruchio’s determined confidence (‘I will board her’), denotes a happy ending. This is because of the social conventions of Shakespeare’s time; a woman was expected to be humble, quiet and obedient, ranked beneath her husband on the Great Chain dictated by God, so Kate’s acceptance of this reflects a suitable denouement. However, as mentioned before, this does not sit as well with modern audiences. As Margaret Ramald aptly summarises, ‘in a post-feminist era, the jury is still out on The Taming of the Shrew’. Due to the lack of stage directions in the second act (upon Petruchio and Kate’s first meeting), ‘He holds her’ can be taken to both ends of the extremity scale. While later in the play his methods become rather more humiliating, Shakespeare originally establishes a scene which could still be deemed comedic by a modern audience. It is filled with clever wordplay and innuendo, and some adaptations – like the 1980s Jonathan Miller film – have presented it to be empty of any real violence or physicality. Contradicting negative receptions of this play, Audrey Williamson reasons that while it is possible to present Petruchio as ‘pure bully’, there is a ‘good humour in some of [his] raillery’ and Katherine is ‘won against her will by his glib and… recital of her charms’ . This rings true, thus while the submission of a woman to a man may spark outrage in a modern world, the acceptance of this woman to her true place in society counted as the tying of “loose ends” thereby spelling a happy ending for its intended audience.

Leaving the more controversial aspect behind, The Taming of the Shrew is woven with numerous varieties of humour which ensure it is indeed a comedy. Shakespeare establishes this early on, with the visual comedy of the swapping of Lucentio and Tranio’s clothes in the streets of Padua. While contrasting the more sophisticated wordplay later to be seen, this and the dramatic irony of Sly asking ‘leave me and her alone’ when referring to the pageboy he thinks his wife both show humour of all calibres. This sexual comedy is continued when Petruchio and Kate meet; sparring with rapid, if slightly sharp, witty repartee. Kate is often tricked into clever innuendos – ‘with my tongue in your tail?… Good Kate, I am a gentleman’ – which would draw laughter from the audience. This type of humour would not be diminished by age, causing our modern audiences no need for unease. A similar timeless, albeit less refined, humour is slapstick. Shakespeare portrays an early example with the confusion between Petruchio and his servant Grumio, ‘knock me here’ being confused for an invitation of violence. One also cannot overlook the situational comedy of the entire play, encapsulated well by the staging: ‘Enter Gremio, Lucentio… [disguised as Cambio], Petruchio with [Hortensio disguised as Litio], Tranio [disguised as Lucentio]’. This vast array of confusing, changeable characters is the cause of a lasting element of comedy which runs throughout the entire play.

As Davies observes, ‘so many of the characters seem drawn from the stock types of the Italian commedia dell’ arte’ . While the critic later proceeds to use this as an excuse for not taking Kate’s submission seriously and literally, it links to a very important dramatic type of the time which appears to have influenced Shakespeare in the writing of this play. Commedia dell’ arte involved the use of stock characters to create humour, many of which feature in The Taming of the Shrew. The use of these characters firmly establishes the conventions of a comedy genre, and nearly all are introduced within the first two acts. The most obvious of these is the vecchi, or Pantalone, Gremio. These were characters of ridicule implemented to create a barrier to true love or to generate humour. As Grumio insightfully surmises, ‘to beguile the old folks, how the young folks lay their heads together’. Traditionally, as mentioned earlier, these are merely tools used to make the union of two lovers (known in this form as the Dottore) more challenging – here seen as Gremio is an opposing suitor to Lucentio. Grumio plays the ‘zanni-like role’ of the stock servant. Both Robert Hence and Davies agree that Shakespeare was heavily influenced by this Italian type of comedy, giving greater form to his play as a piece of work in this genre.

Finally, while there are arguments that the degrading treatment of Kate suggests this cannot be called a comedy in modern terms, there is also a view that this is not a comedy at all. John Russell Brown claims that this is a ‘mere farce’ – a ‘superficial sub-species of comedy, which depends heavily on stage business’. This genre is more concerned with ‘the manipulation of social conventions’ than character development, thus he uses this line of argument to defend the playwright against the criticisms of feminists. He suggests it can be excused the barbaric labelling as the characters in the play lack the moral sensitivity which we consider normal, and the focus is not on the treatment of these, but the idea of the process of treatment by Petruchio itself and the way social conventions are accepted by Kate. While this poses an interesting line of reasoning, it does little to accommodate the numerous other conventions of comedy which The Taming of the Shrew adheres to. From exposition to denouement, the storyline follows that of a romantic comedy: two lovers are finally wed after overcoming the barriers of opposing suitors and a strict rule-making father. Similarly, another young pair force through very different barriers to become one. Although not traditional, Petruchio and Kate follow the same procedure. While Petruchio is not melodramatically love-struck as is Lucentio, he makes numerous mentions to Kate’s understated ‘beauty’, suggesting an underlying level of attraction. Also, Kate finds herself intrigued by the classical allusion he presents, which could be argued that she wants the same adoration that her sister receives. The barriers here are not vecchi but Kate’s behaviour and societal conventions. Their conclusion (or “happy ending”) is not the marriage, as this occurs in the climax, but at the point at which this behaviour is overridden – however negatively this may be perceived today. Thus, in this sense it follows all the rules of a comedy and is much more than a ‘mere farce’.

In conclusion, Shakespeare has created a great division of opinions in writing this play. While critics and contemporary audiences are often appalled by the destruction of Kate by her husband, this difference in reaction from a post-feminist world has no effect on the conventions of comedy. The Taming of the Shrew follows all of these: it tracks the romantic affairs of two young lovers whose unison will signify a happy ending, while dabbling in many different humour types such as slapstick, verbal, situational and visual. Reinforced through the use of stock characters from the commedia dell’ arte tradition, this play is clearly established as comedic from the very first act. Finally, while women’s status in society has changed positively and drastically, to an Elizabethan audience the developing relationship of Petruchio and Kate – the overcoming of the barrier keeping them apart (Kate’s behaviour), the conclusion of this and her submission – remained in fitting with the conventions of the comedic genre.

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