The Paradox of Reality

June 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

One of William Shakespeare’s earliest romantic comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, focuses on the courtship and marriage of two sisters, Katharina and Bianca. While the play provides a somewhat lighthearted commentary on matrimony and the supposed roles of husbands and wives, the lightheartedness of the work masks the underlying thematic development of the deception of reality. The Taming of the Shrew “adroitly manipulates the device of mistaken identity…inverting appearance and reality, dreaming and waking, and the master-servant relationship in order to create a transformed Saturnalian world” in which social order and class distinction are merely the result of one’s surroundings (Bevington 108). Illusion is used throughout the work, from various character disguises to the physical framework of the play itself, and not only is the motif used to violate social order, but also to illustrate the danger of replacing reality with delusion. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew employs illusion both to break down the hierarchy of social roles and to assert the pitfalls inherent in doing so, particularly in association with the characters Christopher Sly and Lucentio. Shakespeare first displays the theme of illusion during the induction, and his use of this motif in relation to Christopher Sly challenges the social constructs of class during the sixteenth century. By simply changing Sly’s environment, the Lord of the house uses illusion to convert the mere tinker into nobility, thereby questioning the validity of the acquisition of social status during that time period. The Lord asks his servants, “What think you, if he were conveyed to bed, /Wrapped in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers, /A most delicious banquet by his bed, /And brave attendants near him when he wakes, /Would the beggar then forget himself” (Induction.1.36-40). Here, the nobleman himself ponders the importance of circumstances in connection with social hierarchy, and defies the norms of social order by asking, “If Sly can become a lord by wearing the right clothes and speaking blank verse, might audience members similarly raise their status?” (Bevington 109). Indeed, the Lord and his servants dress and surround Sly accordingly, and after some mild persuasion, Sly himself believes in the very illusion he represents. By presenting Sly as aristocracy only as a result of perception, Shakespeare disturbs the idea of a regimented social order and proposes the notion that a simple change of clothes may alter class structure within sixteenth-century society. The mere introduction and story line of Christopher Sly within The Taming of the Shrew provides an outer framework for the play in which illusion constantly tampers with reality. The backdrop of Sly’s story depicts Shakespeare’s use of illusion and illustrates not only a play within a play, but an illusion within an illusion. Shakespeare “multiplies his devices of illusion by combining two entirely distinct plots, each concerned, at least in part, with the comic inversion of appearance and reality” (Bevington 109). In the induction, the Lord of the house commands his page, Bartholomew, to disguise himself as Sly’s wife. He relays that he wants his page “dressed in all suits like a lady…Tell him from me…He bear himself with honorable action/ Such as he hath observed in noble ladies…And then with kind embracements, tempting kisses, /And with declining head into his bosom, /Bid him shed tears, as being overjoyed/ To see her noble lord restored to health” (Induction.1.105-120). By changing his clothes and demeanor, Bartholomew not only transforms himself from man to woman, but from page to nobleman, and this deception aids Sly’s ability to replace reality with illusion. In fact, Sly’s “function…is that of the naïve observer who inverts illusion and reality in his mind,” and his purpose in the play is to relay the power of delusion (Bevington 108). The audience is “comically aware that Sly’s ‘wife’ is an imposter, a young page in disguise,” and “this counterfeiting of roles is no more unreal than the employment of Elizabethan boy-actors for the parts of Katharina and Bianca in the ‘real’ play” (Bevington 108). In essence, Sly must accept this transgender “wife” as a real woman much like audiences must accept “boy-actors” as real women, suggesting that reality simply exists as a delusion one chooses to believe in. Shakespeare toys with illusion both inside and outside the constructs of his play to reiterate that social order is only a matter of perception. The character of Lucentio also represents the power of deception and perception in The Taming of the Shrew, both as a means to manipulate class structure and to allegorize the consequences of said illusion. Lucentio alters both his societal role and that of his servant Tranio’s in order to win Bianca’s heart. He commands, “Thou shalt be master, Tranio, in my stead, /Keep house, and port, and servants, as I should. /I will some other be…Tranio, at once /Uncase thee. Tale my colored hat and cloak” (I.i.203-08). Tranio consents and asserts to Biondello, “When I am alone, why, then I am Tranio, /But in all places else your master Lucentio” (I.i.243-4). Here Lucentio not only tampers with his own social rank by means of perception, but commands his servants to do so as well. Through a simple change of clothes, Lucentio is transformed from a relatively high-class merchant into a plain schoolteacher and renames himself Cambio, a term meaning “change” or “exchange.” Likewise, Tranio slips into his master’s robes and instantly gains a higher status, again forcing the audience to question the validity of the obtainment of social standing. Through the deception of Lucentio and his servant, Shakespeare proposes that “we [are] to understand that social distinctions are mere arbitrary constructions”(Bevington 109). Lucentio, similar to the Lord who deceives Sly, contravenes societal norms by presenting an illusion in order to attain his goal. In contrast to Sly’s fate, which the reader never truly determines, Lucentio’s own deception, coupled with his delusional love for Bianca, ultimately results in his downfall. In the final scene, Lucentio calls for Bianca during the wager, yet she “is busy and cannot come” (5.2.85). Petruchio remarks to Lucentio and Hortensio, “We three are married, but you two are sped.” He then tells Lucentio, “‘Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white” (5.2.189). Here, Shakespeare depicts the consequences of disguise and illusion that Lucentio, and Hortensio, used to facilitate the love of Bianca. Though Lucentio won the hand of the love he persued, he loses in the end because he cannot control his wife. Whereas Petruchio’s marriage is acquired through reality, and therefore considered “successful”, Bianca’s refusal to join her husband when he calls suggests that the marriage will be hard on Lucentio, alluding to the idea that this is Lucentio’s punishment for his deception. The relationship between Petruchio and Katharina is procured at first through economic and social means, and Petruchio proclaims that “wealth is burden of [his] wooing dance” (I.2.67). Through this pragmatic outlook on love, Petruchio uncovers the true nature of Kate, as does she with him. In Shakespeare’s world, Petruchio’s realistic viewpoint of marriage results in his success as a husband, contrasting with Lucentio’s marital destiny. Lucentio, disillusioned with Bianca’s beauty, relays, “I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio, /If I achieve not this young modest girl” (I.1.156-7). Lucentio essentially falls in love with an illusion, and not with the real Bianca, and “because the relationship between these lovers is superficial, they are appropriately destined to suffer through a superficial marriage, as well. The passive Bianca becomes the proud and defiant wife” (Bevington 109). The manipulation of illusion used by both Lucentio and Bianca only succeeds in ushering in the downfall of their marriage. When she fails to come to him, Lucentio scolds her, “The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca, /Hath cost me a hundred crowns since suppertime.” She tartly replies, “The more fool you, for laying on my duty” (5.2.131-3). By altering his own place in the social hierarchy, Lucentio gains Bianca’s illusory love, and in turn must face the consequences of both of their deceptions. Instead of the demure and unresisting woman he courted, Lucentio is left with an unruly shrew for a wife. While on the surface The Taming of the Shrew seems to be a jovial glimpse into sixteenth-century matrimony, the play’s thematic development of illusion and the consequences that follow challenges societal hierarchy and examines the weakness of class barriers. Through both Sly and Lucentio, Shakespeare illustrates the ease with which one can assume a more elevated role in society. In concluding The Taming of the Shrew with Lucentio’s supposed punishment for employing and believing in illusion, Shakespeare ultimately answers the question of whether or not the clothes make the man. While the illusion of apparel works temporarily, eventually each character involved in illusionary perceptions must revert back to his or her original social class. Shakespeare’s final scene depicting the wager suggests that illusion comes with a price, and that altering one’s appearance in order to achieve social standing will inevitably lead to negative consequences.Works CitedBevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.

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