Echoes and Repetitions in Taming

When reading a play by William Shakespeare, it is important to note the lexical echoing he utilizes. It not only points to some of the important themes of the play, but the repetition of certain words acts also as a sort of glue among various similar scenes throughout the play. Certain words, ideas, and situations are repeated throughout, shedding light onto some of the play’s important ideas. This is the case with Tranio and Vincentio’s dialogue in Act 5 Scene 1 of The Taming of the Shrew, in which certain words and phrases are found and repeated several times in other scenes. Their exchange is a microcosm of the play, as it reveals such themes as the problem of role reversals, the projection of the personal to the public, the enforcement of social hierarchies, and the idea that “the clothes don’t make the man.”

Role Reversals

Perhaps most obvious is the problem of role reversals that occurs in this scene. Tranio is disguised as Lucentio, and the Pedant is disguised as Vincentio, who has been called a “budding virgin” by Kate (4.5.36). Similarly, Lucentio and Hortensio have dressed as teachers to woo Bianca. Also, the Lord, his servants, and the players act as servants to trick Sly, who has been dressed as a Lord; in addition, the Page is dressed as a woman. And one cannot forget the Elizabethan theatrical convention of boys playing the parts of women. Added to the complicated role reversals is the analogous “reversal” of the sun and the moon in 4.5. Shakespeare raises similar questions concerning reality and identity when Christopher Sly asks “Am I a lord?… / Or do I dream?” (Ind. 1.2.68-69). Likewise, Vincentio rhetorically replies to Tranio with “What am I, sir?” (5.1.60). Thus, Shakespeare connects each side of the problem, master and servant, simply by using similar phrases.


Other less obvious themes are apparent in this dialogue. For example, Vincentio reacts with outrage to Tranio for posing as a gentleman, Lucentio, and cries “O, immortal gods!” (5.1.60-61). Allusion to the heavens happens many times throughout the play. In 3.2 Petruchio calls Kate “My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,” (232) which is borrowed from the Tenth Commandment; he speaks of “God” and the “Good Lord” again in the opening of 4.5 (1-2); when Petruchio demands a kiss from Kate, she submits with “God forbid, but ashamed to kiss,” (5.1.137) meaning that God demands that a woman do what her husband says; and Biondello remarks “I pray the gods Bianca may,” to which Tranio responds “Dally not with the gods,” (4.4.68-69) remarking that Bianca’s unconventional ruling of Lucentio is outside the universal or heavenly order. Like these examples, Vincentio’s plea represents a projection of personal problems onto a public level. By mentioning the “gods,” he shows how humans can universalize the personal, an action that occurs several times in the play. First, when Kate is introduced, her father and Bianca’s suitors are making a spectacle of her. Hortensio and Gremio insult her in full view of strangers, such as the eavesdropping Lucentio and Tranio.

Also in this exchange is the public wooing and negotiation of Bianca and Kate’s marriages. For the characters in Taming, marriage is not merely a private affair, but one that affects others than those directly involved. The other father, Baptista Minola, exemplifies this projection, as he takes into account his own advancement when considering whom Bianca will marry. For example, when Gremio and “Lucentio” (a disguised Tranio) are bidding on Bianca, Lucentio offers a better dowry than the pantaloon. When Gremio replies that the young suitor may die before Bianca, Baptista ignores him, saying he is “resolved” and satisfied with the large sum Lucentio can supply (2.1.390). He doesn’t think twice about the character of either of the two, for he is more concerned with the social and economic gains he can make. Of the same mind, Petruchio makes his wedding a public parade by captivating the wedding guests with his outlandish apparel and festive aura. While both their attitudes toward marriage certainly support the idea of the interchangeability of the private and the public, a more subtle echo occurs in Tranio’s conversation with the Pedant, in which he says of the Duke of Padua, “For private quarrel twixt your duke and him, / Hath published and proclaimed it openly” (4.2.85-86). Again, the bickering of two noblemen has (supposedly) resulted in a law banning all persons from entering the opposing side’s kingdom. Inevitably, Shakespeare proposes, one’s own affairs actually affect many others.

Inversion of the Social Hierarchy

Underlying Tranio and Vincentio’s argument is the fact that Tranio is disguised as the noble Lucentio, and the gentleman Vincentio is being treated as if he were a peasant. In other words, the supposed hierarchy is reversed, and servants are ruling lords, contrary to what is “ordained” by the Great Chain of Being. Likewise, the madcap Sly is treated as a nobleman, and the real Lord of the Induction is a servant to a “beggar.” Just as outraged at these hierarchal inversions as Vincentio, Petruchio beats his servants (just as Tranio echoes the word “beat” to Vincentio in 5.1.59) and calls them villains and the like when they talk back to him, as with Grumio in 1.2 and the various serving men of 4.1 and 4.3. Similar inversions of relationships and contradictions to the Great Chain occur throughout the play. Bianca, for instance, has complete control of the suitors Lucentio and Hortensio in 3.1, in which she rebukes them, “Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong / To strive for that which resteth in my choice” (16-17). Rather than pursue the standard course of the man confidently courting the “inferior” woman, the two characters allow Bianca to lead. Hortensio’s Widow, too, rules his relationship, and both supposedly “tamed” women refuse to submit to their respective husbands at the play’s end.

Similar to the master-slave and husband-wife inversions is the parent-child inversion that Vincentio alludes to by shouting, “While I play the good husband at home, my son and my servant spend all at the university” (5.1.63-65). He has been wronged and disrespected by Lucentio’s scheme and Tranio’s contemptuous behavior. Shakespeare juxtaposes this father-son relationship with both Kate’s arrogance and Bianca’s passive behavior toward Baptista. Bianca is Baptista’s favorite, but he is set upon getting rid of Kate. Thus, the Bard seems to suggest that a good child is one who submits to his father, while a bad child only brings grief and pain to his parents. Likewise, a good servant acts supinely toward his master, and a good wife, like Kate, puts her hand under her husband’s foot, as the Great Chain demands. Shakespeare comments on this by using the word “villain” to describe bad servants. For instance, in and after 5.1.60, the vengeful Vincentio mutters the word several times to describe Tranio’s insolence. Petruchio, too, refers to his bumbling servants’ “villainy” (4.3.140). Also, Grumio calls the Tailor a villain for refusing to take the blame for Kate’s displeasing dress (4.3.154). In all cases, a villain is one who steps out of his social role. Repeated use of the word alerts the reader to the theme of the importance of rigorously enforced social hierarchies in Taming.

The Clothes Don't Make the Man

Another of the play’s repetitions occurs in Vincentio’s catalogue of Tranio’s attire, his “silken doublet, a velvet hose, a scarlet cloak, and a copatain hat” (5.1.61-62). What he means is that Tranio is a servant despite his fancy clothing, and Shakespeare elaborates this point through Sly’s makeover. Although he is dressed as a lord, Sly’s thirst for alcohol and his crude attitude remain, for he is ignorant of social niceties and says of the play, “would ‘twere done” (1.2.254); he is merely an uncultured drunkard despite his appearance, and the Lord alludes to this by calling Sly a man “Of such possessions and so high esteem, / …infused with so foul a spirit” (Ind. 2.15-16). Similarly, Petruchio recognizes that he doesn’t need to look like a gentleman to be considered one, as he attends his wedding in tattered clothes and says, “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes” (3.2.117). He later refers to fashionable clothes as “knavery” (4.3.58), and declares “’tis the mind that makes the body rich,” not a man’s clothing (4.4.168). Even the disguised Tranio admits that one’s clothes cannot reveal one’s true character when he tells Baptista, “Sir, you seem a sober ancient gentleman by your habit (clothing), but your words show you a madman” (5.1.68-69). That one cannot change his social position by changing his clothes is an inescapable fact in Taming, for, at the end of the play, servants must shed noble clothes, and masters must once again don their respectable attire; when the two exchange clothes, only folly, foolery, and complications result.

So What?

While a scene in which Vincentio, a seemingly unimportant, minor character, argues with the foolish Tranio at first seems inconsequential upon the play as a whole, it actually reflects upon some of the subtler themes of the play. Their conflict in 5.1 is not to be overlooked, for it sheds light upon the problems confronted in the major plot of Taming. While his poetry may seem long and verbose, Shakespeare actually uses no more words than necessary to convey an idea. Therefore, it is important to look closely at every word uttered by his characters, no matter how trivial they may seem. That he can seamlessly integrate so many themes into such a small, inconspicuous piece of dialogue is a testament to his greatness.