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Outside an alehouse somewhere in the English countryside, a drunk beggar named Christopher Sly argues with the Hostess over some glassware he has broken in his inebriated clumsiness. While the Hostess leaves to find the local authorities, Sly passes out, and soon a lord returning from the hunt discovers him. This lord decides to have a bit of fun with the sleeping beggar and orders his servants to take Sly back to his house and treat him as if he were a lord—to put him in a bed, place rings on his fingers, set a banquet for him, and so on. His huntsmen agree that doing so would be an excellent jest, and they bear Sly offstage.
A troupe of players arrives, seeking to offer the lord their services. The lord welcomes them to spend the night at his home, but he warns them that they must not laugh at the strange behavior of the other lord for whom they will perform. Then the lord tells his serviceman to go to Bartholomew, the lord’s pageboy, and instruct him to put on the attire of a lady and play the part of Sly’s wife. The lord wants the disguised Bartholomew to pretend to be overjoyed to see that Sly has recovered from his insanity and to say that Sly has madly insisted that he is a poor beggar for the past seven years.
Read a translation of Induction I →
Back at the house, the servants place Sly in the lord’s bed with fine clothes and jewelry, and the lord outfits himself as one of the servants. When Sly awakes, they present him with good wine and food and tell him that he is their master. He protests that he remembers being a poor tinker (a mender of pots), and they explain that this memory is but the result of a madness from which he has suffered for fifteen years. They put on quite a show, pleading and wailing in feigned distress at his continued illness, but Sly remains skeptical. However, when his “wife” is mentioned, Sly is finally convinced. Overjoyed that their master’s memory has returned, the servants try to entertain him. Sly attempts to dismiss the servants so that he can sleep with his wife (who is actually the disguised page, Bartholomew), but his wife explains apologetically that his physicians have ordered her to stay out of his bed for another night or two, lest his madness return. The players arrive to perform for the enjoyment of Sly and his wife. The play that they perform constitutes the rest of The Taming of the Shrew.
Read a translation of Induction II →
The Induction is an unusual feature of this play. None of Shakespeare’s other plays begins with a framing story, in which a full five-act play is performed within another play. The story and the characters involved in the Induction have nothing directly to do with the main play, and after its introduction this story is only reintroduced briefly and never fully developed. Another play from the mid-1590s, however, entitled The Taming of a Shrew and probably based on Shakespeare’s work, features Sly’s commentary throughout the main story. At the end of the main story, Sly declares his intention to tame his own wife as Petruchio has tamed Katherine.
Critics disagree about why Shakespeare begins The Taming of the Shrew with the Induction. The play proper could obviously stand on its own, but the story of the lord’s practical joke on Christopher Sly does reinforce one of the central themes of the main play. Sly’s story dramatizes the idea that a person’s environment and the way he or she is treated by others determines his or her behavior—an idea that Katherine’s story in the main play also illustrates. The lord thrusts Sly into a playacting world and portrays his new role as coming into being through no will of his own. The lord’s huntsman emphasizes this when asked if Sly would fall for the deception and forget himself. “Believe me, lord, I think he cannot choose,” he responds (Induction.I.38). The huntsman’s words could apply equally well to Katherine. Controlled by two wealthy and powerful men—her father, Baptista, and her suitor, Petruchio—Katherine is forced to play the part of a wife, a social role that she initially rejects. The implication that Katherine, like Sly, “cannot choose” suggests that she is as much a plaything of Petruchio as Sly is of the lord.
The Induction also introduces the topic of marriage into the play. Sly resists all the servants’ attempts to convince him that he is a lord until they tell him that he has a wife, at which point he immediately reverses himself: “Am I a lord? And have I such a lady?” (Induction.II.66). Shakespeare emphasizes Sly’s about-face by switching Sly’s speech pattern to blank verse (unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, spoken primarily by Shakespeare’s noble characters). Before, Sly had spoken only in prose. The humor of the situation is obvious: though Sly is at first preoccupied with making sense of his outrageous change of circumstances, as soon as he discovers that he might be able to be physically gratified, he immediately stops caring whether his situation is real or fantastical, commanding his wife to “undress you and come now to bed” (Induction.II.113). Shakespeare here playfully introduces a number of ideas that receive further attention later in the play, such as the idea that marriage is something that people use for their own benefit rather than a reflection of some deeper truth about the married couple. Moreover, the roles of class, gender, and marital status, which in ordinary life seem to be set in stone, here become matters of appearance and perception, subject to manipulation by the characters or the playwright. Indeed, the Induction primes Shakespeare’s audience to think critically about what he will present next.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!