The Taming of the Shrew (Induction)
For a while now, it’s been a vague ambition of mine to catalogue, mind map, or in some other way classify Shakespeare’s comedy, both in the comedic plays and elsewhere. In doing so I AM mindful (for those who know their SF) of the Asimov short, ‘Jokester’ (1956), where finally getting an answer as to why humans laugh results in humour dying forever …
Still, I’m always and increasingly drawing intertextual links between and beyond Shakespeare’s plays, and this is what strikes me about what Arden calls the ‘Induction’ – the Christopher Sly frame. It’s a cousin, maybe an ancestor, of the Rabelaisean idea of ‘Carnival’ that appears later on in:
- the gulling of Malvolio (Some are born great, etc) in Twelfth Night; and
- the transformation and worship of Bottom in the Dream;
Hey, it’s supposed to be fun, so why do I find these episodes distasteful? Why, by extension, do I dislike Hal’s ‘joke’ with the gloves, played on his countryman, Fluellen? To a lesser extent, his teasing of Francis? Is there something distasteful about the Duke’s treatment of Angelo in Measure for Measure? Why DON’T I hate the deceits by Richard III (to almost everyone); or the provocation of Glendower by Hotspur?
The simple answer relates to class, and it perhaps betrays my political leanings. After all, as I recently posted, you don’t read Shakespeare – Shakespeare reads you. There seems inherent cruelty in these episodes to do with the temporary promotion (and carnivalesque subversions of the usual hierarchical structures are always temporary) of lower class characters. Maybe it IS me, but there seems something a little spiteful in raising the hopes of some unsuspecting dolt only to inevitably dash them.
Sure, Malvolio is an officious killjoy, Bottom more engaging but still likely to wear after a while in his company. Do either deserve that terrible – because temporary – glimpse of what it’s like to be someone, to be in charge? What happens to them afterwards? We see, of course, the effect on Malvolio, and surely I’m not the only person to sense that the joke has turned sour? Is there anything more pathetic than a person who’s had a glimpse of what it’s like to be wanted, only to be discarded? Now I’m thinking King Lear, or indeed Richard III again, as the winter of his family’s discontent turns to glorious summer …
Back to Christopher Sly. He’s clearly not an attractive character, but is he any worse than the Lord? A man who wantonly declares:
‘I will practise on this drunken man’ (Ind.i.35)
and shanghais his servants into completing the ‘jest’ I feel most for Bartholomew, his page – a man who has to pretend to be Lord Sly’s wife and fend off his priapic advances. The situation is funny, as long as you’re not poor Bartholomew! And, what will happen when the joke is over, when Sly is peremptorily disabused of his fantastic good fortune?
Writing this, I feel almost as puritanical as Malvolio. It’s not as if I don’t enjoy ‘cakes and ale’ – quite the contrary. These are simply interesting occasions when there seems a saccharine bitterness left on the tongue after the laughter dies away … comedy that is, to me, in slightly bad taste …
[SIDE NOTE: regular readers will realise I owe them two commentaries from the end of HVI part III. The reading continues apace, as this post might suggest, whilst the writing falls behind. They WILL follow. Bear with me.]
Line references relate to the Arden Third Edition