Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Get in touch with Shakespeare's goofy side through the character of Grumio from 'The Taming of the Shrew.' Find out why Grumio stands out in a play filled with comedic characters and types.

On Being a Comedic One-Man Band

One of the many things that characterized the comedy of the late, great Robin Williams was the range and spontaneity he displayed. We see similar qualities in the work of Jim Carrey. It's not so much that their style of humor is inherently better than that of comics who stick to a formula, but they show off a kind of one-man-band X-factor that awes audience even while leaving them rib-sore from laughter. The character Grumio from The Taming of the Shrew (TOC) channels Shakespeare's own capacity for pushing the comedic envelope. As a character in a play full of comic stereotypes, Grumio's distinctive range and unpredictability offers us a taste of the Shakespearean X-factor.

Language Against Language

An essential tool of the poet--and in the case of Shakespeare, a poet who also writes theatrical comedy--is figurative language: phrasing and imagery that convey something other than the precise, literal meanings of the words used. Metaphors and similes are common examples. If you were to say, 'hit me with your best shot,' for example, you probably wouldn't be requesting an actual knock-out punch. Nor is Petruchio looking for a beating, or looking to give one (yet), when he tells his servant Grumio, 'knock me at the gate' in the Act 1 of TOC. The humor of their first dialog sequence comes from Grumio's overly literal and overly absurd interpretation of everything Petruchio says.

Later in the scene, Grumio plays the comic fall guy and does get knocked around by Petruchio, who has grown tired of Grumio's elaborately silly lack of comprehension. When Hortensio appears to break it up, and even defends and vouches for Grumio, Petruchio responds in Italian. Grumio mistakes it for Latin, and 'reasonably' explains to Hortensio his ridiculous take on Petruchio's simple request. The especially attentive reader or audience will recognize the layers of subtle linguistic play involved.

While the characters are speaking English for the most part, TOC is set in Italy, where presumably people would speak Italian. Yet not only does Grumio fail to recognize his presumed native language, he confuses his presumed native language for Latin, a language no longer spoken in Italy, while expressing his confusion in English. Further, it seems obvious to the audience that this same sort of interaction has been played out countless times between these two, and probably defines their relationship.

That Hortensio feels the need to defend Grumio (we can imagine him pleading his case to Hortensio with a melodramatic whimper and puppy dog-eyes) suggests that Grumio is always working the audience and always exploiting the situation, morphing into whatever he needs to be in the moment.

Grumio Gets Snarky

Once Gremio appears on the scene, Grumio shifts from the poor, abused victim of Petruchio's lack of specificity and cruelty. He becomes an astute judge of character and master of sarcastic irony, in which the intended meaning is virtually the opposite of what is actually stated. As Gremio (whom the text has already introduced as a dirty old man) approaches, Grumio remarks on what a youthful and vitally sexual specimen he is. And when Gremio offers a pompous, know-it-all comment, Grumio swings back from the figurative to the literal, identifying him as a posturing fool.

While Grumio is immediately shushed by Petruchio and Hortensio, his comments were mostly for the audience's benefit anyway, and Shakespeare provides an opportunity for the actor playing Grumio to play to and play for the audience directly, with the quirky unpredictability and intimate audience connection that we see in comedians like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.

Grumio at the Home of Petruchio

Grumio and Petruchio in a Vancouver, B.C. Production
Grumio and Petruchio, Bard on the Beach

Grumio has only has one other big scene in the play, yet his role--more like roles--is equally diverse and difficult to categorize. While interacting with Kate, he becomes an extension of Petruchio, returning to the shtick of literal interpretation and strategic lack of comprehension to deny her food according to Petruchio's 'taming' scheme.

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