John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.
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 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.
Soon thereafter, Grumio adopts yet another of his multiple comic personalities to interact with the tailor. First, he denies that he gave the tailor the instructions for the gown just delivered, custom-made for Kate; now, rather than being overly literal, he exploits every possible pun and double-meaning. When the tailor pulls out the written order, Grumio claims that the note is a liar. But as the tailor goes through the list, he objects only to certain adjectives: 'if ever I said 'loose-bodied gown,' sew me in the skirts of it, and beat me to death with a bottom of brown thread. I said 'a gown.'' A spontaneous back-and-forth with the tailor ensues, confusing the tailor with its incomprehensible illogic, wild free association, and spontaneity. And then Grumio shifts gears yet again.
The final exchange in the sequence brings things full circle, and Grumio is back to the overly literal distortion of Petruchio's commands that we saw in their first appearance. In this case, the joke has to do with innuendoes about Petruchio wearing the gown made for Kate, the gown that it has already been determined Kate cannot have because it doesn't meet the specifications that Grumio both did and didn't provide the tailor, who both did and didn't meet them. This allows Shakespeare, through the unrestrained character of Grumio, to share one last inside joke with the audience alert enough to catch it--since all of the female characters on stage were males wearing dresses, including the actor portraying Kate, for Petruchio to don a dress would be no more outlandish than what the audience has already agreed to accept as its temporary norm through the course of the play.
Shakespeare is renowned as a poetic genius and compelling dramatist, but we tend to forget that he was also a master of goofy, free-wheeling comedy. And within Grumio's range are jokes and routines that seem to be direct projections of Shakespeare himself, the wry playwright poking fun at his own tendencies.
The character Grumio from Shakespeare's The Taming on the Shrew demonstrates an immense range of comic techniques and motifs. These range from basic physical humor to layered dimensions of figurative language, including sarcastic irony. Grumio provides a distinctive vehicle for Shakespeare to exhibit his own range and spontaneity but also have fun at the expense of himself and his art form while inviting the audience to be part of the process
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