John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.
Hortensio's Great Expectations
In your typical contemporary romantic comedy, getting the girl is what makes the ending happy for both the girl-getting guy and the audience. This is especially the rule when the guy experiences a transformative realization, and stops chasing the pretty, popular girl so that he can be with the nice girl who has been waiting in the wings all along. It's not particularly enlightened, but it's a tried and true formula.
While Hortensio in Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew is not the primary girl-getter, he does seem to be operating according to the formula through most of the play. Shakespeare likes to mess with his audience's expectations though, and he accomplishes this by messing with Hortensio's all the way through to the conclusion.
Becoming a Tutor/Suitor
As the main action of the play opens, Hortensio is presented as both a character and a representative of public opinion. Like pretty much every man in Padua, it seems, Hortensio adores Bianca and is both intimidated and revolted by her older sister Katherina, the shrew of the title. When both girls' father, Baptista, publicly declares that he will not allow Bianca to marry until Katherina does, Hortensio conspires with his arch-rival, Gremio, to find a husband for Katherina.
Gremio is skeptical that anyone would be fool enough to marry a she-devil, but Hortensio assures him that the man is out there who will tolerate Katherina for the money Baptista offers as dowry. They agree to work together, and as luck and coincidence would have it--the kind of luck and coincidence that are entirely expected in comedies--the answer appears at Hortensio's door.
To his credit, when his old friend Petruchio stops by to say hello while on his way to see the world, seek his fortune, and find a wife, Hortensio is honest with him about Katherina's down side. Petruchio is unfazed and keenly interested in her; it all seems to be going Hortensio's way. He has a plan to sneak in under Gremio's nose and get close to Bianca by posing as a music tutor for Baptista's daughters. Petruchio will stop by to pay his respects, Baptista being an old family friend, and present Hortensio as Litio, the tutor, and declare his intent to court Katherina.
It all goes as planned with one exception--well, two if you count Katherina breaking a lute over Hortensio's head--someone else is tutoring and wooing in undercover mode as well! A dashing young visitor, Lucentio, has also fallen madly in love with Bianca, and has convinced Gremio to recommend him to Baptista in the disguise of Cambio. As it turns out, Bianca only has eyes for Lucentio.
Hortensio's Encounter with Irony
It takes a while, but Hortensio finally realizes that he stands no chance with Bianca and turns over a new leaf: 'Kindness in women, not their beauteous looks,/shall win my love.' He will court an unnamed widow (a character we have yet to meet in the play), who has apparently loved him all along, instead.
What Hortensio doesn't know is that the gossip he heard from Tranio (Lucentio's servant, masquerading as Lucentio while Lucentio masquerades as Cambio) that helped influence his decision wasn't entirely true. This is an example of dramatic irony, when the audience is aware of situations and subplots that influence characters without their own full knowledge.
The fact that Hortensio is tricked and outdone by others in disguise while trying to use disguise and trickery himself just makes the irony richer, and therefore more Shakespearean. Hortensio is not through being irony's plaything, however. He has decided to visit Petruchio at his home and learn from the master how to keep a wife tamed and in her place. We'll see how that works out for him.
That final irony for Hortensio become clear in the closing scene of the play. The new husbands, Petruchio, Lucentio, and Hortensio, place a bet on whose wife will show the most respect and obedience to her spouse. Expectations are reversed yet again, and not only does Katherina show herself to me the most devoted and cooperative wife, but she hauls out the widow and Bianca in front of the men to lecture them on how they ought to behave. Oh, Hortensio finally gets the girl, but he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
The character Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew exemplifies Shakespeare's tendency to mess with audience expectations. Hortensio tries through the early half of the play to scheme his way to the heart of Bianca, disguising himself as a tutor named Litio in order to be close to her. But he is unaware that while he is working under the nose of one rival, Gremio, another suitor, Lucentio, is using his same trick, taking on the disguise of Cambio. Lucentio's servant, Tranio, also in disguise, helps convince Hortensio that he has no chance with Bianca. Since the audience knows what Hortensio doesn't, this is an instance of dramatic irony.
As a result, Hortensio decides he will instead pursue the widow who has long had a thing for him, opting for kindness over beauty. At the conclusion of the play, however, it turns out that the girl he got was not what he or the audience expected and that Katherina, the 'shrew' of the play, has turned out to be the model wife he and Lucentio imagined they were getting.
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