The Taming of the Shrew Setting

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.

The setting for 'The Taming of the Shrew' is actually multiple settings that shift the audience among alternative realities. But it's not science fiction - it's Shakespeare!

Unreal Settings

We're all familiar with stories set in an alternative reality that operates just alongside, or just within reach of, the ordinary world. Wonderland, Oz, Neverland, Narnia, even the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are settings where the fantastic can happen and the rules go out the window. While using what seem to be geographically and historically realistic settings in The Taming of the Shrew (TOS), Shakespeare essentially transports the action of the play into an embedded series of alternative realities, sort of like dimensional Russian nesting dolls with comic chaos added.

Setting for the Induction to Set Up the Play

A Drunken Sly in His English Setting
Sly induction

The introductory framing concept for the play, usually referred to as the 'induction,' takes place somewhere in the English countryside, but is so non-specific that it allowed Elizabethan audiences to wrap the familiar in the imaginary. That way the audience of Shakespeare's own time could relate without getting bogged down in precise geography or demographics.

The scenario of a practical joke played on the drunken scoundrel, Christopher Sly, sets up the audience to watch Sly as the audience watching the play within the play performed for his personal enjoyment. In a way, it's an early form of metatheatre, which refers to a style of theatre that specifically comments on theatre as an art form rather than simply staging a story as though it were just a slice of real life. It's like a camera turning back on the camera operator to remind you that reality TV isn't actually all that real. The main TOS play makes only one more nod back to Sly at the end of the first scene, at which point Sly essentially says, 'it's a good play; too bad it's not over.'

Having had a little fun at his own expense - and that of his art form - Shakespeare has metatheatre give way to theatrical theater, and it's all Italy all the time from that point on as far as the text is concerned.

The Main Shrew Storyline

The geographical and historical setting for most of the shrew play is Padua, Italy some time during the Italian Renaissance, a center of learning and reason throughout the era. Shrew comically honors this by having pedants, who were door-to-door scholars and/or teachers, be so commonplace that not only do Lucentio and Hortensio easily pass as pedants with nothing more than a single personal reference, but when Tranio needs an elderly gentleman to masquerade as Vincentio, a pedant with the necessary physical characteristics almost immediately happens along to fill the bill.

We have to remember that this is a comedic interpretation of Renaissance Italy, however. Shakespeare scholars go back and forth on the question of whether Shakespeare ever did visit, or even could have visited, Italy personally, but the fact that one third of his plays are set there indicates that either he, or his anticipated audience - or both - had a thing for the boot-shaped country.

Shakespeare's audience seemed to view Italy as an exotic locale full of intrigue and wonder, where all of the most interesting human traits were ramped up and heightened. This held true for the often dark and challenging themes of The Merchant of Venice as well as for the comic mayhem of TOS. Padua's reputation certainly provided Shakespeare the opportunity for heightened comic effect in TOS, allowing his audience to laugh at an elaborate scheme of exaggerated incongruity, meaning something that doesn't fit into its situation or context.

It is not reason and rationality that set the tone in TOS, it is misunderstandings, misidentifications, and inverted versions of reality. Nearly every character in the play is perpetrating some sort of deception, and every supposed scholar in the play is a fraud.

Petruchio's School for Shrew Taming

Chaos at Petruchios Country Home
Petruchios house

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