The Constructed Realities of the ‘Lord’ Christopher Sly in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”

Logan Isaman

Dr. Geraldo Sousa

English 525

30 November 2014

The Constructed Realities of the ‘Lord’ Christopher Sly

in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew


Shakespeare’s adapted Induction in The Taming of the Shrew serves as a metadramatic device designed to intrinsically tie the trick played on Christopher Sly to the taming of Kate, the shrew, by presenting the audience a chance to ascend from their passive role in the theatre to a critical, active role in which they are encouraged to question what they are being presented. The farcical, fantastical nature of Sly’s ascension to the status of a Lord and his apparent (read: unbelievable) acceptance of this status allows for the possibility that Kate’s speech in act five, scene two is open to interpretation. If Sly is not—and could never be—a Lord, then by the nature of metadrama, Kate is not—and could never be—tamed. In this paper, I will discuss the significance of Shakespeare’s adaptation from the anonymously authored The Taming of a Shrew to his The Taming of the Shrew in terms of the technical shift from an inset play within a play to a framed play within a play, his changes in key plot elements, and why he chose to dissociate Sly from the shrew plot altogether.

Introduction to Metadrama: Moving From an Inset Play Within a Play to a Framed Play Within a Play

The use of a prologue is one that goes back to the beginning of performed drama with the classical Greeks and Romans. They were employed as devises with “little or no metadramatic effect of estrangement;” in other words, they were directly referential to the entirety of the play (Hornby 35). Shakespeare redefined this ancient technique with his stand-alone Induction in The Taming of the Shrew, which was adapted from his contemporary The Taming of a Shrew. This is a framed play within a play, and as such, “the degree of connection between the outer and the inner play can vary considerably,” (Hornby 33). In order for a play to be considered to present a play within a play, “there must be two sharply distinguishable layers of performance,” (Hornby 35). Hornby asserts that, essentially, an inset piece is defined by the characters of the outer play (Sly and the Lord’s servants) acknowledging the existence of an inset piece (the shrew plot), but the distinction comes when that outer piece does not acknowledge the inset piece as performance. Thus, Shakespeare’s decision to cut out a vast majority of Sly’s plotline from A Shrew in which he provides commentary on the shrew plot throughout the piece presents a framed play within a play rather than the original inset play within a play.

The significance behind this decision is found in the very nature of metadrama. According to Hornby, “Great playwrights tend to be more consciously metadramatic than ordinary ones, and their plays to employ metadramatic devices more obviously, because the great playwright conceives his mission to be one of altering the norms and standards by which his audience views the world, and is thus more likely to attack those norms frontally,” (32). This ability to ‘see double’ within this framing of the outer and inset pieces allows for the assumption that the outer piece is intended to directly mirror the interior plot (Hornby). These two sharply distinguishable and necessarily related layers are essential to the metadramatic nature of the play in order for the audience to recognize that that there is room for interpretation in regards to the shrew plot. As Katharine Eisaman Maus relevantly asserts in the introduction of her book Inwardness and Theatre in the English Renaissance, “persons and things inwardly are […]; persons and things outwardly only seem,” (5).

Evidenced Room for Interpretation

Shakespeare’s decision to open the shrew plotline for interpretation is evidenced by the conception of his The Shrew from the contemporary, anonymously authored A Shrew. Both plays begin the same way: a drunken Christopher Sly is thrown out of a tavern, a Lord and his servants come upon his unconscious body, and the Lord decides to perform a cruel social experiment on Sly to see if he can make him believe he is actually a Lord and not a beggar. As was discussed above, the original version of A Shrew acted as an inset play within a play and featured “the shrew theme at the center of the induction,” (Seronsy 27). In its first scene, the Lord committing the farce on Sly is told about the players coming to his estate to perform a play, which they name as The Taming of a Shrew (1.1.59). This acknowledgement of the inset piece as performance is the defining factor of an inset play within a play; it forces a cold separation between the audience and the play, and eliminates the opportunity for personal interpretation of Kate’s taming. Rather, the audience is cemented into their passive role as they are essentially told that the outer piece is a direct determiner of the outcome of the inset piece. It is the literally unbelievable element of Sly’s transition to becoming a Lord in The Shrew that allows for the audience to reconsider their passive role in the theatre and recognize the metadramatic nature of the Induction on the main shrew plotline.

Act five, scene two of The Shrew is a fogged-up mirror image of A Shrew’s scene 14. This scene features the culmination of Ferando/Petruchio’s wager with his peers regarding his ability to successfully tame the “shrew” previously considered untamable due to her inherently contemptible behavior. A Shrew presents its audience with a perfectly obedient, compliant Kate whose monologue cites Christian ideology as a defense for her subservience (14.115-143). To a devoutly Christian audience, this would present even less of a reason to doubt Kate’s domestication. According to Emily Detmer’s article “Civilizing Subordination: Domestic Violence and The Taming of the Shrew,” the high volume of works being produced in Shakespeare’s lifetime encouraging the re-evaluation of the socially acceptable practices that men utilized to maintain absolute control over their wives promoted the wrongness of physical violence against women, conveniently without actually eradicating the idea of a dominant husband and a submissive wife. Detmer suggests that The Shrew’s metadramatic nature “acts as a comedic roadmap for reconfiguring these emergent modes as ‘skillful’ and civilized dominance for gentlemen, that is, for subordinating a wife without resorting to the ‘common’ man’s brute strength,” evidencing Hornby’s assertion that metadrama is intended to promote change and requires a self-conscious effort on the part of the author (274). This would further imply that a contemporary audience would not question Kate’s taming in A Shrew, as that was a socially accepted part of life.

Shakespeare’s alteration of Kate’s monologue in The Shrew leaves much room for interpretation. When she is prompted to share with the gentlemen what a woman’s place is in terms of her husband, the audacity of her claims of necessary subservience is so extreme—perhaps consciously so—that it makes the audience almost uncomfortable. If interpreted literally, Kate’s speech insists that everything a man does, he does for his wife; to be upset with your husband is to betray him; and that women are far too weak to possibly care for themselves. She asserts that a good wife must be prepared to do absolutely anything in order to “do [her husband] ease,” (5.2.183). If the extremely uncharacteristic nature of her monologue doesn’t initially strike the audience as being sarcastic about this unlikely, abrupt, fundamental change in her personality, perhaps Lucentio’s scene-ending line, “Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so,” invites the audience to further question her message (5.2.193). Previously to this, she had been a free-spirited girl who would be tamed by no man. If the audience made the assertion that Petruchio had not actually been able to tame Kate, and that they had decided to work together to win the wager, it would invite the hope that this self-assured woman hadn’t fallen victim to the seemingly twisted ways of Petruchio’s taming. Shakespeare appears to be exploring

The close of A Shrew features the Lord putting an end to the trick on Sly by placing him back in the spot he was found and leaving him to think his becoming a Lord was “the bravest / dream […] that ever thouhadst in all thy life,” (15.11-12). When the innkeeper finds him and insists he go home to his wife who must surely be livid at his disappearance, Sly insists that he “know[s] now how to tame a shrew,” and therefore is not worried by his wife’s disapproval, implying that he will go on to perpetuate this method of dominance (15.15).  The audience is hereby handed a completed, virtually unquestionable taming plot that does not leave room for interpretation.

The Conscious Dissociation of the Lord Christopher Sly

Shakespeare’s adaptation, on the other hand, very intentionally abandons Sly after the Induction and opens the floor for interpretation of Kate’s taming because he is not introduced to nor directly witnesses Kate’s taming as he does in A Shrew, and therefore does not directly influence its moral. Keeping Sly on as he was in A Shrew would have severely limited Shakespeare’s ability to tinker with the play, and he was nothing if not an almighty tinkerer (Kuhl). Had Sly come in to present the moral of the story (i.e. that women are easily systematically dominated, and that such behavior is socially acceptable) as he does in A Shrew, there would be no room for the audience to interpret the central plot line: whether Kate has truly been tamed.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Sly is not forgiving. He is a drunken beggar who has nothing in life. The Lord’s morally troubling decision to trick Sly into believing that he is a Lord is completely overshadowed by the fact that Sly is too dumb to realize that he’s being had. Ernest P. Kuhl’s article “Shakespeare’s Purpose in Dropping Sly,” asserts that Shakespeare’s stress on plays being as life-like as possible was his way of making the audience relate to the characters and their experiences. “For Shakespeare to have pursued a like method [as A Shrew] would have been a transgression of all laws of realism,” and “his presence and comments would dissipate the spectator’s interest in a remarkably clever and entertaining plot,” (Kuhl 323, 324). Once it is clear that the moral of A Shrew could not be inartistically laid out for the audience, there was no real reason to keep Sly on the stage, and Shakespeare’s reasons for choosing to include the Induction at all come under the scrutiny of the audience. His creative license allowed him to put together a play that altered what it meant to participate as an audience member. Once concerned with the doings of the tamer and the shrew, Sly fades away unnoticed.


There never would have been this totality of effect—this metadramatic framed play within a play—had Sly been allowed to remain a player on the stage.  If we are to believe that this ridiculous character can carry on indefinitely as if he is a Lord due to an utter lack of resolution in his regard, it is easy to make the leap that Kate’s apparent absolute submission to Petruchio in act five, scene two of The Shrew may actually be interpreted as sarcasm on Kate’s part, or even as an elaborate ruse put on by the two in order to win the wager with their friends. If Sly is not—and could never be—a Lord, then by the nature of metadrama, Kate is not—and could never be—tamed. In order to open up the possibility for a range of interpretation, Shakespeare necessarily dropped Sly in his adaptation of The Taming of a Shrew to The Taming of the Shrew. This also served to anchor the play in the real world, as Sly would no longer be meta-commenting on the production while it was happening. Shakespeare’s mastery of centering attention is typically focused around one specific characteristic that serves to weld the piece together as a whole (Kuhl). His shift from the original inset play within a play to his framed play within a play allowed the formation of this “organic whole” that is necessarily interconnected. It then falls to the audience to ascend their passive roles in the theatre and critically analyze the production to determine Sly’s purpose, which can easily be overlooked.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “A Pleasant Conceited History, Called The Taming of a Shrew.” The Taming of the Shrew: An Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings, and Appropriations. Ed. Dympna Callaghan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 277-86. Print.

Detmer, Emily. “Civilizing Subordination: Domestic Violence and The Taming of the Shrew.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48.3 (1997): 273-94.JSTOR. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Eisaman Maus, Katharine. “Introduction: Inwardness and Spectatorship.” Introduction. Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1995. 1-34. Print.

Hornby, Richard. “The Play within the Play.” Drama, Metadrama and Perception. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1986. 31-35. Print.

Kuhl, Ernest P. “Shakespeare’s Purpose in Dropping Sly.” Modern Language Notes 36.6 (1921): 321-29. JSTOR. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Seronsy, Cecil C. “”Supposes as the Unifying Theme in The Taming of the Shrew.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14.1 (1963): 15-30. JSTOR. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Shakespeare, William. “The Text of The Taming of the Shrew.” The Taming of the Shrew: An Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings, and Appropriations. Ed. Dympna Callaghan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 2-79. Print.


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