Context Taming of the Shrew

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The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, and it shares many essential characteristics with his other romantic comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These characteristics include light-hearted and slapstick humor, disguises and deception, and a happy ending in which most of the characters come out satisfied. The light-heartedness of these romantic comedies contrasts sharply with the darker humor and deeper characterization of Shakespeare’s later plays, both comic and tragic. The youthfulness of the playwright can be seen in the unusual spirit of the early plays. Like the other romantic comedies, The Taming of the Shrew focuses on courtship and marriage, but, unlike most of them, it devotes a great deal of attention to married life after the wedding. The other comedies usually conclude with the wedding ceremony itself. Themes (the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work) included throughout this text include Marriage as an economic institution and The Effect of Social Roles on Individual Happiness. As a romantic comedy, the play focuses principally on the romantic relationships between men and women as they develop from initial interest into marriage. In this respect, the play is a typical romantic comedy. However, unlike other Shakespearean comedies, The Taming of the Shrew does not accomplish its examination of love and marriage with the wedding. Rather, it offers a significant glimpse into the future lives of married couples, one that serves to round out its exploration of the social dimension of love. The Taming of the Shrew emphasizes the economic aspects of marriage—specifically, how economic considerations determine who marries whom. The play tends to explore romantic relationships from a social perspective, addressing the institutions of courtship and marriage rather than the inner passions of lovers. Moreover, the play focuses on how courtship affects not just the lovers themselves, but also their parents, their servants, and their friends. In general, while the husband and the wife conduct the marriage relationship after the wedding, the courtship relationship is negotiated between the future husband and the father of the future wife. As such, marriage becomes a transaction involving the transfer of money. Each person in the play occupies a specific social position that carries with it certain expectations about how that person should behave. A character’s social position is defined by such things as his or her wealth, age, gender, profession, parentage, and education; the rules governing how each of them should behave are harshly enforced by family, friends, and society as a whole. For instance, Lucentio occupies the social role of a wealthy young student, Tranio that of a servant, and Bianca and Katherine the roles of upper-class young maidens-in-waiting. At the very least, they are supposed to occupy these roles—but, as the play shows, in reality, Kate wants nothing to do with her social role, and her shrewishness results directly from her frustration concerning her position. Because she does not live up to the behavioral expectations of her society, she faces the cold disapproval of that society, and, due to her alienation, she becomes miserably unhappy. Kate is only one of the many characters in The Taming of the Shrew who attempt to circumvent or deny their socially defined roles, however: Lucentio transforms himself into a working-class Latin tutor, Tranio transforms himself into a wealthy young aristocrat, Christopher Sly is transformed from a tinker into a lord, and so forth. Compared with Katherine’s more serious suffering about her role, the other characters’ attempts to avoid social expectations seem like harmless fun. However, the play illustrates that each transformation must be undone before predictable life can resume at the end of the play. Ultimately, society’s happiness depends upon everyone playing his or her...
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