The element of deception is an innate driving force behind many of William Shakespeare’s plays. Rosalind of As You Like It disguises herself as a young boy to dupe her suitor into properly loving her. Viola of Twelfth Night conceals her identity by dressing as a man to escape persecution. Macbeth tells the tale of a new king who deceives his closest companions in order to gain rule. Hamlet fakes madness when attempting to out his devious uncle and his wicked plans. Shakespeare uses the technique of deception in both tragic and humorous turns, and the outcome of each can be starkly contrasting. However, the concepts of disguise and deception prove not only laughable but elemental in the comedy The Taming of the Shrew, where no one is as they say and nothing is as it seems.
The play begins with an Induction, framing the story within the story. The disruptive drunkard Christopher Sly, upon passing out due to inebriation, is duped by a passing lord who convinces Sly that he is in fact the wealthy one. By commencing the play with this farce, Shakespeare not only sets up the action of which is to come, but creates an element of hilarity to set the mood for the audience. The Induction is comedic and humorous through the element of deception, and the reader is asked to laugh along with the lord and his servants as Sly attempts to make love to his pageboy wife. One can immediately understand that the play is a comedy, and that the concept of deception is key throughout the entirety of the play. The Induction also sets up an ironic ploy as the none-the-wiser Sly enjoys a play which nearly mirrors the situation he has not yet discovered himself in.
As the play within the play begins, the audience is presented with all its characters in raw form. However, as nearly every main player becomes incredibly dynamic and assumes multiple identities, this is the first and last time most characters will be as they were. We quickly learn the identity of the shrew, Katherine, as well as her stern father, Baptista, and her fawn-like younger sister, Bianca. These three characters do not change their identities throughout the play, but rather, their demeanors; by doing so, they act as the three central characters whom the other players revolve around. Each action taken subsequently by any of the other characters is done so in an effort to either impress, deceive, teach or win the affections of the aforementioned three. And thus, the play continues, as each character melds and molds to affect Bianca, Katherine, and Baptista.
The first formal deception occurs as Lucentio assumes the identity of Cambio, the schoolmaster. Not coincidentally, the word “cambio” means “to change” in Italian, and thus is the basis of the farce and the Italian origin of each suitor’s name. Lucentio “changes” into Cambio in hopes to woo Bianca, while subsequently, his servant Tranio becomes Lucentio, and his second servant, Biondello, aids Tranio. In the mean time, one of the battling suitors, Hortensio, also hatches a scheme of disguising himself as schoolmaster in order to gain Bianca’s hand. While both men are vying for the same woman’s attention the same way, the suitor Gremio quickly becomes lost in the game as he has not duped anyone. It quickly becomes clear that because Gremio has failed to deceive, he has been cast aside and is no longer in the running for Bianca’s affection. This then proves that the drastic measure of disguise truly is the only chance either of the suitors has.
The next formal deception occurs as Petruccio enters Padua and decides to pursue the hand of Katherine in order to gain a hefty dowry. Through obviously brazen and determined, Petruccio’s nature throughout the remainder of the play is obvious and contrived, as he immediately admits that he does not actually care about “Kate,” but rather sees her as challenging beast he aims to tame and subdue. “I am agreed, and would I had given him the best horse in Padua to begin his wooing, that would thoroughly woo her, wed her, and bed her and rid the house of her. Come on” (1.1.142-5). Thus, the deception begins; as a strong-willed and bitter Kate attempts to cast her new suitor aside, he plays into her faults with wit and cunning.
He alludes to a sexual relationship as she spews hateful quips, but in the end, her rare silence at the command of marriage allows the audience to see her true colors. Unbeknownst to Petruccio, he has perhaps already “tamed the shrew” by matching wits and allowing her to believe she might be able to fall in love with him. This aids to regress Kate from her first phase – that of a wretched, violent and vile woman – to her second phase – that of a wooed, lonely spinster, secretly desperate for affection. It can be assumed that Kate has been bitter all of her life due to unworthy suitors, and now that a man might be able to keep up with her, she contemplates letting her defenses down.
The deception continues as Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) manages to edge Hortensio out of the competition for Bianca by telling him that Cambio has already won her affection. While this is somewhat true, Tranio also tells Hortensio that he is removing himself from the competition because he feels he has lost already. Thus, all of Lucentio’s competition has been removed, as Tranio aims to aid him in winning Bianca. However, in attempts to beat out Gremio and Hortensio originally, Tranio (as Lucentio) boasts to Baptista about his good fortune that will provide for Bianca a comfortable lifestyle with a good man. Baptista hence chooses the fake Lucentio as Bianca’s fiancée, further complicating Cambio’s courtship. Lucentio reveals his identity to Bianca, who, subsequently, falls for him. “I am Lucentio… son unto Vincentio of Pisa… disguised thus to get your love… and that “Lucentio” that comes a-wooing… is my man Tranio… bearing my port… that we might beguile the old pantaloon” (3.1.33-48). All the while, the marriage of Bianca and Lucentio is based solely upon the concept of Petruccio wedding Kate, and if he is not able to tame her, all efforts will be for naught.
At this particular point in the play, many of the main characters are aiding in an a series of elaborate farces, with Petruccio, Lucentio, Hortensio, Tranio, and Biondello deceiving Katherine, Baptista, and Bianca. Petruccio decides to fight fire with fire while embarrassing Kate during their wedding, as well as whisking her off to Verona before she is allowed congratulations. By acting in an absurd and ridiculous manner, Petruccio is deceiving Kate by making her believe she herself has married a “shrew” of sorts. Despite her worldly knowledge, she has difficulty seeing through Petruccio’s disguise, and allows herself to be tamed by his mannerisms. He aims to kill her kindness, proclaiming that nothing is good enough for his new wife, all the while, breaking her down and starving her. “This is the way to kill a wife with kindness” (4.1.33).
The deception continues to snowball as Tranio, who is to wed Bianca, must present his father to Baptista so the men can approve the marriage. Tranio tricks an old man from Mantua into believing his life is at stake, and has the man pretend to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father. The farce continues as the men dupe Baptista into thinking the old man to be Tranio’s blood, all the while the real Lucentio has eloped to marry Bianca, a nearly innocent bystander in the whole charade. As Hortensio marries a widow in despair, the real Vincentio arrives, and Kate and Petruccio journey back to Padua. Disguises begin to fade and the farce unravels. In Act V, scene I, all of the characters drop the respective charades and shed their deceiving ways. However, the consequences are final; Lucentio has wed Bianca, Petruccio has wed Kate, and Kate has been tamed. While it appears that the main players have returned to their initial habits, they have all in fact changed by the influence of deception.
The element of disguise in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew creates a world within a world, a frame within a frame, a play within a play. Deception becomes the play’s driving force, not only aiding in comedic proceedings, but adding great depth and fervor to he storyline. The Shrew is clearly a comedy of epic proportions, a veritable giant in the grand scope of Shakespeare’s work, and its comedy can be credited to the elements of disguise and deception as a whole.