I would like to take a moment to discuss an absolute classic, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. For most people, Shakespeare’s work tends to fall into one of two categories: you either love it or you hate it. If you hate it, it is likely because of a trouble to relate with the work. The language, though not actually very different from the English we speak today, can seem inaccessible for those who don’t understand the subtleties of the way Shakespeare wrote. If this describes any of you, Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare on Toast is an excellent introduction to the wonderful world of the bard. For those who want a modern understanding of The Taming of the Shrew, look no further than the 1999 film, 10 Things I Hate About You.
However, that’s a conversation for another day. What I want to focus on today is a very peculiar aspect of the play that is notably absent from just about every film adaptation. I of course am speaking of Christopher Sly, and the events that surround his character in the play. Christopher Sly is a tinker and a drunkard. A tinker is a profession that has disappeared in our modern society. He is the person who travels around making repairs to metal utensils and other such items. Because of this, Christopher Sly is a person that would not easily be missed for a few days. He is the equivalent of the town drunk, and the entire play actually revolves around him.
The play opens with Sly being kicked out of a bar and arguing with the barmaid. He passes out nearby, and is found by a nobleman and his men returning from a hunting trip. The nobleman, looking for entertainment decides to play a trick on ol’ Chris Sly (think the bets by rich characters in the movie Rat Race). The nobleman has Sly brought back to his manor and dressed in fancy clothing. When Sly wakes up, the servants pretend that Sly is their long lost lord who has been suffering from some sort of alcohol induced amnesia. Sly only buys off on the trick once he is introduced to his supposed wife (really a male servant in drag). The nobleman then has a traveling theater troupe perform a play for Sly, and the play they perform is the story commonly known as The Taming of the Shrew.
Christopher Sly’s role in the story is as strange as it is interesting. His story acts as a framing device around the actual story of the play (The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play). Yet, it is a broken frame. After the opening scene, Sly makes just one more brief appearance, attempting some alone time with his supposed wife, but is never seen again. What is to be made of this open ended frame? Did the drunkard Sly simply fall asleep and fail to wake up for the end of the play? Are there really missing pieces to this play or did someone try to add scenes after the fact? The fact that a similar quarto (a quarto is essentially a printed pamphlet version of the play) exists, titled The Taming of A Shrew, which has an additional closing scene involving Sly, suggests that perhaps Shakespeare’s original version, that was performed and not published, contained a properly closed frame. As Galey states, “A Shrew’s Sly remains on stage throughout the play, commenting on the action at two points, intervening at a third, and finally waking up from his dream, full of Shrew-taming zeal, in an epilogue” (41). Of course, the bad quartos are essentially the equivalent of pirated content that does not always represent the real play accurately. Yet, many of them contained valuable information such as stage directions that can not be found in other, more official, publications. Also, it seems important to note that, as pointed out in Galey, The Taming of a Shrew is often considered separate from the other traditional bad quartos, as being something different, possibly derived from an early draft version of The Shrew or perhaps written anonymously as a literary response to Shakespeare’s actual play (42-44).
Whether the framing device was intended to be closed or not is only part of the intrigue of the character Christopher Sly. Sly does not appear at all in the 1967 film adaptation, which removes the entire frame from the story completely. What we are left with is in fact still a complete play. Elizabeth Taylor’s rendition of the shrew Katharina takes the bulk of the spotlight, and the entire story is presented as a believable event. So, we are left to wonder, what is the real reason for Sly and the framing device at all? Is he meant to be a reminder of the moral lessons of the play, similar to the role of the lawyer in the film War of the Roses? Is he meant to be a stand-in for the audience, to tell them what they should or should not take away from the story? Without a closed frame, it is hard to make this connection. With Sly never returning at the end of the play, it is impossible to determine what, if anything, he learned from the play or the trick that was played on him.
There are major differences however, between purpose of the character of Christopher Sly and Danny DeVito’s lawyer character from War of the Roses. The key difference being that the lawyer is a story teller, while Christopher Sly is not. Sly is an audience member watching the framed story. At no point in the Folio version of The Taming of the Shrew, does Christopher Sly believe he is watching anything but a fictional play. DeVito’s character, on the other hand tells a story to which he was a witness, while a prospective client acts as the audience to the framed story. Notably, the client is a silent audience, one that is attentive and accepts the lawyer’s story as truthful and sincere. Sly neither tells the story, nor is involved in it. He is hardly even invested in the story of the Shrew, instead paying more attention to his supposed wife. This creates an interesting dynamic. Sly’s acknowledgement that the shrew story, which makes up most of the play, is fictional causes the audience to cast aside the willing suspension of disbelief in this framed portion of the story. Sly is the real story, the shrew is fiction, and it is never presented as anything else. That is, until Sly disappears from the end of the play.
So, for whom is this play being performed? The actual lord is being entertained by Sly, not the play. Sly himself does not really maintain interest in the play either. This seems to be a recognition by Shakespeare of the concept of metafiction. The play is performed for the real life audience, and the character Sly is simply a fictional representation of them. Is it possible that the original play was done with Sly acting simply as a bad member of the audience? His position is similar to something we see often today in television. For instance, Sly is like the host of “America’s Funniest Videos” who, after a segment of videos has concluded, is found sitting next to an audience member, commenting and interacting with them about the videos they have just watched, or are about to watch. Another place this is often seen in contemporary entertainment is in sporting events, when the mascot takes a seat with the crowd and pretends to watch part of the game. It is a source of comedy, but it also keeps the audience from taking the often alarming taming of a shrewd woman too seriously.
This brings up another issue of debate involving The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare’s intentions concerning the female characters of his plays. To view Shakespeare as a feminist, or as an advocate of patriarchy, through his depictions of women in his plays is a bit of a stretch. It may not be so much that Shakespeare is advocating for any particular view of women so much as he is simply a great writer of characters. In every one of his plays, devices such as the plot, setting, or theme often seem to take a back seat to strong and accurate characterization. Above all else, Shakespeare appeared to be a good judge of people. He wrote Romeo as a fickle teenage boy that quickly falls into intense, but probably over-dramatic, love as is typical for most teenage boys. Hamlet and Macbeth are both equally puzzled and troubled by their difficult positions, as any normal person should be, causing the hesitation and despair for which they are known.
So, with Shakespeare’s often true to life characters, it is no wonder that many of his female characters such as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew and Miranda in The Tempest act the way that they do. It is simply a common family dynamic that many young women often rebel against their fathers as the authority figure of their life, and that they do so by falling for a man of whom the father does not, or would not initially approve. Despite the fact that the love interest is not all that different from the father. This isn’t purely a literary creation, but a fact of life that many people act in a similar manner with their own parents as they mature. For example, many of the young men in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Hamlet and Edgar in King Lear, tend to act as young men often do, and they idolize their fathers, always seeking their acceptance or approval. So, it seems that Shakespeare cared less for the political correctness in his depictions of women as he did for their accurate portrayal of real life human tendencies. This is what has caused his plays to endure through the generations. His characters are realistic and relatable, Sly being no exception to this fact.
Galey, Alan. “Signal to Noise: Designing a Digital Edition of The Taming of a Shrew (1594).” College Literature 36.1 (2009): 40-V. ProQuest. Web. 16 Apr. 2017
The Taming of the Shrew. Dir. Franco Zefirelli. Perf. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Cyril Cusak. 1967. Columbia Pictures. 2017. Amazon Prime.
War of the Roses. Dir. Danny DeVito. Perf. Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito. 1989. Twentieth Century Fox. 2017 Amazon Prime.