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The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  24 Sep 2008

The Induction included, there are no women in The Taming of the Shrew, and this makes all the difference in a play about gender. The play's two Induction scenes, while emphasizing inversion and the play as fiction, may be a Shakespearean defensive strategy, may not have been performed in his time, and is quickly forgotten by most readers for the very good reason that Shakespeare (presumably) drops the scenes' characters after the very first scene of the play proper; the most important aspect to the Induction, however, is likely its emphasis on transvestitism. The play, after all, was written and performed with the convention of boys playing female roles in mind. The references and occurrences throughout to and of metamorphoses serve to emphasize the point that the play itself is a metamorphosis, as a stage becomes myriad locations and actors become characters; but no metamorphosis of the Elizabethan stage is more important to recapture than boys becoming girls. When this element, emphasized by the Induction, is considered for The Taming of the Shrew, the results are considerably comical. Because of the Induction, even one by the rules of the play in which the stage may represent Padua, no female characters are featured -- just boys as part of the playing troop that the Lord employs to entertain Christopher Sly and his pageboy "wife."

Transvestitism not taken as part of the ritualized illusion of theatre tends toward the comic. As the Lord puts it in the first scene of the Induction, "I know the boy will well usurp the grace, / Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman. / I long to hear him call the drunkard husband" (130-132). The page does exactly this, stating, "My husband and my lord, my lord and husband, / I am your wife in all obedience" (Induction.2.104-106). In the play proper, Katherine's lines are the first uttered by a "woman," and they could not be in greater contrast; the boy playing Kate has not "usurp[ed] the grace, / Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman." From the first to the last, Katherine's shrewish behavior is contained by the element of transvestitism and performance. No shrew is featured, even within the play (Induction included). Kate's bawdy verbal battle with Petruchio (2.1) becomes more comic and comfortable as his transvestitism finds emphasis, as it does when he tells him, "Well aimed of such a young one" (234) -- he, of course, being (rather transparently, I suspect, given the players of the Induction) a boy. Katherine can never threaten the social order of gender relations because "she" is a boy on a stage, her unreality emphasized by the Induction and the dialogue itself.

Moreover, the dialogue, combined with the situation, ridicules Katherine. He claims, "I am no child, no babe" (4.3.74). Not only has Kate acted like a petulant child, especially in her insistence that she will have her way after the marriage ceremony, but "she" is a child -- a boy (2.2). The very reality of the actors themselves, emphasized by the Induction, undermines Kate's position. Similarly, Petruchio's outlandish dress for his wedding (2.2) is in some ways less outlandish than his "wife"'s. The freakish dress emphasizes the maleness of Kate and Bianca, whose manhood is concealed by what would otherwise be inappropriate clothing.

The boy playing Bianca, by contrast, has well "usurp[ed] the ... / Voice ... of a gentlewoman," his obedience echoing that of the page: "what you will command me will I do, / So well I know my duty to my elders" (2.1.6-7). The parallel between Bianca and the page raises the question of their parallel in dress, or convincing female deportment. There is great reason to believe that both are equally convincing in their portrayal of themselves as women; they are, after all, from the same troop. If anything, Kate and Bianca will be the most transparently male; after all, we were assured by the lord of the Induction that Bartholomew the page would make a good woman, and his goal, unlike those of the actors, is to deceive Sly. The page is, in other words, likely more convincing as a female than Kate or Bianca.

Petruchio's strangeness and love of absurdity comes across as particularly clever rather than insanity when nestled in a play within a play. His insistence at determining the time (at the end of 4.3) or whether the sun or moon is out (at the beginning of 4.5) is ironic on a meta level, referring to the artifices of time involved in Shakespeare's staging -- one of which is transvestitism. Rather than choose to call a door a window or a table a chair, for examples, Petruchio chooses an element of staging and thereby reinforces the attention to the play itself, in which Katherine is a boy. Katherine's own attention to Vincentio, calling him a "young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet" (4.5.36) has a similar effect because the speaker of these lines is himself a male and younger than the character being played. This irony should have been readily visible to an audience observing a boy speaking Katherine's part. That the same passage represents Kate's first use of Petruchian absurdity, a kind of metamorphosis, demonstrates that such absurdity and such metamorphoses within the play are connected with the absurdity and metamorphosis of transvestitism on stage.

All of this has great implications on Katherine's climactic final speech, supposedly of a woman tamed and arguing for other women to appreciate their husbands. In fact, these lines ostensibly in favor of husbandly superiority are voiced by a boy -- even within the fictional world of the play itself. The speech is delivered to other women while men watch, but those "women" are, in fact, boys as well -- again, even within the fictional world of the play. When Kate implies that the other women are "ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty" (5.2.147), she is likely absolutely right. Similarly, her ambiguous line about women "seeming to be most which we indeed least are" has richer resonance, not only suggesting that women may seem weak when strong or strong when weak, but that these "women" seem women at all.

In short, the speech is delivered by males for an audience entirely of males, with men dressed in drag as female representatives to be chastised. Even the audience watching within the play is entirely male. This fact has two main interpretations, entirely consistent with one another. One can see the play within the play as entirely a male ritual, a fable for male domination told by men to men, with boys acting as females; the effect is not distinctly unlike whites playing black roles with the blacks being chastised. One can also hold, however, that the rigged nature of this is presentation. There is a comedic pathos to this all-male presentation of male dominance; that the great deliverer of this poetic pronouncement is himself a boy makes this pathos all the more apparent. The Elizabethan audience would have included women, undermining the play's ostensible message on a meta level and giving those women a glimpse into a sort of pathetic male fable of their own domination. The play's undermining of its message of male domination, with Katherine being the strongest character and the men (with the obedient Bianca) seeming flawed, finds its best argument, ironically, in the fact that the play is indeed a play about male domination.

Though the case of transvestitism in Taming of the Shrew finds rich soil, the same can be said of other Shakespearean plays. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia's disguising herself as a judge (4.1) should be understood as a double disguise, or even a lessening of disguise. Her lines announcing the metamorphosis suggest exactly this:

When we are both accoutred like young men
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride. (3.4.63-68)
In other words, Portia will undo the transformation that makes her Portia, complete with looks, mannerisms, voice, and walk. Nerissa's resulting comment -- "Why, shall we turn to men?" -- can only be seen as comical, perhaps analogous today to an older actor playing a teenager in a movie deciding to impersonate an older man and going on at comic length about it. Those in favor of textual adherence in productions need also insist on boys performing female parts, since Shakespeare built into his plays references to exactly this convention, the meaning and ironies of which are otherwise lost today. The case of transvestitism in Taming of the Shrew thus suggests a necessary readjustment in our interpretation of Shakespeare.

This essay was first made available online on 5 July 2001. Citations to Shakespeare in this essay come from the Bevington edition of Shakespeare's complete works.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby