Metatheatricality in “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare: A Play within a Play

I read this play many times when I was in college, because it was part of my senior thesis, which I called “Order and Authority in Shakespeare’s Comedies.” I basically argued that Petruchio was a play on words and symbolized Patriarchy, and that the play sought to reestablish patriarchal rule that was being challenged by the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Needless to say, I didn’t feel the need to read it again for a long time. But reading it again, I realized that I had totally forgotten that this is the classic example of metatheatricality, or a play within a play.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, metatheatre is “theatre which draws attention to its unreality, especially by the use of a play within a play.”

Shakespeare places an Induction before Act I. Basically, it has a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly who passes out, and as a trick, is dressed up as a lord and treated as such when he awakens. His “servants” then have him seated to watch a play performed, which is “The Taming of the Shrew.” So unlike “The Mousetrap” within “Hamlet,” here we have the entire play set within a play.

The Induction also functions as a foreshadowing of the events that will transpire in the play itself. For example, the main theme of the duty and obedience which a wife is expected to show to her husband.

Sirrah, go you to Barthol’mew my page,
And see him dress’d in all suits like a lady:
That done, conduct him to the drunkard’s chamber;
And call him ‘madam,’ do him obeisance.
Tell him from me, as he will win my love,
He bear himself with honourable action,
Such as he hath observed in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplished:
Such duty to the drunkard let him do
With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,
And say ‘What is’t your honour will command,
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?’

(Induction, scene i)

And when the page meets Sly disguised as a woman, he reiterates the idea that a woman must be subservient to her husband.

My husband and my lord, my lord and husband;
I am your wife in all obedience.

(Induction, scene ii)

In addition to the obedient wife theme, there is also the theme of clothing, and changing of clothes to change or disguise a person. This is a key component of the Induction, and then plays out in the actual play. For example, Lucentio disguises himself and takes on the name Cambio, which is Spanish for “change.” It is in this changed manner that he woos Bianca.

His name is Cambio. Pray accept his service.

(Act II, scene i)

I suspect that Shakespeare used metatheatre to create an additional layer of protection for himself. If the play was intended to be a subversive jab at the Queen’s authority, he could argue that it was not intended to be taken seriously, hence twice removed from reality. Artists challenging authority do so at grave risk, so one cannot be too cautious, especially in a time and place where sedition is dealt with in the harshest of ways.



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8 responses to “Metatheatricality in “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare: A Play within a Play

  1. Shakesphere is a tough read to say the least. In highschool I read the Prince and the Puaper and basically had to reread it twice! haha

    • LOL – yeah, the Elizabethan English takes some getting used to. I’ve found it’s much easier to grasp Shakespeare when you see it performed as opposed to trying to read the text. A lot of the humor is puns, and it’s easy to miss it when you’re just looking at printed words. Hope you and yours are well. TTY soon.

  2. I had totally forgotten this. Or have I see productions that cut the layers and presented only the main play?

    • Hi Amber. You are correct. Every stage production I have seen has skipped that altogether. Too bad, because it adds some complexity to the piece.

  3. Great analysis, Jeff. I always think of “meta” as a hip and modern phrase – it’s fun to see it applied to one of the masters!

  4. My first introduction to Shakespeare was at age 11 or 12, when my mother bought Living Shakespeare LPs to go with her new cabinet stereo. They were all abridged versions of the plays, starring people like Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Vivien Leigh etc. Sound effects for MacBeth and Antony & C were great. Witches and drums.
    My favourite was The Taming of the Shrew, with Peter O’Toole, and Sian Phillips. I listened to it repeatedly, and to my mind nobody did it a better Petruchio than Peter O’Toole. I did study full plays in school, but it’s not a bad idea to listen to these, even though they’re unfortunately abridged. I still have some LPs, and playing them on a good turntable stereo would be far superior to Youtube, but there they are. Just search Living Shakespeare recordings on YT.

  5. Pingback: The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare | Stuff Jeff Reads