"'Supposes' as the Unifying Theme
The Taming of the Shrew"
Note: Seronsy's essay is a landmark in critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew, and is often cited in later criticism.
Background: Shakespeare was a great writer and a great borrower; he built on stories he found in history, fiction, and drama. For The Taming of the Shrew he seems to have had two primary sources. One is George Gascoigne's comedy The Supposes, a 1566 translation of I Suppositi (1519), by the great Italian poet, Ariosto. In Gascoigne's play the main character, Erostrato, changes places with his servant in order to win the affections of Polynesta, as Lucentio changes places with Tranio in order to win the affections of Bianca. Erostrato also has an older rival, roughly parallel to Gremio in Shakespeare's play. This older rival is outbid for Polynesta's hand in marriage by Erostrato's servant, pretending to be Erostrato, as Tranio, disguised as Lucentio, outbids Gremio. In both plays a false father is found to confirm the marriage contract, and comic confusion ensues when the real father shows up.
Gascoigne's comedy, however, has no shrew story, and the question of where Shakespeare got that story and what he did with it is muddied by the existence of another comedy, the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew. (Note that there is only a one-word difference between the title of this play and the title of Shakespeare's play. As a result critics often refer to the anonymous play as A Shrew.) All of the references to a shrew play during Shakespeare's life are to A Shrew, and the First Folio, published after Shakespeare's death, contains the only text of Shakespeare's play.
At first glance, it seems that A Shrew could well be a source for Shakespeare's play, since there are so many elements in common. A Shrew has a frame in which Sly, a drunken tinker, is fooled into believing he is a great lord. It also has a shrew, Kate, and a shrew-tamer (named Ferando, not Petruchio), who must win Kate before her two sisters can be married. However, A Shrew contains no characters who disguise themselves as other characters, and it is generally a dull play with pale characters. For these reasons, critics have theorized that A Shrew is an imitation of Shakespeare's play, or is derived from an older, lost play which Shakespeare also used as a source.
Thesis: Seronsy praises Shakespeare's skill in weaving together the two plots, and his genius in using "supposes" to animate it all. At its simplest level, a suppose, the mistaking of one thing for another, results from a trick. Sly, in the Induction, is treated as a lord until he begins to forget who he has been all of his life and supposes himself to be a lord. Lucentio and Tranio change clothes so that everyone supposes Tranio to be Lucentio, and Lucentio to be Cambio, the Latin teacher. On this level, a suppose is a good comic plot device, but Shakespeare takes it to a much deeper level, one which reveals character and wisdom. Seronsy, in one of the best passages of the essay, explains how this works in Shakespeare depiction to the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio:
Both Petruchio and Katharina in the process of learning from each other make subtle adjustments in attitude. His motive for marriage is at first wealth, yet, while that remains an important consideration, he comes to see that she possesses other qualities which make her worth the trouble of winning over. These evidences of Katharina's real nature as against her supposed temperament, are present in the first scene with her father. Petruchio sees these traits and hits upon a novel method of bringing them into realization. One of Shakespeare's happiest strokes (as distinguished from A Shrew) is to exhibit Petruchio's own system of tutoring and thus closely relate the themes of shrew-taming and supposes. Petruchio's method is to suppose (and he is correct) or assume qualities in Katharina that no one else, possibly even the shrew herself, ever suspects. What he assumes as apparently false turns out to be startlingly true. His "treatment" is a steady unfolding of her really fine qualities: patience, practical good sense, a capacity for humor, and finally obedience, all of which she comes gradually to manifest in a spirit chastened but not subdued. There can be no question about the justice of his tactics, if measured by the end product, for he enables her first to see herself as others see her, and then, her potentiality for humor and self-criticism having been brought out, she is able to discover in herself those qualities he is so sure she possesses. He is a superb teacher whose method is not unknown to many another teacher. And, since his system of make-believe is a profounder one than that effected in the more conventional, superficial, and mechanical disguises of the inherited subplot, there emerges a lively and pointed contrast between the two sets of complications. For, whereas in the subplot, although the theme of supposes is to some extent already enriched and deepened in Shakespeare's play, supposition is still based for the most part upon intrigue and the purely physical circumstances of name, situation, and the like, here in the shrew plot the supposition represents a deeper, more conscious effort, the will to believe and make real and establish beyond cavil what everyone else fails to see. The distinction is one between outer circumstance and inner conviction, a kind of triumph of mind or personality over a world of stubborn outward "fact" not quite so real as had been supposed. (19)Bottom Line: Excellent.