In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare creates humour through his characters by creating false realities (as demonstrated by Petruchio’s behaviour and attire in the scene of his wedding) and by the use of subterfuge and mistaken identity (shown in the final scenes with the transformation of Kate and Bianca’s respective personas). He also uses irony quite extensively, especially towards the end of the play (as can be seen in the final wager’ scene).
The concept that things are not always as they seem’ is quite evident in the events surrounding, and including, Petruchio’s wedding ceremony. This particular scene in the play demonstrates how the use of false realities (a real situation falsely presented in order to deliberately deceive) can be used to create humour. Biondello describes Petruchio’s appearance to Baptista, and by doing so sets up the expectations of the audience. He says that Petruchio comes wearing:
New hat and old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled another laced; an old rusty swordewith a broken hilt and chapeless; his horse hippedwith an old mothy saddle
(Act III Scene II)
This depiction of Petruchio conforms to Shakespeare’s technique of using false realities, in order to create humour. This can also be seen in the false identity that Petruchio puts forth in his quest for dominion over Kate (that of the eccentric egomaniac). However, these false realities are not enough by themselves, as the audience has nothing to go by but what they see before them, and so they are not to know that this is not Petruchio’s true personality, and so Shakespeare employs another essential element of humour: he lets the audience know what is truly transpiring, while the characters themselves remain oblivious to the truth. He does this using a soliloquy, in which Petruchio states the strategies he shall use in order to tame Kate:
She ate no meat today nor none shall she eatand as with the meat some undeserved fault I’ll find about the making of the bed This is the way to kill a wife with kindnesshe that knows better how to tame a shrew, not let him speak
(Act IV Scene I)
This soliloquy serves to reinforce the fact that things are not always as they seem’. So the knowledge gleaned from this soliloquy means that we find the other events involving Kate and Petruchio even more amusing, as we can see that it is nothing more than an elaborate game of chess, instigated by Petruchio.
Another example of where we find humour being generated by the fact that things are not always as they seem’ is the relationship between Kate and Bianca. Here Shakespeare uses the device of mistaken identity and combines it with a strong sense of irony. On the outside, Kate appears harsh, cruel and frightening to all of the characters. Even her father is scared of her monstrous temper, begging anyone to marry her. Yet as her relationship with Petruchio grows, her true identity emerges and our perception of her changes. She becomes much less of a shrew, her mistaken identity, and begins to become more obsequious and agreeable, her true identity. Despite all of her outward appearances, she is truly a good person in her heart. Yet Bianca’s scenario is different. She is perceived as a sweet and gentle person, a false conception, devoting herself to her studies and never wanting anything else out of life. Yet once she achieves her goal, to be married, her true self appears.
She becomes quarrelsome and apathetic. She becomes almost what her sister was. It is here that Shakespeare once again creates humour through the concept that things are not always as they seem’. The irony that comes from seeing the reversal of characteristics and the drastic change in our perceptions of Kate and Bianca provide a sense of amusement, and self-righteous satisfaction at the way the tides have turned. An example of this is in the final scene where Petruchio and Lucentio place a wager on the obedience of their wives (Kate and Bianca respectively). Of course Lucentio loses due to Bianca’s disobedience and near-contempt for her husband, while Petruchio and his newly transformed Kate, proceed to win a wager that according to the plot of the play to date, Bianca and Lucentio should have won without question.
These scenes were all significant in that they used a wide variety of techniques, such as creating false realities and mistaken identities, as well as the use of irony, to manipulate the audience’s perceptions of people and events in a way that brings entertainment. This play successfully presents the fact that things are not always as they seem’, and it is this concept that is used in order to convey humour to the audience.