The play-within-a-play is a common device in Elizabethan theatre. Memorable ones occur in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Hamlet, the prince arranges for some players to put on a play about someone killing a king to obtain his position, in order to assess the guilt of Hamlet’s uncle in the death of his father. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a band of peasants try to put on a play about Pyramus and Thisbe to entertain the lords and ladies of the enchanted forest. Today, we are familiar with this theatrical device in stories, movies, and TV shows. There are the back-story flashbacks, the future oriented projections (prophecies, we were a more spiritual society), and dream sequences that provide us with information or a window into the characters’ thoughts. Most of the time these plays-within-plays are brief scenes. However, in the case of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the majority of the play is a play-within-a-play. At the Blackfriar Theatre, in Staunton, VA, the cast understood this and played the joke on us.
While academics would not put The Taming of the Shrew into the upper echelon of Shakespeare’s comedies, it is probably one of his more easily followed bait-and-switch love stories. Cursed Kate (Allison Glenzer) is outwitted into love by Petruchio (Christopher Seiler). Katherina’s dainty and desired sister, Bianca (Sara Hymes), is sought after by the old geezer, Gremio (John Harrell), the fashionably greedy Hortensio (Patrick Midgley), and the visiting gentleman of Pisa, Lucentio (Nathan C. Crocker). Two hours of mud-slinging banter, and woozy wooing give us plenty of side-splitting laughter. But, this is all a play-within-a-play, not a play in itself.
We must back up to the opening scene, in which Christopher Sly (Benjamin Reed) fights the barmaid, Hostess Page (Bridget Rue) for another drink:
Sly: I’ll pheeze you, in faith.
Hostess: A pair of socks, you rogue!… You will not pay for the glasses you have burst?
The end result is that Sly falls asleep drunk and the Hostess gets a band of men to throw him out of the tavern. They decide to play a joke on him. They take Sly to the Lord’s home, instruct the servants to treat him as the Lord, and disguise one of the servants to play his wife. When Sly awakes, they begin this play-within-a-play, convincing him that he is a Lord. Meanwhile, the Lord has contracted with a group of players to put on a play for Sly to further convince him that he is a Lord. Thus the play, The Taming of the Shrew, is the play that the would-be Lord Sly is watching. To affect this, the Lord, Sly, the servants, and pretend wife, appear above the stage, in what was the Lords’ chairs to watch “the play”. Sly, and his pretend wife stay there for several scenes, watching the play.
Part of why we forget about this play-within-a-play format, is that Sly disappears for the rest of the play. On my academic lectern, I criticize Shakespeare for not bringing us back to this fact. Most academics, and feminists, shun The Taming of the Shrew because of the male-dominance-female-obedience themes. The compromise is that Shakespeare was writing in the late 16th century, not late 20th century. However, had he brought Sly back, we would be reminded that we were watching Sly watching Kate and Petruchio.
With this in mind, the play raises the question of what was Shakespeare telling Sly, or all the other drunken men who are raising a ruckus in a bar, rather than being at home with their wife and family. While Kate’s “tamed” speech appears to being saying that women are best when they are obedient, she also puts this obedience in context of respect for her husband carrying out his role:
“… one that cares for thee and for thy maintenance; commit his body to painful labor…”
She then enumerates what husbands should be doing. None of these include accosting bar maids and falling asleep drunk. Were I Shakespeare, I would have put Sly back up in the Lord’s chairs at the conclusion of the pay to bring us to this point. Damned post-modernist interpretation.
Beyond this point, the cast did a most brilliant play on us in the audience. But, I must back up to our afternoon before the play to give the context for this quick, clever joke. We finished work and ran some errands mid-afternoon. We arrived in Staunton about 3 p.m., with plans to have dinner with a friend. We headed to a coffee shop and ordered two large latte. They arrived in massive, white ceramic mugs that kept us warm for a couple of hours. At dinner, I looked across the restaurant and notice a guy, sitting across from an attractive woman. He wore a maroon Virginia Tech stocking cap. Oh, those Hokie fans cannot even take their spirit off in a restaurant! What poor manners.
We arrived early at the Blackfriar Theatre to watch the pre-performance songs and entertainment. One of the traditions at the theatre is to have Gallant Stools on stage, which if not filled can be occupied by anyone in the audience. Several people came up, leaving one stool empty. Also, the drink and snack cart is on stage before the show. This gives people a chance to be “on stage” to buy a glass of wine, beer, etc. Thus there is lots of milling about going on during the half hour before the show.
I notice one rather obnoxious young man, wearing a grey stocking cap. No manners. Mr. Boozo wandered around the stage, carrying a large, white ceramic coffee mug. Not only did he not have manners, he had stolen a coffee mug from the shop next door. He eventually sat by himself near the front of the stage. Before the last song, the cast called for one more Gallant Seat to be filled. Mr. Boozo jumped up, stocking cap and stolen mug to take the seat. The cast often interacts with audience members sitting in the Gallant Stools. Before the show, they inspect who has come up and make plans for how to deal with them. I was sure that they had this guy in their sights.
Chris Johnston and Christopher Seiler sang a ukulele duet of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful Life. During the last verse, Mr. Boozo stands up, walks behind them, bangs his mug on the snack cart and demands it be filled with wine. The hostess protests that he is drunk and must return to his seat. He grabs a bottle of wine:
Mr Boozo: I’ll pheeze you, in faith.
hostess: A pair of socks, you rogue!… You will not pay for the glasses you have burst?
Yes, Mr. Booze was Sly, and the play had begun before we realized it. Mr. Boozo was hardly acting as a husband should. May he find a shrew to set him straight!