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Gay themes in The Taming of the Shrew

May 9, 2010

Taking my cue from Roland Barthes, I consider myself free to read any piece of writing in my own way without considering the intention of the writer. If I see gay themes in Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or even Astrid Lindgren (which I do), then so be it and I don’t care what anyone else including the authors themselves might think about that.

So, to The Taming of the Shrew. Many claims have been made about the gayness of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays; for instance, The Merchant of Venice. However, I haven’t heard anyone claim the same for The Taming of the Shrew yet. (At least, Googling ‘taming shrew gay’ draws a blank.) But please consider the opening so-called ‘Induction’ of the play.

It goes like this. A wealthy Lord, just returned home from hunting, spies a drunk pauper asleep on the ground. As a joke, so he says, he orders his men to ‘convey’ the drunk man ‘to bed’. ‘Carry him gently to my fairest chamber,’ he commands. And, further, ‘hang it around with wanton pictures,’ and ‘procure me music ready when he wakes.’ ‘It will be pastime passing excellent, if it be husbanded with modesty,’ he says, rubbing his hands in delighted anticipation or so I imagine.  (Those words, ‘procure’ and ‘husbanded’ are suggestive, aren’t they?) Then – get this – he bids his page, if ‘he will win my love’, to dress as a woman and pretend to be the drunk’s wife, with ‘tempting kisses’ amongst other charms. ‘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!’ the master exclaims. (How does he know, and why does he so long?) The Lord’s ruse becomes really elaborate when he organises for a troupe of actors to put on a play for the drunk in the Lord’s bedchamber – and that play is the one about the shrew. All the action after that actually takes place in the bedchamber, presumably with the recovered pauper and the comely page sitting up on the pillows together, cuddling as they watch.

The Induction, a context for the main play, is an unusual device for Shakespeare, and it is almost always left out of productions of The Taming of the Shrew. In fact, I was stunned to discover it when I first read it, having only known the play previously through productions. Why is the Induction never acted? Perhaps one reason is that it’s too hard to do it without the sensational gay connotations.

What do you think? Any other classics to deconstruct? I’ll tell you my theories about Dickens and that bawdy Astrid Lindgren another time.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol Goudie permalink
    May 14, 2010 7:17 am


    I can picture the two men together in bed watching the play would look gay, in so far as two men together in bed = gay (does it?); but I’m still left wondering how the play within the play is gay.

    Are you hinting that the taming of the female shrew is a cover for what is really being offered: the taming (seduction) of an initially unwilling male/boy by a stronger male?

    Carol G.

  2. May 14, 2010 7:57 am

    At least one of the men in the bed wants to get amorous with another man, I assume – because in reality, would the tinker really believe the page is a woman? For that matter, would he believe the page/woman is his wife? Would he be sucked in by any of the trick at all??

    Actually, the tale of the drunk being tricked into thinking he’s a lord was well-known in Shakespeare’s time, and I don’t think anyone thought it was homosexual. Still, there are a lot ‘inversions’ in the play, aren’t there?


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