William Shakespeare could tell a pretty mean story, and the rest of us are mere mortals. Or at least, that’s how the narrative goes, right? I’m not talking about the conventional narrative, I’m talking about all of the narrative. A Google search of “Shakespeare ‘not that great’” will get you Tripadvisor.com reviews of Shakespeare’s birthplace and of a pizza joint in Columbia, MO. Several spots down the list, and more relevant to the search, you’ll come across the first of a series of rants by Holger Syme on the subject of people’s opinions of Shakespeare: “Not only is Shakespeare universal, and specific, and translates, he’s also, amazingly, totally comprehensible to teenagers, would you believe it.”
Shakespeare’s language being what it is, students presented with one or two of his plays inevitably ask why he should be studied, and equally inevitably, the answer is, “Because William Shakespeare is totally awesome, Dude!”
As an unapologetic Shakespeare fanboy, I wholeheartedly agree that The Bard fully deserves his lofty pedestal, which is why I was stunned to discover a hole in the plot of The Taming of the Shrew big enough for E. L. James to drive an Audi through. As a writer, I felt as though the metaphorical ground had dropped away, leaving me with a profound sense of literary vertigo. Maybe there’s hope for us mortal writers, after all!
The secondary storyline in Shakespeare’s Shrew centers on the deceitful actions of a young college student seeking to marry a wealthy man’s exceptionally pretty daughter. This plot line climaxes with the arrival of the student’s famously rich father, who gets arrested in the ensuing comic confusion and only escapes jail when his son reveals that the two young people have eloped. The two fathers angrily declare that they’ll get revenge for the whole mess and exit the stage. The next scene is the wedding feast for the two young people, and there’s no further mention of either villainy or knavery.
Wait, what? What just happened? Two of the wealthiest, most powerful men in Italy just got conned, and one of them nearly thrown into a sixteenth century Italian jail! These are not men to be trifled with: there’s ample evidence that one does not get to be an extremely rich businessman in Italy by letting anyone get away with cheating you out of anything. But no, Will sends the two men offstage, where they apparently agree that this will never be spoken of again.
Why doesn’t Shakespeare show us what happens to satisfy them? Did he feel he was out of time? The play is more than two hours long, but then, Hamlet, in its complete form, runs over four hours. Ranked by length, Shrew is only twenty-sixth of William Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays. It’s not likely that the revenges of Baptista and Vincentio were omitted to be kind to the audience.
It is also unlikely that the scene was written and is simply missing. The Taming of the Shrew comes to us from the First Folio, which was published seven years after William Shakespeare’s death and thirty years after the play was first performed. It would be odd if it were simply left out of the compilation, since that scene seems to be the only one missing. So, yeah, there’s probably no “lost scene.”
The two men do get a revenge of sorts when the college student receives his comeuppance in the final scene. I say, “of sorts,” because it isn’t brought about by their actions. The newlywed student bets a fairly large sum that his bride will come when he summons her, but she refuses, preferring the company of the other ladies by the parlor fire. When the young man confronts her with his loss, she calls him a fool, thus showing herself to be the real shrew. The young man’s final lines are fairly bitter, and his father’s reply somewhat sarcastic.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s intention there was to show that to get their revenge, old men often only have to wait for the young and foolish to do themselves in. It’s a vague, unsatisfying ending, especially for a comedy.
And therein lies a clue to Shakespeare’s genius. By contrasting strong-willed Katharina’s jarringly submissive speech against a bride refusing her new husband’s simple request to join him in the main room at their wedding celebration, Shakespeare’s ending turns the world on its head, both inside his story and outside the theater, carried there by an audience that’s been encouraged to think.
There’s the hope for us mortal writers, right there, or at least the standard we need to work toward: Make the audience think uncomfortable thoughts.