Detailed Synopsis of ‘Julius Caesar’

Act One: The citizens of Rome are celebrating Caesar’s defeat of Pompey, having Caesar’s statues “deck’d with ceremonies”.  Flavius and Marullus, tribunes sympathetic to Pompey and annoyed with Caesar’s growing power, rebuke the people and tell them to disperse and end the celebrations.  After the people leave, the two tribunes start taking the “trophies” off the statues.

Caesar, his wife Calpurnia, his friends Brutus and Mark Antony, Cassius, and Casca enter, triumphant after Pompey’s defeat.  Mark Antony is to run a race in the celebratory games of the Lupercalia.  A soothsayer warns Caesar of the upcoming March 15th (see quote 1 of my ‘Analysis of Julius Caesar‘), the day Caesar was murdered in 44 BC.  The soothsayer is ignored, and Mark Antony goes to run the race, being followed by all except Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius asks Brutus why he seems not to show him friendship as he had before.  Brutus insists he’s never grown cold to Cassius, but rather is preoccupied with his own personal issues.  They hear, from over where the race is being run, cheers for Caesar.  Brutus says he fears the people will make Caesar their king.  Emboldened, Cassius begins discussing Caesar’s alarming rise to power (see quote 2 of my ‘Analysis’).  He tries to convince Brutus of Caesar’s unworthiness of such ascendancy, citing two examples of weakness in a younger Caesar: once, Caesar in a swimming race with Cassius, gasped for help when almost drowning; another time, Caesar complained of sickness.  “And this man/Is now become a god,” gripes Cassius.

Brutus, a good friend of Caesar’s, says he will consider what Cassius has said.  Caesar and all the others return.  Caesar looks with suspicion on Cassius, and tells Mark Antony of his misgivings.  Mark Antony tells him not to fear Cassius.

Casca meets with Brutus and Cassius. He tells them of what happened during the race.  When Brutus and Cassius ask Casca what the cheering was about, Casca explains that Mark Antony three times offered Caesar a small but kingly coronet; Caesar refused it each time, though each refusal was weaker and weaker.  Casca, as much as Cassius, fears Caesar’s rise to power.  He says that Cicero gave a speech in Greek, something some of the others understood, but not Casca (see quote 3).  Then Casca mentions the arresting of Flavius and Marullus for having removed garlands from Caesar’s statues.

Casca, leaving, accepts an offer to dine with Cassius and further discuss these matters, if the meal is good.  Brutus also leaves.  Cassius, alone, tells of his plan to forge letters complaining of Caesar’s disturbing rise to power, and to have them delivered in the windows of Brutus’ home; this deceit, Cassius hopes, will convince Brutus to join the conspirators.

On the night before the ides of March, there is a terrible, frightening storm, full of omens portending the assassination of Caesar.  Casca fearfully discusses these portents with Cicero and Cassius.  Cassius has fellow conspirator Cinna cause a few more forged letters to be in Brutus’ possession.

Act Two: Brutus, troubled and unable to sleep, walks about his home, thinking about his friend Caesar and his problematic ascent to dictator.  While Brutus sees no actual evidence of ambition in Caesar, he recognizes the reality of ambition in most politicians, and their contempt for those below them.  Lucius, Brutus’ young servant, gives him one of Cassius’ letters; the boy then confirms that the next day will be the ides of March, and he goes to the door to let in the just-arrived conspirators.

Cassius introduces them to Brutus: they include Casca, Cinna, Trebonius, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, and Ligarius.  Cassius suggests killing Mark Antony along with Caesar: Brutus rejects this idea, preferring to minimize violence and seeing no need to fear Mark Antony.  They agree to this and leave.

Brutus isn’t alone again for long; Portia, his wife, comes to ask him what’s troubling him.  He denies feelings of inquietude.  She insists that if he truly honoured her as his wife, he would tell her: though regarded as women are in this patriarchal society, she is of noble birth.  She proves her constancy to him by showing him a wound she’s given herself in the leg.  He wonders how he can be worthy of such an honourable wife.

The next morning, in Caesar’s home, Calpurnia complains to her husband of a terrible nightmare she’s had.  Reminding him of the recent ill omens, she begs him not to go to the Capitol that day.  Caesar insists he has nothing to fear; she insists he’s over-confident (see quote 4).  The entrails of a slain animal are examined for omens: the beast has no heart.  Finally, to allay her fears, he says he won’t go.

Decius Brutus arrives in Caesar’s home to take him to the Capitol, but Caesar refuses to go.  Decius Brutus asks for a reason: not wishing to seem weak, Caesar says, “The cause is in my will: I will not come.”  Then Caesar tells him of his wife’s dream–a statue of Caesar spouting not water but blood, in which many Romans wash their hands.

Decius Brutus reinterprets the dream, saying it symbolizes how Caesar will suck reviving blood of Rome; he need fear no danger at the Capitol, where the Senate will offer him a crown.  They may change their minds, however, if he doesn’t go: this piques Caesar’s ambition, and now he is embarrassed at having listened to his fearful wife.  He is resolved to go to the Capitol.

The other conspirators arrive, as does Mark Antony.  They go with Caesar to the Capitol.

Artemidorus, a Sophist, has written a letter for Caesar to read, warning him of the conspirators.

Portia has her servant, Lucius, go to the Capitol to see if Brutus is well.  She speaks with the soothsayer about whether Caesar is at the Capitol or not.  The soothsayer wishes to warn Caesar again.  She continues to fear for her husband and his plot against Caesar.

Act Three: Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Cinna, Mark Antony, Lepidus, Artemidorus, and the soothsayer are before the Capitol.  Caesar says to the soothsayer, “The ides of March are come.”  The soothsayer says, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.”

Artemidorus tries to give Caesar his letter, but Decius Brutus stops him by having Caesar read a letter of Trebonius instead.  Cassius then tells Brutus his fears that the conspiracy is publicly known; Brutus reassures him that all is well, for Popilius Lena is taking Caesar aside.  Trebonius similarly takes Mark Antony aside, distracting him.  All preparations are being made to ensure that the assassination runs as smoothly as possible.  Caesar and the conspirators enter the Capitol.

Metellus Cimber begs Caesar to repatriate his banished brother Publius; Caesar refuses to.  The other conspirators kneel before Caesar one by one, asking of him the same repatriation; of course, they’re really distracting him.

Finally, Casca says, “Speak, hands, for me!” and gives Caesar the first stab.  The other conspirators brandish their blades and stab him; Brutus, the last one, stabs Caesar, who gasps his feelings of betrayal before dying (see quote 5).  The conspirators triumphantly proclaim liberty for Rome, promising no harm to any of the stunned senators still in the Capitol.

Brutus tells the conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood.  Cassius imagines actors in the future performing plays of this great moment in history.  The conspirators plan to go outside to appease the terrified citizens and explain why they killed Caesar.

Mark Antony enters the room and coolly shakes the hands of the conspirators; though outraged, he must hide his fury for the sake of his safety.  He claims to be their friend, asking only for a just reason for Caesar’s murder.  Brutus promises to be generous with such reasons, and allows Mark Antony to honour Caesar’s memory in his funeral, so long as the conspirators aren’t vilified.

Cassius takes Brutus aside, saying it will be dangerous to allow Mark Antony to address the crowd.  Brutus reassures him that allowing Caesar’s friend to speak for him in his funeral will make the conspirators look generous.

The conspirators go outside to speak to the people and to calm them.  Alone, Mark Antony finally expresses his rage, begging Caesar’s pardon for being “gentle with these butchers.”  Over Caesar’s wounds, he prophesies all of Rome rising in civil war to avenge Caesar’s murder, killing scores of men to appease Caesar’s ghost (see quote 6).

Outside, Brutus addresses the people, explaining that while he was friend to Caesar, he was more friend to Rome in killing him, out of a fear that he would turn tyrant.  Only those un-Roman enough to want to be slaves to Caesar would be offended at Brutus’ slaying of him.  The easily manipulated crowd now sympathizes with Brutus.

Mark Antony comes out with Caesar’s bloody body.  Brutus asks everyone to stay and listen to Mark Antony; Brutus leaves.

The angry crowd, now hating Caesar, at first refuse to listen to his friend’s cries for their attention (see quote 7).  In a masterstroke of political rhetoric, Mark Antony turns the crowd’s sympathies back to Caesar and away from the conspirators by only sarcastically calling them “honourable men/Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar” (see also quote 8), and reminding the people of Caesar’s generosity to them.  By the end of Antony’s speech, when he’s disclosed Caesar’s will–giving all Romans the freedom to enjoy walking about his private parks and orchards, and giving each Roman 75 drachmas–after teasingly delaying the will’s revelation, the people riot in the streets.  Mark Antony is content to have this disorderly rage, for he can use it to his political advantage.

The rioters find a poet who, after revealing his name to be Cinna (unluckily also a name of one of the conspirators), is killed by them.

Act Four: Mark Antony, Octavius (the future emperor Augustus) and Lepidus form the Second Triumvirate, and check off a list of those to be executed for their involvement in the conspiracy against Caesar.  After Lepidus is sent off to Caesar’s home to fetch the will, Antony disparages him as the weakest of the three triumvirs.  Octavius defends Lepidus, calling him “a tried and valiant soldier,” though Antony won’t acknowledge this.  (In the interactions between Antony and Octavius, there is a hint of the antagonism that would be fully developed in another Shakespearean Roman tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra.)  They will prepare their armies to fight those of Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius comes to where Brutus’ army is, and angrily enters Brutus’ tent.  He says Brutus has done him wrong in accusing soldiers in his army of taking bribes.  Brutus is not at all moved by Cassius’ sword and threats, for Brutus is “arm’d so strong in honesty”, and despises all corruption, be it that of Caesar or of Cassius.

Cassius is thus put in his place, and shocked when Brutus speaks of Portia’s suicide by swallowing fire, after worrying so much of her husband’s fortunes.  Titinius and Messala enter the tent, and the four men discuss the coming battle: Cassius believes they should wait for the enemy to come, tired from marching, while their own armies are well-rested; Brutus, not wanting the enemy to gain the aid of the men “in a forc’d affection” between the armies of the enemy and those of Brutus and Cassius, would have their armies march ahead to meet the enemy (see quote 9).  Messala tells Brutus of Portia’s suicide: Brutus responds stoically.

Brutus is left alone in his tent at night; his weary servant, Lucius, plays a tune on his harp, but falls asleep in the middle of playing.  Brutus, wishing to be kind to the boy, lets him sleep, then begins reading a book.

Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus, saying they’ll meet again in Philippi.  Frightened Brutus wakes the boy and two other servants of his, asking if they’ve seen or heard anyone: they haven’t.

Act Five: Antony and Octavius meet with Brutus and Octavius, exchanging harsh words before preparing for battle.  Brutus and Cassius say farewell, knowing this may be the last time they see each other.

The battles begin, and though Brutus’ army is fairly successful at first, Cassius’ is clearly losing.  When he mistakenly thinks his best friend Titinius has been captured by the enemy, he feels ashamed to be still living, and has Pindarus stab him with the sword he used on Caesar.  Titinius returns with good news of the battle, but seeing his good friend Cassius dead, kills himself.  Brutus comes by and sees the two dead men; he notes the power of Caesar after death, causing his enemies to kill themselves.

In the final battle, Brutus’ army is losing, and he asks soldier after soldier to hold his sword while he runs on it; all of them refuse except Strato.  As Brutus is dying, he hopes Caesar’s spirit will rest in peace (see quote 10).

Mark Antony and Octavius arrive and look down on Brutus’ body.  Antony praises Brutus, the only conspirator to act not out of envy of Caesar, but for the good of Rome.  Octavius calls for rejoicing over their victory.

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Analysis of ‘Julius Caesar’

Julius Caesar is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written in 1599; the play is based on the assassination in 44 BC of the ancient Roman dictator and its aftermath in the Battle of Philippi.  While Dante, in his Inferno, portrayed both leading conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, as traitors whose treachery is comparable to that of Judas Iscariot, Shakespeare portrays Brutus as being the only conspirator who acted selflessly, for the good of Rome.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “Beware the ides of March.” –Soothsayer, Act I, Scene ii, line 18

2. “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs, and peep about/To find ourselves dishonourable graves./Men at some time are masters of their fates:/The fault, dear Brutus, is  not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”    –Cassius, Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-141

3. “…but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” –Casca, Act I, Scene ii, around line 282

4. “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once./Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come.” –Caesar, Act II, Scene ii, lines 32-37

5. “Et tu, Brute?  –Then fall, Caesar!” –Caesar, Act III, Scene i, line 77

6. “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” –Mark Antony, Act III, scene i, line 274

7. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him./The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is oft interred with their bones;/So let it be with Caesar.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii. lines 73-77

8. “But Brutus says he was ambitious,/And Brutus is an honourable man.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii, lines 86-87

9. “There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries./On such a full sea are we now afloat;/And we must take the current when it serves,/Or lose our ventures.” –Brutus, Act IV, Scene iii, lines 216-222

10. “Caesar, now be still:/I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” –Brutus, Act V, Scene v, lines 50-51

The main theme of this play is constancy versus inconstancy, everyone in the play manifesting varying combinations of these two opposites.

First, we’ll look at examples of constancy.  At the end of the play, Mark Antony honours Brutus for being the one conspirator who acted not out of envy, but for the good of Rome.  Indeed, his constant loyalty to Rome even outweighs his loyalty to his friend, Caesar.  In all of Brutus’ speeches, be they public or private, he always puts Rome first.  In his home at night, before the other conspirators arrive, he speaks of how those who gain power often ignore the base degrees from which they’ve climbed.

“Th’abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins/Remorse from power; and to speak truth of Caesar,/I have not known when his affections sway’d/More than his reason.  But ’tis a common proof/That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,/Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;/But when he once attains the upmost round,/He then unto the ladder turns his back,/Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees/By which he did ascend.  So Caesar may.” (Brutus, Act II, Scene i, lines 18-27)

During the plotting with the conspirators that night, Brutus rejects Cassius’ recommendation to kill Mark Antony, too, feeling their “course will seem too bloody”.  Only Caesar has to die.  After killing Caesar, Brutus tells the other conspirators to dip their hands in Caesar’s blood, and to plead their cause to the people: killing Caesar was for the good of Rome, not for the conspirators’ private profit, and they are to reveal themselves proudly as liberators from Caesar’s growing tyranny (Act III, Scene i).

Later in that scene, Brutus’ constancy is so full that he would allow Mark Antony to honour Caesar in his funeral for the good he did in his life; this generosity, of course, is a risk Brutus is taking, and one that ultimately leads to his death, but it also shows how constant he is .

When Brutus learns of officers in Cassius’ army taking bribes, he shows his opposition so openly that he wounds Cassius’ pride, resulting in a quarrel (Act IV, Scene iii).  Brutus’ duty to Rome outweighs his kindness to his friends; such noble constancy is rare.

Finally, when all is lost in the wars between Brutus’ army and those of Mark Antony and Octavius (later Augustus), Brutus runs into his sword, accepting the continuing power of Caesar even after his death (see quote 10).

Portia, Brutus’ wife, is offended that he won’t tell her what’s troubling him and keeping him awake at night (Act II, scene i); she feels he doubts her constancy, which she proves by cutting a wound in her leg.  Later, when she fears for him and his shaky fortunes in the wars after killing Caesar, we learn she’s killed herself by swallowing burning coals, or fire, as it says in the text (Act IV, scene iii).

Julius Caesar’s constancy seems the greatest of all.  Though fearing suspicious types like Cassius, he insists “always I am Caesar” (Act I, scene ii).  He says “I am constant as the northern star” when he is asked for pardon for the banished brother of Metellus Cimber, one of the conspirators (Act III, scene i).  The conspirators, of course, almost immediately after, in the same scene, show their inconstancy to Caesar by stabbing him to death.

His power lives on after his death, though, for Mark Antony and Octavius act as his avenging agents.  His ghost appears to Brutus (Act IV, scene iii), showing us how Caesar still exists, even if no longer in physical form.  Brutus acknowledges the constancy of Caesar’s power when his avengers defeat Brutus and Cassius in the battles toward the end of the play, causing Cassius and his loyal friend, Titinius, to kill themselves.  “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords/In our own proper entrails.” (Brutus, Act V, scene iii, lines 93-95)

Now we’ll examine inconstancy, of which there’s plenty in this play.  Cassius’ inconstancy is particularly blatant.  He fears the growing power of Caesar, but is inconstant with the truth when he forges letters of complaint about Caesar’s tyranny, and has them tossed in the windows of Brutus’ home to trick him into joining the conspirators.  “I will this night,/In several hands, in at his windows throw,/As if they came from several citizens,/Writings, all tending to the great opinion/That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely/Caesar’s ambition shall be glanced at.” (Cassius, Act I, scene ii)

Cassius is opposed to Caesar’s corruption, but is lenient over the bribery his soldiers are guilty of; hence Brutus’ accusation that Cassius has an “itching palm” (Act IV, scene iii, line 10).

Cassius is constant, though, towards his friend, Titinius, when he, believing his friend has been taken by the enemy, kills himself.  “O, coward that I am to live so long/To see my best friend ta’en before my face!” (Cassius, Act V, scene iii, lines 34-35)  When Titinius, having not been taken, returns and sees Cassius lying dead on the ground, he kills himself, too.  “Brutus, come apace,/And see how I regarded Caius Cassius./By your leave, gods.  This is a roman’s part./Come, Cassius’ sword, and find Titinius’ heart.” (Titinius, Act V, scene iii, lines 87-90)

Conflicted Brutus is constant in his loyalty to Rome, but inconstant is his loyalty to his friend Caesar; hence, after his reluctant stab at Caesar, the betrayed, dying dictator gasps out his last words, “Et tu, Brute?” (Act III, scene i, line 76)

When Brutus, Cassius, Titinius, and Messala discuss the battle plans against the army of Mark Antony and Octavius, there is disagreement over where to meet the enemy: should they wait for them to arrive, tired from long marching, while their own armies are well-rested and ready, or should they march on and face the enemy farther ahead?  Cassius argues for the former, while Brutus argues the latter, based on the principle of inconstancy.

“The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground/Do stand but in a forc’d affection;/For they have grudg’d us contribution./The enemy, marching along by them,/By them shall make a fuller number up,/Come on refresh’d, new-added, and encourag’d;/From which advantage shall we cut him off,/If at Philippi we do face him there,/These people at our back/…You must note beside/That we have tried the utmost of our friends,/Our legions are brim full, our cause is ripe./The enemy increaseth every day:/We, at the height, are ready to decline” (Brutus, Act IV, scene iii, lines 202-210, 210-215; then see Quote 9 above)

Brutus wants to fight Mark Antony and Octavius while his and Cassius’ armies still have the men “‘twixt Philippi and this ground” on their side, for, being “but in a forc’d affection”, those men may switch to the enemy’s side if Mark Antony and Octavius meet them before the battle.  If Brutus’ and Cassius’ armies cut the enemy off before they can meet those men in between, inconstancy won’t have an opportunity to give those men over to the enemy.

Elsewhere, Mark Antony seems constant in his loyalty to Caesar and to Rome in his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, in which he passionately demonstrates Caesar’s love of the Roman people while sarcastically parroting Brutus’ “honourable” intentions.  Once he has the ever-malleable crowd following him, however, he seems happier to use this support for his own political ascendancy than for Caesar’s revenge.

“Now let it work.  Mischief, thou art afoot,/Take thou what course thou wilt,” Antony says as he watches the people of Rome riot, loot, and search for revenge for Caesar’s death (Act III, scene ii, lines 261-262).

Caesar himself is mostly constant, though he fears “lean and hungry” Cassius, and wants fat men about him; almost in the same breath, however, he says, “always I am Caesar”.  Also, he thrice refuses a kingly crown, though, as Casca reports, he refuses it less and less.  (Act I, scene ii, lines 220-240, etc.)

On the day of his murder, he allows the entreaties of his wife, Calpurnia, to make him stay at home (Act II, scene ii) when she tells him of a dream she’s had, seeming to portend his bloody death; yet when Decius Brutus gives a misleadingly positive interpretation of the dream, Caesar quickly changes his mind and leaves home with the conspirators.

The most blatant example of inconstancy, however, is that of the crowd of common Romans outside the Capitol after Caesar’s murder.  At first, they’re shocked and horrified that their beloved leader has been assassinated in a conspiracy (Act III, scene ii); Brutus quickly sways their opinion in his favour in a brief speech:

“If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his.  If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more.  Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?”

Then Mark Antony sways the people’s opinion back against the conspirators in his repeated ironic reference to Brutus, Cassius, et al as “honourable”, during his “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” speech.  All of this swaying of public opinion happens in the same scene, within a period of about a half hour.  How quickly a mob can be manipulated.  As passionate as they may be, they are rarely constant.

Detailed Synopsis for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Induction: Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker, rudely refuses to pay for his ale in an alehouse in England, annoying the hostess.  He falls asleep at his chair.

A lord and his men come to the alehouse after a hunt.  They see Sly asleep, and regarding him as contemptuously as the hostess has, the lord decides to play a trick on him.  He tells his men to carry the drunkard to his bedchamber.  There, they will trick him into thinking he’s a lord.

The lord has his page, the boy Bartholomew, dress up as a woman and pretend to be Sly’s dutiful, obedient wife.  When Sly wakes up, he finds himself wearing a lord’s bedclothes, and lying in a luxurious bedchamber.  Naturally confused, he insists he’s Christopher Sly the tinker; they say his identity as a tinker is the result of a dream he’s had during a fifteen-year coma, from which he’s just woken, to the tears of joy of his long-suffering wife.

The lord says Sly will now watch ‘a pleasant comedy’ that a group of actors has prepared.  Sly’s doctors say the entertainment will be good for his recovery.  The play begins:

Act One: Lucentio and his servant Tranio are entering Padua, since Lucentio is to study at the university there.  They see Baptista Minola and his two daughters, the shrewish Katherina and her younger sister Bianca.  Two suitors to Bianca, the elderly Gremio and foolish Hortensio, are disappointed to hear that Baptista won’t allow any wooing of Bianca until a husband can be found for Katherina.

Lucentio falls in love with the pretty Bianca instantly, forgetting all about his studies while focusing all his energy on winning her love.  Though Baptista won’t allow her to be married until the ‘too rough’ Katherina is wed, he wishes to find music and poetry teachers for both his daughters.  Lucentio thus plans to disguise himself as a Latin poetry teacher, calling himself ‘Cambio’.  Tranio is to pretend he’s Lucentio, and woo Bianca in the real Lucentio’s stead.  Master and servant swap clothes in the street, when Biondello, another servant of Lucentio’s, arrives, all confused to see his master dressed as Tranio, and vice versa.  Lucentio explains the whole plan to Biondello.

(The actors note that Christopher Sly, bored with the play, is nodding off.  He politely insists that he’s enjoying the performance, asking if there’s more…Actually, he wishes it was already over.)

Petruchio and his servant Grumio enter Padua.  Petruchio would have Grumio knock at the door of Hortensio’s home; and when Grumio grows argumentative over Petruchio’s ambiguous words, Petruchio threatens to knock his servant over the head.  When Grumio shouts in fear of his ‘mad’ master, Hortensio appears.

Petruchio and Hortensio greet each other, and Petruchio explains that his father has died, and he, without money, hopes to marry a woman and get a generous dowry.  He doesn’t care what the bride is like, as long as he gets lots of money.  The fact that Petruchio is Hortensio’s good friend is a deterrent from Hortensio telling Petruchio about the shrewish Katherina.  Still, Petruchio would get a good dowry from Baptista, so he willingly accepts.

Delighted with the hope of Katherina soon being married off, Hortensio tells Petruchio of his plan to disguise himself as ‘Licio’, a teacher of the lute.

Gremio comes with ‘Cambio’, hoping the would-be Latin teacher will woo Bianca on his behalf.  When Hortensio tells Gremio of Petruchio’s intention to marry Katherina, Gremio worries that Petruchio will change his mind when he learns of “all her faults.”  Petruchio reassures the others that he, being used to the harsh sounds of war, has no fear “of a woman’s tongue.”

Tranio appears, calling himself ‘Lucentio’ and telling everyone of his plan to woo Bianca, to the annoyance of Gremio and Hortensio.    All the men go to the Minolas’ house.

Act Two:  Angry and envious Katherina has Bianca’s hands tied, and demands that her sister tell her which man she loves the most.  Bianca says that she doesn’t love any particular man yet.  Katherina hits her.  Baptista comes over to break up the fight, pitying poor Bianca and unbinding her hands.  She leaves.  Katherina grows more enraged, imagining their father loves Bianca more, and that Bianca will be married first, thus shaming elder Katherina, who leaves in a fury.  Baptista laments his ill fortune as a father.

All the suitors arrive.  Gremio greets Baptista, and Petruchio asks about Katherina, praising her “beauty and her wit,/Her affability and bashful modesty./Her wondrous qualities and mild behaviour.”  Everyone hearing these words cannot believe his ears.  Petruchio introduces ‘Licio’ to Baptista as the girls’ music teacher.

Gremio introduces ‘Cambio’ to Baptista.  ‘Lucentio’ introduces himself as a suitor to Bianca.  A servant leads ‘Cambio’ and ‘Licio’ to the girls to begin their lessons.  Petruchio asks Baptista of the dowry he’ll receive for marrying Katherina.  Baptista offers a generous dowry, which more than satisfies Petruchio.  The only challenge will be gaining the shrew’s love.  Petruchio has no fears of not gaining it.  (See the first quote from my ‘Analysis of The Taming of the Shrew‘.)

‘Licio’ enters the room, his head beaten.  He explains how he tried to explain the proper fingering of the lute to Katherina, who’d gotten it wrong.  Angry with his corrections, she broke the lute over his head.  Petruchio is delighted, saying he loves her all the more, and eagerly wishing “to have some chat with her.”

Baptista goes to send her over to meet Petruchio.  As he is waiting, Petruchio goes over his plan to deny her every word of nastiness or unwillingness to marry him.  He’ll insist she’s sweet and gentle instead, as well as eager to marry him.

Katherina arrives: Petruchio addresses her as ‘Kate’.  She says she’s known as Katherina, but he insists she’s ‘Kate’.  She scoffs at his plans to marry her.  The arguing between them escalates till she slaps him for making a lewd joke.

When Baptista returns with Gremio and ‘Lucentio’, Petruchio denies Katherina’s reputed shrewishness and unwillingness to marry him, claiming her nastiness is all just an act she puts on in public, while privately she’s sweet and mild (and the only time to know a woman for real is in private).  They’ll be married on Sunday.  (She’d have him hanged then instead.)

The others would much prefer Petruchio’s story to hers, so the wedding is settled.  Now gleeful Baptista is ready to accept the best dowry offer of Gremio or ‘Lucentio’.  The latter offers a better one, so as long as ‘Lucentio’ can prove that his father can pay the dowry, Baptista prefers him as a husband for Bianca.  Baptista and Gremio leave.  Now Tranio must find someone to pretend to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father.

Act Three:  ‘Cambio’ and ‘Licio’ are vying over who gets to teach, and therefore woo, Bianca.  ‘Cambio’ wins, slipping in his wooing words between Latin phrases; meanwhile, ‘Licio’ is tuning his lute.  Bianca tells ‘Cambio’, in Latin phrases alternating with her responding words, that he must try harder to win her heart, but not give up, for she clearly prefers him.  ‘Licio’ increasingly suspects him to be a suitor rather than a teacher; he also increasingly realizes he’s losing the suit.

On Sunday at the church, everyone is waiting for the very late Petruchio to arrive.  Katherina complains that everyone will say, “Lo, there is mad Petruchio’s wife,/If it would please him come and marry her!”  Indeed, Baptista acknowledges that she has good reason to be angry.

Finally, Petruchio and Grumio arrive, but they are dressed absurdly.  Biondello describes Petruchio as wearing “a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turn’d; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another lac’d…”, et cetera.  The others chide Petruchio for his clothes, and offer him better ones to change into.  He insists Katherina’s marrying him, not his clothes.  She very unwillingly goes with him into the church.

The comical goings-on during the ceremony are described by Gremio.  Petruchio “swore so loud/That, all amaz’d, the priest let fall the book;/And as he stoop’d again to take it up,/This mad-brain’d bridegroom took him such a cuff/That down fell priest and book, and book and priest.”

Petruchio and Katherina come out of the church, but he refuses to attend the wedding party, claiming he has urgent business to attend to back home.  Katherina won’t go with him, and the others sympathize with her; but he insists she’s his ‘goods’, his ‘chattels’, his ‘any thing’.  Acting like a madman, he pretends the others are trying to take her away, and he and Grumio, brandishing swords, claim to be protecting her as they take her with them to Verona.  An exasperated Baptista allows them to go.

Act Four: In Petruchio’s country house in Verona, Grumio arrives first, telling Curtis, another servant, of Petruchio’s mad, ungentlemanly treatment of Katherina during the journey from Padua to Verona.  She fell off her horse and into the mire, and he wouldn’t help her back on; he beat Grumio instead.  Grumio then tells Curtis to have all the servants ready to meet their master and Katherina.

Petruchio soon arrives with his filthy, exhausted, and starving bride.  He bullies his servants into making dinner quickly for them.  Dinner is served, but Petruchio rants and raves like a maniac that the meat is burnt (it isn’t).  A terrified Kate tries to reason with him; he then throws all the meat at the servants.  Poor Kate must now do without supper.

He plans to be similarly abusive when he sees the condition of her bed, not letting her sleep in it.  In a soliloquy, he tells of his plans to tame Kate (see quote 2 of my ‘Analysis of The Taming of the Shrew‘), saying that all of his depriving her of food and sleep is out of perfect love for her, since the rejected necessities haven’t been worthily prepared for so fine a wife.  He’d be happy to see if anyone knows a better way to tame a shrew, for “‘Tis charity to show.”

Tranio (still pretending to be Lucentio) and Hortensio (no longer pretending to be Licio) speak of how ‘Cambio’ is successfully courting Bianca: they watch the two lovers walk by.  Hortensio speaks of his plans to marry a wealthy widow instead, then leaves.  Tranio is now speaking with Lucentio and Bianca, and all three are happy to be “rid of Licio.”

Biondello comes, telling of a pedant whom they can use in their plans.  The pedant arrives, saying he’s from Mantua; but Tranio tells him “‘Tis death for any one in Mantua/To come to Padua.”  For the dukes of each city have a ‘private quarrel’ now publicly proclaimed.  The pedant, to protect himself, must disguise himself as Vincentio, a man of Pisa, and help Lucentio in promising to pay the dowry for Bianca’s hand in marriage.  The pedant agrees to do so.

In Petruchio’s country house, poor Kate continues to go hungry and without sleep.  (See quote 3 of my ‘Analysis’.)  Grumio tortures her by speaking of delicious meats, then denying her the food, claiming “it is too choleric a meat.”  She begins beating him when Petruchio and Hortensio arrive with meat.  Petruchio offers her the meat, which he has lovingly prepared himself for her; he is sure his ‘diligent’ work deserves some thanks.  She reluctantly thanks him, but he’d have Hortensio eat it instead.

Since Bianca is about to be married, Petruchio and Kate are to wear their finest clothes and go to Padua.  He’s had a tailor and haberdasher prepare a gown and hat for her to wear; she loves the clothes, but he is quick to find fault with them.  She insists that all gentlewomen wear hats like the one made, but he won’t have her wear one until she learns to be gentle.

When he says the gown hasn’t been made in accordance with his instructions, the tailor insists that it has, and even shows Petruchio and Grumio them in writing; but they both deny this.  So Kate won’t have the dress, either.  She and Petruchio will have to go to Padua in their modest attire instead; the clothes don’t make the man (or woman), anyway.

Petruchio claims it is seven o’clock, but when she says it’s about two, he says they won’t go to Padua unless she agrees with his incorrect estimation of the time.  Defeated, she agrees with it.

In Padua, the pedant as ‘Vincentio’ helps Tranio (as ‘Lucentio’) with the promising of payment of the dowry in a scene with Baptista.  Plans are made for the real Lucentio to marry Bianca in a church.

On the road to Padua with Hortensio, Petruchio looks up at the sun and calls it the moon.  When Kate says it’s the sun, he threatens to take her back home unless she says it’s the moon, which she now does.  Then he corrects her, saying it’s the sun, and she says it’s whatever he wants it to be.  Hortensio is impressed, hoping he can similarly tame his shrewish new wife, the wealthy widow!

They see an old man approaching, and Petruchio calls him a pretty young maiden.  He tells Kate to “embrace her for her beauty’s sake”.  Kate immediately greets the “Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet”.  Petruchio now corrects her, saying she’s spoken to an old man.  She begs his pardon for her “mad mistaking”.

The old man, having overcome his surprise and confusion at the ‘merry’ woman,  then introduces himself as Vincentio of Pisa, on his way to Padua to visit his son.  Since Petruchio and Kate are going there too, they all decide to go there together.

Act Five: In Padua, Lucentio and Bianca prepare to get married, when Petruchio, Katherina, Vincentio, and Grumio arrive.

Vincentio is enraged to find the pedant pretending to be him, and even more so to find Biondello, Tranio (dressed in Lucentio’s clothes), and Baptista all confirming that the pedant is ‘Vincentio’, while Tranio is ‘Lucentio’.  Convinced of his servants’ villainy, Vincentio accuses them of having murdered his son.  Tranio, wishing to protect himself from getting into trouble, calls for an officer to have Vincentio arrested.  Baptista agrees with ‘Lucentio’ that the old ‘dotard’ should go to jail.

Lucentio and Bianca, now married, arrive, apologizing to Vincentio and explaining away all the disguises and deceit.  Now Baptista is angry that his daughter has married a man without her father’s consent.  All will be explained and resolved when they go.

Kate wishes to follow them and watch the resolution: Petruchio agrees, but wants her to kiss him first.  She is too shy to kiss in public, so he threatens to take her back to Verona.  She now agrees to kiss him.

Finally, all are in Lucentio’s house, celebrating at the wedding party.  Bianca, and especially the widow, prove themselves to be even more shrewish than Kate.  Indeed, Kate is quite annoyed with the widow’s meanness.  At one point, the three women leave the room, and all the men assume Kate to be still the most shrewish of the three.  Petruchio denies this, confidently entering a wager with Lucentio and Hortensio.  Each man will call his wife back into the room; the first wife to come, thus being the most obedient, will cause her husband to win the wager.

Overconfident Lucentio goes first, telling his father he’ll pay in full if he loses.  He has Biondello fetch Bianca; the servant returns without her, reporting that she says she is busy and cannot come.  All are shocked.

Hortensio nervously has Biondello entreat his wife to come.  Biondello returns, saying the widow refuses to come; she’d have her husband come to her!

“Worse and worse; she will not come!” Petruchio says to this.  The other two husbands insist, though, that Kate will be the most disobedient of all.  Petruchio is sure she will obey, and he tells Grumio to tell Kate that he commands her to come.  Grumio fetches her, and she comes immediately, in all submission.  Everyone is amazed.

Petruchio tells her to get the other two wives, and bring them back, by force if necessary.  She goes to get them.  Petruchio promises to show the stunned spectators more proof of the obedience of his transformed wife.  She returns with Bianca and the widow.  Petruchio tells Kate to remove her cap, as he doesn’t like how it looks on her, and drop it at her feet.  She immediately does so, to the continued amazement of all in the room.

Bianca and the widow find Kate’s obedience silly; Lucentio wishes he’d gotten such silliness from Bianca, so as not to lose the large sum of money he’s lost in the wager.  Bianca calls him a fool for relying on her obedience.

Petruchio tells Kate to tell “these headstrong women/What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.”  The widow will hear none of it; Petruchio demands she listen.  Kate chides Bianca and the widow in a long speech about why wives should obey their husbands.   (See quote 4.)

Petruchio is touched and appreciative of Kate’s love and duty (quote 5).  He triumphantly leaves the party with Kate, while the others are left wondering how he succeeded in taming her.

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Analysis of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

The Taming of the Shrew is an early Shakespeare comedy, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592.  Though this farce has always been a popular one, it isn’t without controversy.  The traditionalist attitude towards women that is depicted, especially in Katherina’s closing speech–about a wife’s required obedience to her husband, was problematical even back in Elizabethan times.  For this reason, modern productions try to soften the perceived sexism in various ways: for example, at the end of the Franco Zeffirelli film version, Katherina (played by Elizabeth Taylor) walks out on Petruchio (Richard Burton) without his permission; and in the 1929 film version with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Petruchio), Katherina (played by Mary Pickford) gives Bianca an ironic wink during the closing speech.  There is always an indication that Katherina’s feisty spirit hasn’t been, and never will be, broken by any man.

I will argue, however, that there is absolutely no need to alter the ending for feminism’s sake.  What must be remembered is that the Petruchio and Katherina story is just the play-within-the-play, a farce staged for Christopher Sly, the main character of the Induction.  Though all too often cut out of productions, this Induction is, in spite of its brevity, the real story of the play.

Here are some quotes:

“I am as peremptory as she proud-minded,/And where two raging fires meet together,/They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.” –Petruchio, Act II, scene i, lines 130-132

“Thus have I politicly begun my reign,/And ’tis my hope to end successfully./My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,/And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg’d,/For then she never looks upon her lure.” –Petruchio, Act IV, scene i, lines 172-176

“What, did he marry me to famish me?”  –Katherina, Act IV, scene iii, line 3

“FIe, fie!  unknit that threatening unkind brow,/And dart not scornful glances from those eyes/To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor./It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,/Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds./And in no sense is meet or amiable./A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled–/Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;/And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty/Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it./Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,/And for thy maintenance commits his body/To painful labour both by sea and land,/To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,/Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;/And craves no other tribute at thy hands/But love, fair looks, and true obedience–/Too little payment for so great a debt./Such duty as the subject owes the prince,/Even such a woman oweth to her husband;/And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,/And not obedient to his honest will,/What is she but a foul contending rebel/And graceless traitor to her loving lord?/I am asham’d that women are so simple/To offer war where they should kneel for peace;/Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,/When they are bound to serve, love, and obey./Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,/Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,/But that our soft conditions and our hearts/Should well agree with our external parts?/Come, come, you froward and unable worms!/My mind hath been as big as one of yours,/My heart as great, my reason haply more,/To bandy word for word and frown for frown;/But now I see our lances are but straws,/Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,/That seeming to be most which we indeed least are./Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,/And place your hands below your husband’s foot;/In token of which duty, if he please,/My hand is ready, may it do him ease.”  –Katherina, Act V, scene 2, lines 136-179

“Why, there’s a wench!  Come on, and kiss me, Kate.”  –Petruchio, Act V, scene 2, line 180

The Induction is the key to understanding this play, for it is the real story, not the Petruchio and Katherina one.  The Induction’s brevity should not distract us from its centrality.  The play staged before Christopher Sly should be regarded as no more important than the plays-within-plays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet.  The length of the Petruchio and Katherina farce, admittedly covering the vast majority of The Taming of the Shrew, nonetheless shouldn’t deflect us from the conclusion that it’s of secondary importance to the Christopher Sly story.

It is unfortunate that the Induction is so often trivialized as a mere appendage, or framing device, that can easily be discarded from productions as superfluous.  It is key to understanding the play’s themes of deception, illusion, and denial of reality.

The shrew of the Petruchio story may be Katherina, but Christopher Sly is the shrew of the Induction.  We must remember that, in Shakespeare’s day, a shrew could be a nasty person of either sex, not just a woman, as ‘shrew’ is understood today.  Sly, a drunken oaf who refuses to pay for the ale he’s drunk at an alehouse in England, is just the kind of charmless fellow in need of a good taming.  In fact, he will be so well tamed that he’ll nod off during the performance of the play.

A lord and his men come to the alehouse after a hunt, and they see the drunken slob sleeping at a table.  As contemptuous of Sly as the annoyed hostess is, the lord decides to play a trick on him.  Sly is carried to a bedchamber in the lord’s house, carefully so as not to wake him.  When he wakes in bed, he’s been changed into the clothes of a lord, and a boy is dressed like a woman, pretending to be the lord’s obedient wife (!).  This tricking of Sly, that he’s a lord, should clearly indicate what we are to think of the ‘lord’ of any house, and of his ‘obedient’ wife: it’s all an act.

Sly is told that all of the life he remembers, that of a tinker, is a mere dream he’s had while being in a coma for fifteen years.  His life as a lord, into which he has woken, and surprisingly so, is his ‘real’ life.  His real life has been an illusion, apparently.

Next, he is to watch ‘a pleasant comedy’, since his would-be doctors say such entertainment would be conducive to the restoration of his health.  The play, that of the Petruchio and Katherina story, is so long that we, the audience, forget about the main story, the Induction, and are deceived into thinking that this mere play-within-a-play is the real story.  This switching of real and illusory events (i.e., Induction and play-within-a-play) parallels the trick played on Sly, whose sense of reality and illusion are also reversed (i.e., his comatose dream-life as a tinker versus his supposedly actual life as a lord).

We must always remember how sensitive the Bard was to the illusory nature of theatre, a notion he exploited for artistic effect in several of his plays.  The Taming of the Shrew is no exception to this: the play-within-a-play is to be understood as mere theatrical illusion, while the Christopher Sly story is the real one.

Another thing about Shakespeare: with his deep, penetrating insight into human nature, one of the main reasons his plays have endured for so many years, it is inconceivable that he could have had so simple-minded a view of humanity as to think that men are the natural rulers of women, however dominant such a bigoted view may have been in Elizabethan times.  The Taming of the Shrew, far from being a sexist play, very subtly satirizes male chauvinism, particularly in the Induction.

The play staged before Sly, being mere theatrical illusion, needn’t–and mustn’t–be taken seriously.  It’s just a farce, and its attitude towards women is accordingly absurd.  The themes of deception and denial of reality within the Petruchio and Katherina story only reinforce the absurd illogic of sexist thinking.

When Lucentio sees and falls in love with Katherina’s pretty younger sister Bianca, he cannot woo her, for their father Baptista insists on finding a husband for shrewish Katherina first.  Lucentio thus disguises himself as a teacher of Latin (‘Cambio’), while his servant Tranio pretends to be Lucentio.  Lucentio and Tranio even exchange clothes in the street, this seeming role reversal astonishing Biondello, Lucentio’s other servant.  Servant is master: this can be seen as a subtle indication of the true husband and wife relationship.

Similar to Lucentio’s deception, another suitor to Bianca, Hortensio, disguises himself as a music teacher, ‘Licio’.  When Baptista agrees to have ‘Lucentio’ marry Bianca (after Petruchio agrees to marry her nasty sister), a pedant from Mantua, deceived by ‘Lucentio’ into believing Mantuans’ presence in Padua is illegal (on pain of death), agrees to pretend to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father, and pretend to agree to pay the dowry for Bianca’s marriage.  All acting and pretending, just like the chest-thumping, ‘dominant’ husband of traditional marriage.

Speaking of dominant husbands, Petruchio quickly shows himself to be as much of a shrew as Katherina (see quote one).  He beats his servants, shouts at them abusively, and behaves like a madman.  He denies reality throughout the story, pretending that his bride’s real name is Kate, that she’s sweet and gentle, and that she wants to marry him as much as he does her (she of course doesn’t want to marry him at all).

More denial of reality comes after their marriage.  When Kate is in his house in Verona, he raves wildly at his servants that his dinner is badly cooked (it’s fine) and her bed in unfit for her to sleep on (it’s also fine).  Later, he rejects a beautiful, perfectly good dress Kate would have worn to Bianca’s wedding, claiming the tailor got the measurements wrong (the tailor hadn’t, and insisted he had the correct measurements from Petruchio, while Petruchio’s servant Grumio denies it, knowing full well that no mistake was made).

Petruchio pretends the time is seven o’clock, when it is actually about two; he insists that she agree with his deliberate inaccuracy (Act IV, scene iii).  On the way to Padua to attend Bianca’s wedding (Act IV, scene v), Petruchio pretends the sun shining in the sky is actually the moon, and that an old man (the real Vincentio) is a pretty young woman, again demanding that Kate go along with his bizarre distortion of reality.

All of these caricatures of reality symbolize the phoniness of male dominance of women, a phoniness that is most clearly shown in the final scene, when Bianca and a widow prove themselves to be even more shrewish towards Lucentio and Hortensio than Kate has ever been.  When Kate gives the final speech about obedience to husbands, we should clearly see that this is the ultimate denial of reality: wives are, always have been, and always will be, thoroughly indomitable.  Shakespeare knew–he just pretended he didn’t.