In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ identity and mistaken identity drives the comedic impact. Many elements are used to create humour within the play, such as social class, gender roles, disguise and personality. As well as providing a light-hearted portrayal of Elizabethan life, the humour also casts a interrogatory gaze on society at the time, particularly the role of women and expectations surrounding their conformity.
The use of disguising identities is seen as the main and obvious form of mistaken identity, this is shown by characters cross-dressing and swapping roles. The first time the audience experiences cross-dressing in the play is in the induction when Bartholomew, a page boy, dresses as a woman and pretends to be Christopher Sly’s wife. This introduces strong willed women from the outset as Bartholomew doesn’t back down from acting as the wife even though Sly really believes that Bartholomew is his wife and wants Bartholomew to “undress you and come now to bed.” This is comedic as Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to ensure that the audience know that Sly’s wife isn’t actually female but male, a fact of which he is completely unaware. This then highlights how the audience are constantly aware of all the tricks and deception that continues throughout the play. The use of disguise is then also used when Lucentio wants to get closer to Bianca and dresses as a schoolmaster and gets his servant to dress and act as Lucentio, “Thu shalt be master, Tranio, in my stead;”. This is comical to an Elizabethan audiences as its ridiculous and Elizabethans were used to others swapping costumes. Tranio, Lucentio’s servant, acting as Lucentio also creates anticipation in the audience as this deception won’t last and someone will discover his true identity.
Another main catalyst of humour in the play is social class. This is initially seen in the induction when the Lord tricks Sly, who is a drunkard, and says that he is the Lord. This emphasises a contrast between social classes as Sly is actually poor but the Lord is saying that Sly is the Lord and has many wealthy possessions such as “Thy horses” who’s “harness studded all with gold and pearl.” Elizabethan and modern audiences would find this comical as we know that sly isn’t actually the Lord but actually a poor drunkard. Another example of the comedic impact of social class would be when Lucentio and Tranio swap identities so that Lucentio can get closer to Bianca. This shows a strong divide between master and servant as Tranio is now acting as if he’s rich when in reality he’s just Lucentio’s servant, this is absurd and complex which is why both Elizabethan and modern audiences would find this humorous. Tranio is “content to be Lucentio” as he now gets to take charge and have “A sulken doublet, a velvet hose, a scarlet cloak and a capatain hat” even when they aren’t actually his to keep, each of these possessions have connotations of wealth and luxury which is a contrast to his true identity. Tranio as Lucentio demonstrates a lower class character acting as an upper class character which would be unthinkable in Elizabethan times. Another character acting as upper class when he’s lower class is the merchant who Lucentio wants to act as his father, Vincentio.
As well as disguise and social class, gender roles are used to create humour throughout the play mainly using Katherina, but the audiences first see reversed gender roles in the induction with Sly and Bartholomew. Sly doesn’t know that Bartholomew is actually a page boy as he is dressed as Sly’s wife and because of how good Bartholomew is in disguise Sly falls for his act and this brings about Sly’s sexual inclination to Bartholomew. However, Bartholomew doesn’t break character as he “let me entreat of you” but “To pardon me yet for a night or two” so he doesn’t get caught as not actually being female. Gender roles is also