What first jumps out to me in “Taming of the Shrew” is the inordinate amount of disguises that are used by the characters. A majority of the play’s main characters, it seems, wear, or plan to wear, disguises during the first act. Even Christopher Sly is disguised, in a sense, but his disguise fools only himself, whereas the disguises of Lucentio, Tranio and Hortensio are designed to fool others. At this point it wouldn’t seem too unreasonable to me to say this is a play about, at least in part, disguise. But what does it have to say about disguise?
It’s hard to say so early on. Really, you might even consider the whole play-within-a-play a kind of disguise, since it becomes part of the Lord’s elaborate deception of Sly. This brings up all sorts of ideas about the nature of fiction or theater, like, for instance, that it is a kind of “illusion” designed to beguile the audience for one purpose or another. Wondering about Shakespeare’s or any author’s real purpose in making a play is too much speculation for this blog probably. But more to the point, I’m not even sure I understand what the Lord’s purpose is in putting on the play for Sly. In the second Induction a messenger tells Sly
Seeing too much sadness hat congealed your blood,
And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.
Therefore they thought it good you hear a play
And frame your mind to mirth and merriment (127-130)
This isn’t actually the Lord’s reason for putting on the play, but these lines might say something about the purpose of fiction, (or disguises in general) as a kind of consolatory or escape-from-reality device. But I’m not sure how much faith to put in that interpretation, because that speech is meant to be taken somewhat ironically. The audience knows the play will not stave off Sly’s madness and melancholy, since he is neither mad nor melancholic (as far as we know).
But the play within a play will, presumably, enhance the Lord’s ruse. It serves to occupy Sly, who has just had his erotic desire ignited and then suffocated by Bartholomew who, despite passing successful for a beautiful woman, refuses to disrobe and get into bed with the thoroughly beguiled Sly. Sly punningly expresses his frustration: “Ay, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long. But I would be loath to fall into my dreams again. I will therefore tarry in despite of the flesh and the blood” (induction 2, 121-123).
So the play acts as a kind of diversion for Sly. The Lord calls the whole affair of tricking Sly a “pastime passing excellent,” and maybe we are supposed to see it that way also (induction 1, 63).
How Sly’s story will end, whether he’ll eventually be cruelly disillusioned, or somehow edified, is unclear. Unclear also is whether or not the disguises of Hortensio and Lucento will allow them to achieve their goal of wooing Bianca. Perhaps later on in the play notions of identity and class distinction will be raised through the issue of disguise, too, but that remains to be seen.