Where It All Goes Down
English countryside (a tavern and then a Lord's estate); Padua, Italy (in and around)
The Induction scenes take place in the English countryside – first in front of a tavern, where the drunken Sly is literally plucked from his low-brow world and deposited at the Lord's estate, where he watches the five-act inset play.
The traveling players perform the entire inset play within the walls of a fancy bedroom at the Lord's place. The walls are decked out with sexy pictures depicting scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses (a fifteen-book poem completed in 8 A.D. about mythological transformations). The pictures are a visual signal to the audience that the play is interested in exploring the theme of "Transformation." (Sly's transformation from beggar to nobleman, Kate's metamorphosis from shrew to good wife, and so on. Read more about "Transformation" in our themes section.) While the pictures are there to help get Sly in the mood to sleep with his "wife" (really a servant boy dressed as a noblewoman), their presence on stage would also remind the audience that just about everyone in the inset play is trying to wed and bed someone, which brings us to our next point.
The Inset Play
It can be hard to imagine how the inset play (performed by the traveling actors) is staged so that Sly could watch the whole thing go down. Shakespeare's original stage directions say that Sly and his "wife" watch the inset performance "aloft," which means they probably sat in the "upper stage" (where many balcony scenes were staged). When played this way, the set is a constant reminder that Christopher Sly is both a stage character and a kind of audience member. So, the action and the setting both blur the boundaries between stage and audience, actor and spectator. (Want more on this? Check out our theme "Art and Culture.") The point is that Shakespeare really puts his set to work.
To makes things even more complex, the five-act inset play is set in and around Padua, Italy, a college town known for its prestigious university. (Galileo was a professor at the University of Padua and Copernicus was a student.) This is an appropriate setting for a play interested in the dynamics of learning and teaching that are associated with worldly knowledge and experience. You can read all about the theme of "Education" too, but come right back because there's more.
In the play, Padua is the playground for what we might call the upper-middle class. The main characters all hail from successful merchant families – they're not land-owning gentry like the Lord in the Induction, but they know how to make a buck in the import/export business, which was booming during the Age of Exploration.
While the characters are supposed to be upper-middle-class Italians, critics have long noted that they look, smell, and sound a lot like the 16th-century English merchant class – they're all about making money in mercantile ventures, they treat marriage like any other business transaction, and they view families as miniature kingdoms, where the home is a little castle ruled over by the husband/father. (This idea comes straight out of some very popular Elizabethan sermons and life-and-style books.) Did we mention they like money?