Witty, Fast-paced, Bawdy
The Taming of the Shrew is famous for its fast-paced and witty dialogue – playful banter between characters is often full of clever punning, plays on words, and a lot of bawdy humor. The clearest example of this is seen in the back and forth battle of wits between Katherine and Petruchio, especially when they first meet in Act 2, Scene 1:
Where did you study all this goodly speech?
It is extempore, from my mother-wit.
A witty mother! witless else her son.
Am I not wise?
Yes; keep you warm.
Marry, so I mean, sweet Katharina, in thy bed:
Mid-fight, Petruchio claims a "mother-wit" (an innate sharpness that allows him to banter off-the-cuff or, "extempore"). The quick and clever Kate retorts with a play on "mother" (a 16th-century "your mama" joke, no less). Basically, she implies that Petruchio's mom gave birth to an idiot, which makes Petruchio's mama an idiot, too. Not to be outdone, Petruchio plays off of Kate's claim that he has enough wit to keep him "warm" (this just means she's calling him stupid). Petruchio puts an end to the stream of word play by alluding to sex – he'll "keep warm" in Katherine's bed. This is pretty typical of the way the whole scene goes down. Kate calls Petruchio an idiot and then he makes a crude reference to bedding her. Game over.
Most critics think that Kate is smart but just not as smart or witty as Petruchio. We disagree. What can she say to such things? Not much unless she wants to look like a "loose woman" who is used to crude talk. Basically, no matter how fast and witty Kate is, she can't win because the dialogue always ends up with an image of her in bed with Petruchio. The structure of the dialogue, then, is not unlike the structure of the whole play. Kat and Petruchio fight. Petruchio wins the fight. They end up in bed – literally.
Witty banter, however, is not limited to conversations loaded with sexual tension:
Here, sirrah Grumio; knock, I say.
Knock, sir! whom should I knock? is there man has
rebused your worship?
Villain, I say, knock me here soundly.
Knock you here, sir! why, sir, what am I, sir, that
I should knock you here, sir? (2.1.5-10)
Even Shakespeare's dim-witted servants are famous for terrific speech moments – the actors that played servants on Shakespeare's stage were skilled in comedic dialogue. Despite Grumio's idiotic literal mindedness, his hilarious response to Petruchio incites some of the best moments in the play.
Not all of the lower-class figures have such a command of language. In fact, plain old prose (how you and I talk every day) was often reserved for low-brow characters like Christopher Sly:
Ye are a baggage: the Slys are no rogues; look
in the chronicles; we came in with Richard Conqueror.
Therefore paucas pallabris; let the world
slide. Sessa! (Induction.1.3-6)
Here, Sly calls the Hostess a whore ("baggage"), screws up the name of William the Conqueror, and butchers the Spanish phrase pocas palabras ("few words"). Note the difference between this passage and the way Sly speaks in unrhymed iambic pentameter (a style typically reserved for the play's upper-class characters) when he believes he's a nobleman:
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak;
I smell sweet savours and I feel soft things:
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker nor Christopher Sly. (Induction.2.70-73)
The marked difference in the meter of his speech (elevated poetry) underscores the content of what he says here – I'm a lord, not a beggar.
The implications of this? Mastering language, to a degree, involves the ability to imitate figures from all walks of life. We're not saying that the nobility walk around speaking in blank verse. But, we are saying that Shakespeare is totally amazing when it comes to nailing linguistic style.