LORD Persuade him that he hath been lunatic, And when he says he is, say that he dreams, For he is nothing but a mighty lord. This do and do it kindly, gentle sirs. It will be pastime passing excellent, If it be husbanded with modesty. (Induction.1.66-71)
The Lord's motivation for playing an elaborate and cruel joke is somewhat fuzzy. Does he do it to teach Sly a lesson? What will Sly learn? Or, is it simply to humiliate him and have some fun at the expense of a powerless, lower-class figure? The fact that the joke will be a "pastime passing excellent" is a bit of an inside joke – Elizabethan theater was one of the most popular forms of "pastime."
Useful history snack: Bear baiting (tying up a bear and then releasing a pack of dogs on it while people watched from the bleachers) was another fun Elizabethan "pastime." In fact, Christopher Sly reveals that one of his many lame jobs was "bear keeper," the guy who fed and cleaned up after bears used in baiting contests.
LORD Sirrah, go you to Bartholomew, my page, And see him dressed in all suits like a lady. That done, conduct him to the drunkard's chamber, And call him 'Madam,' do him obeisance. Tell him from me, as he will win my love (Induction.1.110-114)
The Lord's decision to "cast" his page (a young servant boy) in the role of Sly's trophy wife calls our attention to Elizabethan stage, where all characters (male and female) were played by men or boy actors. Bartholomew was likely played by an attractive young boy, one pretty enough to convince Sly that he is a woman. We're supposed to laugh at Sly for being fooled but Shakespeare also points to the slipperiness of gender on stage.
Induction, Scene 2
MESSENGER Your Honor's players, heating your amendment, Are come to play a pleasant comedy, For so your doctors hold it very meet, Seeing too much sadness hath 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, Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life. (Induction.2.130-138)
The Messenger's announcement to Sly that a group of traveling actors will perform a play for him (doctor's orders no less) is a playful way to nudge the play-goers to remind them that they too are an audience, and that theater is good for them. (Fun fact: Puritan protesters against Elizabethan theater claimed that play-going was bad for an audience's health. They worried actors could "infect" or "contaminate" audiences with bad morals, leading them to commit illegal sexual acts, which would also lead to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. Shakespeare is poking fun at the Puritans here.)
SECOND SERVINGMAN Dost thou love pictures? We will fetch thee straight Adonis painted by a running brook, (Induction.2.49-50)
When the Second Servant offers to fetch for Sly a picture of a scene from Metamorphosis, we're invited to compare Sly's on-stage metamorphosis, from beggar to lord, to other modes of art. Shakespeare aligns his play with a classic text and links himself with the likes of literary giants such as Ovid.
Page My husband and my lord, my lord and husband, I am your wife in all obedience. SLY I know it well. (Induction.2.107-109)
Bartholomew is very convincing as an obedient wife and Sly has no doubt that he's the dominant one in the relationship. It's funny, that's for sure, but it also raises the question of whether or not the role of "obedient wife" is just that, a role to be played. Think about this in relationship to Kate's final speech. How can we know if she's being sincere?
Act 1, Scene 1
FIRST SERVANT My lord, you nod. You do not mind the play. SLY Yes, by Saint Anne, do I. A good matter, surely. Comes there any more of it? PAGE, as Lady My lord, 'tis but begun. SLY 'Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady. Would 'twere done. (1.1.259-264)
The last time we see or hear from Christopher Sly, our attention is drawn away from the action on the main platform stage to focus on Sly. Sly's boredom and rude behavior seems to be a parody of bad behavior at the theater and a friendly warning for audience members who can't seem to pay attention.
TRANIO, to Lucentio Husht, master, here's some good pastime toward; (1.1.69)
There's that word "pastime" again. Here, Kate is causing quite a "scene" and Tranio and Lucentio watch and comment on the spectacle of Kate arguing with her father and Bianca's suitors in public. The point? We are all spectators and spectacles at one point or another. Kate is literally causing a "scene" but later she and Petruchio will watch others misbehave in public. Everyday life has become a kind of theater.
Act 2, Scene 1
BIONDELLO Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced; an old rusty sword ta'en out of the town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless; with two broken points; his horse hipped, with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred. (2.2.42-49)
The play is full of narrations of off-stage events. What interests us here is Biondello's description of Petruchio's crazy get-up. Before Petruchio arrives for his wedding, we know that he's coming in costume and we're prepared for some kind of dramatic performance.
Act 4, Scene 1
GRUMIO Tell thou the tale! But hadst thou not crossed me thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell, and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoiled, how he left her with the horse upon her, how he beat me because her horse stumbled, how she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me, how he swore, how she prayed, that never prayed before, how I cried, how the horses ran away, how her bridle was burst, how I lost my crupper, with many things of worthy memory, which now shall die in oblivion, and thou return unexperienced to thy grave. (4.1.67-78)
Here's yet another narration of an off-stage event, this time by Grumio. The curious thing about this moment is that Grumio gives Curtis an elaborate description of a scene after he tells him he's not going to say anything. Grumio's dramatic description of what must have been a terrible experience for Kate manages to turn the awful scene into a highly comedic moment.
Act 5, Scene 1
KATHARINA Husband, let's follow, to see the end of this ado. PETRUCHIO First kiss me, Kate, and we will. (5.1.145-147)
For once, Kate's public problems with Petruchio are no longer the main attraction in Padua. Here, Kate suggests that she and Petruchio follow Bianca and Lucentio in to the wedding banquet, to see how the new couple's "drama" will work out. Just as quickly, though, Petruchio demands that they draw attention to themselves again by making out in public. This reminds us that, although the attention has just been on Bianca and Lucentio, it is Kate and Petruchio who are the center of the story. It's also a reminder to Kate that her public obedience will always be tested by her husband and scrutinized by the public.