The Taming of the Shrew | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Taming of the Shrew | Context


An Early Comedy

The Taming of the Shrew was written very early in Shakespeare's career. Scholars generally date the play to 1590 or 1591, though some have suggested a date of 1589. This makes the play roughly contemporary with The Comedy of Errors (c. 1589–94) and Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1588–98), two other comedies about courtship and the "battle of the sexes." Each of these other plays has a single major plot, complicated by various comic mishaps. The Taming of the Shrew instead gives similar importance to two plots: Lucentio's courtship of Bianca, and Petruchio's "taming" of Katherine.

Sources and Influences

The main plot of Shakespeare's play closely resembles that of The Taming of a Shrew, published in 1594. The relationship between these two texts—A Shrew and The Shrew—is still debated. A Shrew, which was published anonymously, may be an earlier version of Shakespeare's play, but few consider the writing to be up to the usual caliber of Shakespeare's works. Others regard A Shrew as an earlier work by a different author, with Shakespeare borrowing its plot for his own play. Still other scholars have described A Shrew as a memorial reconstruction, a version of Shakespeare's play written down from memory by actors or playgoers.

The source of the Lucentio/Bianca plot is easier to identify: it comes from another 16th-century comedy entitled Supposes (1566) by George Gascoigne (c. 1539–77). This is an English translation of an earlier Italian play, I suppositi (1509) by Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533). Both Ariosto's and Gascoigne's versions tell of a man who, like Lucentio, switches places with his servant in order to be closer to the woman he loves.

Gender in Elizabethan England

Female submissiveness may seem like an odd theme for a play written during the reign of a powerful queen. Elizabeth I, however, was regarded as an exception to the normal or "natural" gender restrictions of her time. Few dared to openly question the queen's right to rule, but the notion of a woman in charge was seldom accepted in other areas of life.

Elizabeth herself was well aware of her subjects' prejudices and sometimes sought to cultivate a martial, masculine public image. In one famous 1588 speech, Elizabeth urged her subjects to overlook her feminine frailty: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman," she said to a group of soldiers assembled at Tilbury to defend against a Spanish invasion, "but I have the heart and stomach of a king." Her speech, which came on the eve of a great victory for the English Armada, was widely celebrated. Those in attendance copied it down for posterity.

Still, other writers admonished their readers not to misinterpret Elizabeth's example: although a queen might rule England, they suggested, a wife should not be allowed to rule her household. Dozens of misogynistic books and pamphlets were published during Elizabeth's reign, warning of the disasters that would befall if women overstepped their bounds. One such treatise, entitled A Godly Form of Household Government, was published in 1598, five years before Elizabeth's death. Its author, Robert Cleaver, issued a grim prediction for households in which the wife "will make her head" against her husband "and seek to have her own ways." "Things will go backward," Cleaver warned, and "the house will come to ruin."

Publication and Performance Dates

Little is known about the early performance history of The Taming of the Shrew. The first recorded performance, the only one during Shakespeare's lifetime, took place in 1594. It was described in the diary of Philip Henslowe, manager of the rival troupe The Admiral's Men. However, Henslowe's notes are ambiguous: he may have seen A Shrew and not the Shakespearean version.

Whichever play Henslowe saw, The Taming of the Shrew remained popular into the early 17th century. It was so well-liked, in fact, that it provoked a sequel of sorts. In 1611 John Fletcher, who had collaborated with Shakespeare on other comedies, wrote a new play called The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. This comedy brings back the character of Petruchio, who remarries after his first wife's death. His second wife, Maria, proves more than a match for her new husband. King Charles I saw both The Taming of the Shrew and The Woman's Prize in 1633 and reportedly enjoyed both plays.

The Taming of the Shrew was not published until 1623, when it appeared in the First Folio. A quarto edition—smaller, cheaper, and more portable—was printed in 1631. Modern editions of the play are based primarily on the Folio.

Production History

Like many of Shakespeare's works, The Taming of the Shrew fell out of favor during the Restoration era (1660–1710), which followed the reinstatement of the monarchy after a period of Commonwealth rule, when a newer, bawdier, and more sexually explicit style of comedy came into fashion. John Lacy's adaptation entitled Sauny the Scot, was first performed in 1667 and quickly became more popular than Shakespeare's original version. Typical of Restoration comedy, Sauny takes place in the fashionable city of London and features characters with blatantly symbolic names. Vincentio becomes "Sir Lionel Winlove," a country gentleman, and Lucentio is replaced by "Young Winlove," who comes to the city not to study, but to amuse himself.

In the 18th century even more adaptations emerged: David Garrick, one of the most famous actor-directors of his time, produced a simpler and more lighthearted adaptation called Catharine and Petruchio (1754). Like Sauny the Scot before it, Garrick's romantic comedy largely replaced Shakespeare's Shrew on the stage.

The original The Taming of the Shrew finally returned to the stage in the mid-19th century. Since that time, productions of the play have often focused on its comic and romantic elements, downplaying the violence with which Petruchio "tames" Katherine. The Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate (1948) also follows this trend. Taking a "play within a play" approach, this adaptation follows two actors, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, who are co-starring in a production of The Taming of the Shrew. Fred and Lilli, who were married long ago, bicker furiously on and offstage, but they reconcile their differences before the curtain falls.

Film and TV Adaptations

The Taming of the Shrew has frequently been adapted for film and television. Aside from the film version of Kiss Me Kate (1953), the most famous film version is the 1967 The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Like Kiss Me Kate, Zeffirelli's version occasionally plays up the comic dimensions of Katherine and Petruchio's relationship, with some scenes suggesting that Katherine has "tamed" Petruchio rather than the other way around.

More recent adaptations that invert the power dynamic and leave Kate untamed include the 1999 teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You and the 2009–10 television series of the same name. In the movie, protective father Walter Stratford refuses to let his younger daughter Bianca start dating until her older sister, now known as Kat, does. Joey Donner, who wants to date Bianca, finds a way around this parental restriction: he bribes his classmate Patrick Verona to start dating Kat, who reluctantly comes to see Patrick as boyfriend material. Both versions are full of Shakespeare reference jokes: Kat and Bianca's last name, Stratford, is a nod to Shakespeare's birthplace; Patrick Verona is named for Petruchio's hometown. Even the setting, Padua High, is named after the Italian city in which the play takes place.

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