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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'Vinegar Girl' by Anne Tyler

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Elizabeth DeBold, Assistant Curator of Collections, shares items she presented on May 5, 2022 as an introduction to Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.

The Taming of the Shrew is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Its comedy relies heavily on misogyny in the form of the physical and emotional abuse of the main female protagonist, Katherine, by her husband Petruchio as he endeavors to “tame” her. The problem with Kate, and why she needs “taming” in the first place, is that she doesn’t behave the way expected of women in early modern Britain (or Italy, where the play is set). She is not demure, silent, or submissive to her father. She fights with and abuses her younger sister, and accosts any young men who might be interested in marriage, verbally and sometimes physically as well. Shakespeare scholar Dr. Ayanna Thompson (director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and a member of the Folger Board of Governors) spoke in a 2019 interview with NPR’s Code Switch about Taming as one of “three toxic plays [by Shakespeare] that resist rehabilitation and appropriation” for precisely this reason. Thompson notes that while many people today are tempted by Taming (and Othello and Merchant, the other two plays she mentions) and the possibility to give Kate some agency back over her situation and its patriarchal norms, ultimately, such endeavors “don’t end up working.”

Ann Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is yet another attempt to bring the deeply troubling and difficult themes of Taming into a present, possibly less patriarchal and more woman-friendly society than 16th-century England. The book is a light, quick read, mostly because it focuses on the tension between Kate and her family, and displaces the tension between the Petruchio character (here a young immigrant scientist called Pyotr) to less controversial places. Kate’s trouble, in Tyler’s reading, is her aimlessness and pessimism; she is trapped in the role of the parent-ified eldest child of a widower, keeping house and keeping an eye on her rambunctious younger sister. She is angry at her lot, and angry at the world. Ultimately, Pyotr provides a welcome escape from her father’s home, and she falls in love with his passion and optimism almost in spite of herself. At the end of the book, Katherine’s famous speech is transformed, from one telling wives to submit to their husbands into one that acknowledges the weight patriarchy places on men to, among other things, conceal their emotions. It is a sweet story with a happy ending.

Taming of the Shrew has made audiences both laugh and feel uncomfortable with their laughter almost since its inception. Likely first written and performed in the early 1590s, the printed text first appears in the 1623 Shakespeare first folio. Initially, this play first appeared around the same time as a play entitled The Taming of A Shrew, for which several individual printed editions survive. 

The plays have essentially the same plot, but characters have different names. The most significant difference is the character of Christopher Sly, a drunken man in a tavern for whom the main action is performed as a play within a play. In The Shrew Sly is mostly used as a conceit to begin the action, and doesn’t appear at the play’s conclusion. In A Shrew he appears several times throughout, and the play concludes when he is kicked out of the tavern for drunkenness, and muses that he should go home to “tame” his own shrew. Scholars continue to debate the exact relationship between these plays, but what is most interesting about A Shrew to me is how the character of the charming younger sister, here called Emelia, turns into a difficult wife by the end. Her suitor tells her that she has become a shrew, to which she replies, “That’s better than a sheep.”

Both Taming plays are from the same period as other plays with plot devices that similarly rely on angry, difficult, or overly-talkative women, including Epicoene by Ben Jonson (circa 1609) and The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher (circa 1611), which is clearly a sequel to Shakespeare’s Taming.

In Fletcher’s play, Petruchio, now a widower, decides to remarry a woman named Maria. She decides to treat him to a dose of his own medicine, and refuses to share his bed until he behaves better. The action concludes when both agree to a detente: Maria will submit to his will, and he will never give her cause to behave badly again. 

Many people have pointed out that this trope in the larger theme of the “battle of the sexes” in the early modern period shows the consequences of both spouses in a marriage behaving badly. To understand this more fully, let’s examine two pages from the Trevelyon Miscellany, a beautifully illuminated manuscript created around 1608 by a man named Thomas Trevelyon. He includes folk wisdom, history, biblical tales, and agricultural information in his texts, among other topics. It also includes information about relationships between husbands and wives:

Both images include long lists of what each spouse owes to the other (for example, the husband asks his wife never to make him eat artichokes), but the overall themes can best be summed up by the small text boxes each holds: the wife must submit to the husband, and the husband must honor and treat his wife well. Another item from this period, a book called Of Domesticall Duties (first printed in 1622) lays out spousal duties in a helpful chart showing duties and “aberrations” for both spouses. Unfortunately our copy is not fully digitized, but the chart includes things such as “losing his authority,” “making harsh, proud, or bitter speeches to or of her,” being too strict, or behaving meanly and tyrannically for husbands. For wives, it includes behaving vainly or obstinately, irreverent speech to her husband, disdaining his commands, and “A stout standing on her owne will.”

Yet, as other contemporary printed texts point out, ultimately, early modern wives had little legal recourse if their husbands behaved poorly or abused them. Instead, they had to rely on friends and family to mediate—if that wasn’t possible, women bore bad marriages alone. An example in the Folger collections can be found in this letter, written by a young woman named Lettice Kynnersley, in 1608—around the same time as the Taming plays and their fellows were being produced, and the same year that Thomas Trevelyon was compiling his miscellany.

Letter from Lettice Kynnersley, Badger, to Walter Bagot, 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library: L.a.598.

In this letter, written to her brother, Lettice describes an ongoing conflict with her husband—she “fell out” with him on Saturday, when he found she had not brewed beer (in early modern England, brewing beer at home was a woman’s responsibility). This was because, she says, he failed to provide her with malt, and although she borrowed some from a neighbor, it wasn’t enough, and he wouldn’t provide money for her to purchase more. Yet, she writes, “the fault was laid all upon me: with many bitter curses, and the charge of the house taken from me.” Her children are taken away from her care, her personal servants are dismissed, and she is locked in her chambers—her mother-in-law’s maid spies on her, reporting every move. She hopes Walter or her brother Anthony will come to reason with her husband, and signs the letter, “your troublesome sister.”

Although Tyler’s story is heartfelt and charming, the legacy of its origins looms heavily over any reading. This is seen perhaps most explicitly in the form of Catherine & Petruchio, David Garrick’s 18th-century adaptation of Taming. Garrick, who is perhaps the single person most responsible for Shakespeare achieving icon status in 18th-century England, adapted many of the bard’s plays and often cut out bits and pieces he didn’t like, replacing them with his own.

Mr. Woodward in the character of Petruchio [in David Garrick’s] Catherine & Petruchio. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File W910 no.1 (size XS).

In his adaptation, the two main characters are on a much more equal footing, and Garrick’s Catherine marries Petruchio with the intent of “taming” him as much as he desires to “tame” her, eliminating some of the most uncomfortable and overtly misogynistic aspects. This adaptation was the version of the story most performed from its writing through the middle of the 19th century. Yet, in the 1967 film production of the play starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the tagline cheerily reads: “In the war between the sexes, there always comes a time to surrender—unconditionally!”

Many audiences have been uncomfortable with Petruchio’s treatment of his wife from the beginning, and the abuse of women and domestic violence it shows come from very real history—one that we would do well not to forget, soften, or set aside. As Thompson comments in her interview, if we persist in adapting and performing such plays, perhaps it is in fact best not to try and write out the parts that we find uncomfortable, but, in her terms, to wrestle with them: “we have to allow ourselves to inhabit the full complexity of these plays, and to not try and make everything have a happy Disney uplift narrative.” If we want to tell what is fundamentally a story about the consequences of women’s anger in our society, we need to do better than what Tyler provides.

To immerse yourself further in real-world materials related to this month’s pick, visit our curated Vinegar Girl image collection.

Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and white Words, Words, Words continues on June 2, 2022 with a discussion of Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola. Registration for this session opens Tuesday, May 10. We hope you make a plan to join us!

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: