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The Taming of the Shrew /

A Modern Perspective: The Taming of the Shrew

By Karen Newman

In sermons preached from the pulpit, in exhortations urged from the magistrate’s bench, in plays and popular pastimes, in morning and evening prayers at home, in early printed books rehearsing seemly female conduct, the tripartite ideal of women’s chastity, silence, and obedience was proclaimed far and wide in early modern England. Shakespeare’s heroine, Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew refuses to abide by these Renaissance ideals of womanly submission. Her self-confidence and independence, which the male characters disparage by calling her a “devil,” threaten the hierarchical organization of Renaissance society in which women were believed inferior. The price of Kate’s resistance is summed up in Hortensio’s taunt, “No mates for you, / Unless you were of gentler, milder mold” (1.1.59–61).

Instead of wooing Kate, the suitors pursue her more tractable sister, Bianca, whom they admire for her silence, mildness, and sobriety. But in Bianca’s dealings with her two suitors (disguised as tutors), even she shows herself less docile than she seems. As many readers of The Taming of the Shrew have noted, if in the end one shrew is tamed, two more reveal themselves: Bianca and the widow refuse to do their husbands’ bidding at the very moment Kate has ostensibly learned to obey. In the play, the gulf between Renaissance ideals of a submissive femininity and the realities of women’s behavior is wide.

Recently, commentators have turned to the work of social historians to explain The Taming of the Shrew’s presentation of the female characters’ transgression of Renaissance standards for women’s behavior. They point out that during the period from 1560 until the English Civil War, England suffered a “crisis of order” brought about by enormous economic, demographic, and political changes that produced acute anxiety about conventional hierarchies.1 Groups that had traditionally been subject to the authority of others—merchants and actors, servants and apprentices—were enabled by rapid change to enter social spheres that had been customarily closed to them. Such shifts threatened perceived hierarchies in Tudor and Stuart England: men complained of upstart courtiership, of a socially mobile middle class, of “masterless men,” and of female rebellion. Since public and domestic authority in Elizabethan England was vested in men—in fathers, husbands, masters, teachers, magistrates, lords—Elizabeth I’s rule inevitably produced anxiety about women’s roles.2

Arraignments for scolding, shrewishness, and bastardy, as well as witchcraft persecutions, crowd the historical record.3 Although men were occasionally charged with scolding, shrewishness was a predominately female offense. Punishment for such crimes and for related offenses involving sexual misbehavior or “domineering” wives who “beat” or “abused” their husbands often involved public humiliation: the ducking stool, “carting,” and/or reproof by means of the skimmington or charivari (an informal ritual in which the accused woman or her surrogate was put in a scold’s collar or paraded through the village or town in a cart accompanied by a procession of neighbors banging pots and pans). In Shakespeare’s play we can observe traces of such practices when Baptista, Kate’s father, exhorts Bianca’s suitors to court Kate instead and Gremio exclaims, “To cart her, rather. She’s too rough for me” (1.1.55). Anxiety about changing social relations prompted the labeling of old behaviors in new ways that made criminals of women whose actions threatened patriarchal authority.

But history alone cannot account for Shakespeare’s presentation of the shrew-taming plot. Literary history—generic models and conventions, both popular and elite—shaped the way Shakespeare represents the play’s characters and action. Popular medieval fabliaux and Tudor jest books and pamphlets recount tales of shrew-taming that furnished patterns from which Shakespeare drew. These and the oral folktales on which they are based include incidents similar to the plot of The Taming of the Shrew: a father with two daughters, one curst (i.e., bad-tempered) and spurned, the other mild and sought after; a suitor determined to tame the shrew; a farcical wedding scene; quarrels of the sort Kate and Petruchio have at his country house and on the road to Padua; and a bet on the most obedient wife. An often-cited example is the anonymous ballad A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin for her Good Behavior (c. 1550), in which a father has two daughters, one curst, the other docile. When a wooer seeks the shrewish daughter’s hand, the father warns him against this “devilish fiend of hell.” Unmoved, he marries her and proceeds to tame her by means of beatings and torture: after cudgeling her bloody, he wraps her in a salted morel skin. The ballad ends conventionally with a meal at which father, mother, and neighbors admire the once-shrewish wife’s obedience and with a challenge to the audience: “He that can charm a shrewd wife / Better than thus, Let him come to me and fetch ten pound / And a golden purse.”

Though the basic situation of The Taming of the Shrew resembles that of A Merry Jest, in Shakespeare’s play Petruchio avoids physical violence. Instead of beating Kate, he resorts to more civilized coercion: public humiliation at their wedding, starvation, sleep deprivation, and verbal bullying, all administered with the utmost courtesy and pretended kindness. The less violent but equally coercive taming strategies that Shakespeare has Petruchio employ can be linked to a humanist tradition represented by Juan Luis Vives, Erasmus, and later Protestant reformers, who recommend persuasion, not brutality, as the means of inculcating wifely obedience. But even the popular tradition offers analogues less grisly than A Merry Jest. For example, in the early broadside The Taming of a Shrew or the only way to make a Bad Wife Good: At least, to keep her quiet, be she bad or good, a father counsels his newly married son not to chide his wife and to give her reign over the household to prevent marital strife.

In both popular and elite materials on marriage and education, taming or educating a wife is likened to the training or domestication of animals—unbroken horses, intractable cats, untamed hawks, even wild beasts. Implied in this comparison is the view that women are themselves unmanageable creatures whom only rigorous training and violence, or the continued threat of violence, can render submissive. Popular folktales and fabliaux, marital handbooks, sermons, and educational treatises all resort to the language and vocabularies of animal taming. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare has Petruchio compare taming Kate to training a falcon, and he peppers Petruchio’s speech with the technical language of hawk taming.

The humanist writers also sought to inculcate obedience through a less dehumanizing but perhaps more powerfully manipulative method. Following such earlier writers as Saint Paul, they set up an analogy in which marriage and the family are likened to the government of the kingdom. The family is represented as a little world organized like the larger world of the state or commonwealth, and the wife’s duty to obey her husband is equated with the subject’s duty to obey the prince. Wifely obedience, according to this model, is exacted not through violence but through strategies of molding the wife into a fit subject. In early modern England, the family was the basic unit of production as well as consumption, the site of the pooling and distribution of resources and of the reproduction of proper subjects for the commonwealth. In such a world, managing femininity had important political as well as social and economic consequences: in Elizabethan England a woman who murdered her spouse was tried not for murder as was her male counterpart but for treason, and her punishment was correspondingly more severe.

Kate’s speech at the end of the play on the status of wives as subjects most forcefully illustrates this rationalization of wifely subjection:

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,

Even such a woman oweth to her husband;

And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,

And not obedient to his honest will,

What is she but a foul contending rebel

And graceless traitor to her loving lord?


No lines in the play have been more variously interpreted than this final speech in which Kate advocates women’s submission to their husbands’ wills. Some critics have accepted Kate’s speech simply as testimony that she has been tamed; others argue that it must be understood ironically as pretense, a strategy for living peaceably in patriarchal culture. Although either interpretation can be supported by the text and by a director’s choices in the theater, what is perhaps most striking about Kate’s final speech is that at the very moment the ideology of women’s silence and submission is most forcefully articulated, we find a woman (or at any rate, a boy playing a woman’s part, since on the Elizabethan stage all women’s parts were played by boy actors) speaking forcefully and in public the longest speech in the play, at the most dramatic moment in the action. In short, Kate’s speaking as she does contradicts the very sentiments she affirms.

Not only does Shakespeare’s shrew-taming plot depend on generic models—fabliaux, folktales, educational treatises, sermons and the like—but the subplot—the wooing of Bianca—also depends on literary models, in particular George Gascoigne’s Supposes (1566), a translation of the Italian comedy I Suppositi (1509) by the Italian poet and playwright Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1533). Ariosto’s play was modeled on the classical new comic tradition generally traced to the Greek playwright Menander (4th century B.C.E.) and made available to the Renaissance through his Latin imitators Plautus (254?–184 B.C.E.) and Terence (185–159 B.C.E.).4 Typically, the plot structure of new comedy involves young people whose desire for one another is opposed by the young man’s father, or by a pimp, or by some other representative of an older generation. The plot depends on a trick or twist usually involving money and perpetrated by a servant or slave that allows the lovers to be united. In the Greco-Roman tradition, the female character is often an unmarriageable slave or courtesan, and the resolution sometimes entails mistaken identity—the woman is discovered to be a citizen lost or sold into slavery at birth, in which case the play can end in marriage.

Early Renaissance versions of such comedies transform the social and sexual relations typical of new-comic plots: the young woman is typically marriageable, the opposition is often her father, and the sexual intrigue usually ends in marriage. Shakespeare and the English playwrights modify this structure further by melding it with the romance tradition of the chaste lover (like Lucentio) who wishes only for marriage from the start. In addition, in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare adds a rival for Bianca’s hand (Hortensio) to enhance the romantic plot by allowing her a choice between possible husbands. New comedy typically follows the unities of time and place: the lovers are already at odds with some authority at the outset, and the play enacts only the intrigue that brings them together. Shakespeare, however, dramatizes the entire action, from Lucentio’s falling in love and wooing Bianca through the intrigue that leads to their marriage and on to the celebratory feast at the end.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare carefully interweaves his main plot and his subplot: Lucentio sees and loves Bianca (1.1); Petruchio vows to marry Kate (1.2); Petruchio woos her (2.1); Lucentio and Hortensio woo Bianca (3.1). The plots diverge at the marriage of Kate and Petruchio (3.2), briefly to reunite (after the taming scenes at Petruchio’s house and Lucentio’s gulling of Baptista) on the journey back to Padua when Kate calls Lucentio’s father a “young budding virgin” (4.5.41). That “mistaken” identity in turn prepares for another, Tranio’s refusal to recognize Vincentio in 5.1, a complication resolved by the appearance of the young lovers as husband and wife. The two plots are united again in the conventional comic feast and wager that end the play.

The convention of mistaken identity, which Shakespeare inherited from his classical and Italian predecessors, is not only a plot device in the play but also works thematically to undermine notions of an essential self or a fixed identity. In the Induction (an eighteenth-century editorial appellation, since the Sly incidents are simply part of Act 1 in the First Folio [1623], the earliest printed edition of The Taming of the Shrew), Sly is persuaded he is a lord instead of a tinker; in the opening scene of the play proper, Lucentio and Tranio exchange identities as master and servant. Kate is transformed after enduring the irrational world of Petruchio’s country house, where she is denied food, sleep, and the fashionable accoutrements of her social class until

                                                           she (poor soul)

Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak,

And sits as one new-risen from a dream.


In the tradition of Shakespeare’s later romantic comedies, she subsequently “discovers” a new identity as obedient wife.5 Bianca and the widow, who begin by conforming to oppressive codes of womanly duty, reveal their independence. The Merchant assumes the identity of Vincentio, while Vincentio is “mistaken” for a “fair lovely maid.” Mistaken identity works literally in the disguise plots of the Induction and the Bianca-Lucentio action and figuratively in the taming plot, in which Petruchio plays at antic ruffian and Kate at submissive wife.

The Induction, with its duping of the tinker Sly, is linked to yet another folklore tradition, the motif of the “sleeper awakened” found in many versions throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Usually the story ends with the Sly character returned to his beggarly identity, as in a play published in 1594, the anonymous A Pleasant Conceited Historie, called The taming of a Shrew. In the anonymous play, the Sly action is completed with an epilogue in which Sly awakes after the comedy to rediscover himself a tinker and vows to return home to tame his own shrewish wife. Unusually, in The Taming of the Shrew there is no such epilogue and no return to the Christopher Sly action. (See Appendix, “Framing Dialogue in The Taming of a Shrew (1594),” for a discussion of the relation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the anonymous play.)

The Taming of the Shrew has been popular onstage since its earliest production, though, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, in radically altered forms. By the early seventeenth century it had already prompted a sequel, John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize; or the Tamer Tamed (c. 1611). In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has inspired successful musical, popular film, and television adaptations, and numerous stage productions. And the play continues to be a staple in both secondary and postsecondary school curricula. The play’s contemporary success depends first on comic virtuosity, but in a time of rapid social change when traditional gender roles are being challenged and the malleability of identity is increasingly acknowledged, audiences take pleasure in The Taming of the Shrew’s representation of the instability both of conventional gender hierarchies and of human identity itself.

  1. See particularly Lawrence Stone, The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529–1642 (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) and his Crisis of the English Aristocracy, 1558–1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965).
  2. On the anxiety produced by Elizabeth, see Louis Montrose, “ ‘Shaping Fantasies’: Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations, no. 1 (1983): 61–94; however, see also Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), ch. 2, in which she shows how Elizabeth represented herself as both prince and father to her people.
  3. See David Underdown, “The Taming of the Scold: The Enforcement of Patriarchal Authority in Early Modern England,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, edited by Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 116–35.
  4. “New” is a misnomer since “new comedy” is dubbed “new” only in relation to the “old” comic tradition represented by Aristophanes (448?–380? B.C.E.).
  5. On Kate’s development and Shrew as romantic comedy, see John Bean, “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew,” in The Woman’s Part, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 65–78.