There’s some doubt about the dates of the writing and first performance of ‘The Taming of the Shrew‘, but it seems likely that it was written around 1592, and performed before 1594, perhaps 1593. By 1594, another version of the play ‘The Taming of a Shrew’ had been published, base on a play presented by the Earl of Pembroke’s players, and seemingly derived from ‘The Taming of the Shrew‘, or perhaps an earlier version of the play by Shakespeare.
The play is based on a folk narrative common throughout the Indo-European world. Jan Harald Brundvand made an exhaustive study of over four hundred versions of the story from 30 countries. Elements of the story which occur in Shakespeare’s play include:
The taming is a play within a play
The shrew is the elder of two daughters and is identified with the devil
At the wedding, the groom arrives late, is dressed poorly and rides an old nag. He has a falcon, he behaves boorishly.
The husband beats his servants and/or beats his dog as a warning to his wife.
Taming tactics include depriving the wife of food, and forcing her to agree to absurd statements.
The test of the wife’s obedience occurs at the father-in-law’s house.
The wife comes at once when called, is polite to all, she steps on her cap, and kisses her husband in public.
There are other correspondences, sufficient to suggest that Shakespeare is dramatising an existing, well-known story, rather than composing his own.
There is a lot of debate as to whether Shakespeare ‘goes along’ with the misogynist plot, or uses it satirically to show how men should not to behave. Whilst the misogynist aspects of the play are difficult to accept in our modern age, perhaps Shakespeare, despite his sensitive treatment of women in his other plays, was not overly-concerned with the misogynist aspects of this play, as he was presenting a well-known folk tale as a drama, early in his career.
The play is presented as a play within a play. The framing story is of a drunk who has a joke played on him by a Lord who has his servants pretend that the drunk is in fact a lord, and that players have come to play ‘The Taming of the Shrew‘ for his pleasure. Some argue (notably Bogdanov in ‘The Director’s Cut’ that this framing story is key to explaining the misogynist tone of the play. The play within the play is dreamt by the drunk, as a wish-fulfillment dream of how he will deal with his wife when he returns home the next day.
The play within the play tells the story of the courtship and marriage of Katherina, eldest daughter of Baptista Minola, and Petruccio a poor nobleman looking for wealth. Katherina, frustrated by her foolish father, and his sillier friends, has developed the habits of a shrew. Attracted to Petruccio, she and he fight for dominance, both before their betrothal, at their marriage, and afterwards at Petruccio’s home.
Meanwhile, Bianca, Katherina’s younger sister is wooed by a number of suitors, giving rise to much comic business, and eventually decides to marry Lucentio, against her father’s wishes, who has arranged another marriage. They elope together and get married, and are reconciled with her father.
At the wedding celebrations, the main male characters have a bet as to whose wife will be most obedient, and, needless to say, Petruccio wins the bet, when Katherina behave politely, steps on her cap, tells off the other wives, and kisses her husband in public.
Considerations for C21 production:
The key problem facing modern productions is how to handle the misogynist aspects of the play which are not really acceptable to modern attitudes toward the relationships between men and women. Play-reading the play with sex reversal of the parts can be instructive.
In practical terms, there are a number of issues to be dealt with:
Do we retain the framing story?
The framing story can be used to explain the play within the play as the wish-fulfillment of Christopher Sly, the drunk in the framing story. Whether this makes the misogynist aspects of the play more acceptable is another question.
The framing story can be helpful for promenade performances, where Christopher Sly and his followers ‘walk’ the audience around the play. The First Folio does not have a complete framing story. However, framing story scenes can be taken from ‘The Taming of A Shrew’, and other dialogue added. I have myself been involved (as Baptista Minola, not as director) in just such a production, where the framing was used successfully in just such a way.
How do we handle the ‘taming’ scenes?
Careful reading of the ‘taming’ scenes suggests that Petruccio nowhere imposes punishments on Katerina that he does not impose on himself, particularly ‘no sleep’ and ‘no food’. Perhaps this can be made clear in the production. (This is reminiscent of how hawks were traditionally trained by falconers. The initial relationship between hawk and the falconer was undertaken in one step, without sleep or food for either the hawk or the faoconer, until the hawk had perched on the falconer’s arm, and taken food from him).
How do we handle Katherina’s final speech to the other wives?
By the time Katherina and Petruccio reach Bianca’s wedding feast, it seems to this reader, that they have bonded as a couple, ‘against’ the rest, partly through the conflict in the play. It seems reasonable then, that Katherina should ironically deliver her final speech, as a way of financially benefiting the couple she is a part of, and showing ‘the others’ her commitment to Petruccio
We hope to explore these issues in more detail in an article which compares Katherina, in The Taming of the Shrew, with Falstaff, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In both plays the community attempts to make the principal conform to their expectations. In both plays the principals are bourgeois.
No doubt there are other acceptable production approaches to the play.