Although it is not possible to determine the dates of composition of William Shakespeare’s plays with absolute certainty, it is generally agreed that the early comedy The Taming of the Shrew was probably written after The Two Gentlemen of Verona (pr. c. 1594-1595) and before A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600). Even at this early date, Shakespeare shows himself to be a master of plot construction. Disregarding the classical unity of action, which forbade subplots, for a more enlightened concept of unity, Shakespeare creates two distinct lines of action, each derived from a different source, and integrates them into a unified dramatic whole. A single source for the main plot of Petruchio’s taming of Katharina has not been found.
Misogynistic stories abounded in Shakespeare’s time, stories of men exercising their “rightful” dominance over women. One in particular, a ballad titled A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife, Lapped in Morel’s Skin (printed c. 1550), tells the story of a shrewish wife who is beaten bloody by her husband and then wrapped in the salted skin of a plow horse named Morel. Like Kate, this wife has a younger sister who is the favorite of their father. If Shakespeare used this ballad as a source for the main plot of this play, it is obvious that he toned it down greatly, substituting psychological tactics for physical brutality. Nevertheless, some stage versions of The Taming of the Shrew have emphasized Petruchio’s physical mistreatment of Katharina. The eighteenth century English actor David Garrick as Petruchio threatened Katharina with a whip. Some critics even today see in this play an unacceptable male chauvinism. One must remember that Shakespeare lived and wrote in a patriarchal world in which the father ruled the family and the husband ruled the wife. Much in this play reflects the patriarchal nature of Elizabethan society, but Katharina’s strength of character may mitigate charges of male chauvinism against Shakespeare.
The source for the underplot, the wooing of Bianca by various suitors, is George Gascoigne’s Supposes (pr. 1566). The heroine in Gascoigne’s play is made pregnant by her lover, but she remains completely chaste in The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare also dispenses with the source’s character of the bawdy nurse and modifies the harsh satire that Gascoigne directs at Dr. Cleander, the pantaloon, who represents the degeneracy of “respectable” society. For this character Shakespeare substitutes Gremio, a wealthy old citizen of Padua who would marry Bianca but is thwarted by the young Lucentio. These changes are typical of Shakespeare, in whose plays sexual relationships are virtually always sanctified by marriage and in whose comedies satire is usually genial or at least counterbalanced by good humor.
The Taming of the Shrew is the only play by Shakespeare that has an “induction,” or anterior section, that introduces the main action. In the induction, which is set in Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire, an unconscious drunken tinker named Sly is taken to the house of a lord, dressed in fine clothes, and made to think he is a lord who has been comatose for fifteen years. Convinced he is indeed a lord, Sly begins to speak in blank verse and agrees to watch a play performed by traveling players, namely, The Taming of the Shrew. At the end of the first scene, Sly is already bored with the play and exclaims, “Would ’twere done!” He is never heard from again.
This induction, which at first sight appears irrelevant, dramatizes a recurring theme in all of Shakespeare’s comedies and the central theme of this play: the deceptiveness of appearances. Sly mistakes the opulence of his surroundings for his true reality and thinks he is a lord rather than a poor tinker of Burton-heath. In the play proper, many of the characters pose as people other than themselves and are responded to in guises not of their true nature. In the subplot, Lucentio, in order to woo Bianca, trades places with his servant Tranio and further takes on the role of Cambio, a schoolmaster hired by Gremio, to woo Bianca for himself. Hortensio, another suitor to Bianca, assumes the role of Litio, a music teacher, to gain access to her. Late in the action, a pedant is coerced to play the role of Vincentio, the father of Lucentio. When the true Vincentio appears on the scene, the disguises of the subplot are finally revealed.
In the major plot the theme of illusion is not as literal, but it is no less important. Katharina, the shrew, has played her part for so long that everyone believes she is an irritable and hateful woman. Conversely, Bianca, her sister, is universally regarded as sweet and of a mild disposition. Neither image is totally true. Bianca has to be told twice by her father to enter the house in the first scene, indicating that she is not as tractable as she is thought to be. Katharina, in her first meeting with Petruchio, does not protest when he tells her father that they will be married on Sunday. She remains silent, indicating that she has tacitly accepted him. In the final scene, the true natures of Katharina and Bianca come out for everyone to see. It is Bianca who is the disobedient wife, and it is Katharina who gives a disquisition on the perfect Elizabethan wife. Whether her speech is to be taken at face value or as a statement of irony is debatable.
Petruchio has come “to wive it wealthily in Padua.” He is a rip-roaring fortune hunter who will wed any woman who is rich enough, “Be she as foul as was Florentius’s love/ As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd/ As Socrates’ Xanthippe.” He is overwhelming in speech and manner and completely unintimidated by Katharina’s reputation as a shrew. He annihilates her resistance with his outlandish actions. At his country house outside Padua, he mistreats his servants unconscionably, demonstrating to Katharina the kind of behavior that she has displayed. He then deprives her of sleep, food, and drink, as one would tame a falcon. Finally, he deprives her of fine clothing. By his example, she is led to see her own unreasonable behavior. She at last decides to submit to her husband’s demands rather than persist in her perverse behavior. The Taming of the Shrew is a perennially popular stage production that can be performed and interpreted in various ways, depending on the inclinations of the directors.