Introduction: The Taming of the Shrew
At first glance, the continued popularity of The Taming of the Shrew can seem rather hard to stomach. Its two subplots focus on the wooing of Bianca and Katherine, the two daughters of the Paduan gentleman Baptista Milona: while the former finds herself fought over by three lovers who value her “silence…mild behaviour and sobreity”, the latter’s fierce outspokenness leads her to be spurned by all but Petruchio, who sets out to “tame” her. With Petruchio making claims like “she is my goods, my chattel” and Katherine concluding the play with a speech which celebrates wifely obedience, it’s hard not to see the play as misogynistic. Such misogyny would not necessarily have been of concern to the original Elizabethan audience, for whom the tamed shrew was a convention of farce stretching back to the Roman comedians – indeed, the wives in many traditional ballads turn out much worse than Kate!
Yet the play continues to strike readers and directors as more complicated: the submissive subject matter of Katherine’s final speech is undercut by the very fact that she’s allowed to speak at length at all. And, from the very start of the play, Shakespeare emphasises the artifice of the play’s world, raising questions over how seriously such matters should be taken. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s delight in plays-within-plays is taken to its extreme. It opens with an induction – often omitted by modern productions – in which drunken tinker Christopher Sly is made to believe that he is a lord and has the rest of the play performed before him. (This frame narrative abruptly disappears in the Folio text of the play; the 1594 play The Taming of a Shrew, also performed by Shakespeare’s company but generally considered a plagiarised imitation, features a fuller version of Sly’s story.)
Regardless of these issues, the play remains popular for its characteristically Shakespearean wordplay, with Petruchio and Kate’s sparring in Act II resembling an offensive game of word association, and its opportunities for spectacle, such as Petruchio’s “mad attire” for his honeymoon. Although it’s no longer generally considered to be the first play Shakespeare wrote, it remains a good example of how Shakespeare began his career with conventional version of genres that he would come to subvert more and more.