800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) Login

Look More Closely at the Period

By Ace G. Pilkington

It is clear that The Taming of the Shrew is (among other things) about the war between the sexes, and it is equally clear that Shakespeare’s audience would instantly have recognized the subject, finding it entertaining and topical. Modern critics who assume The Taming of the Shrew is a male chauvinist play and that a Renaissance crowd would have found such a story suited their social opinions and theatrical expectations should look more closely at what was happening during the period.

Shakespeare himself creates an abundance of women who will not be dominated, from Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost to Katherine in Henry VIII, with Portia, Rosalind, Viola, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, two Helenas, Beatrice, Paulina, and many more in between. Around 1611, Shakespeare’s own company produced a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew called The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s sometime collaborator and eventual successor as playwright of the King’s Men. According to Ann Thompson, “Fletcher was . . . putting the play into its traditional context of the war of the sexes, a context in which normally . . . a story about a husband outwitting . . . his wife is capped . . . by one in which a wife outwits her husband, the overall moral being that . . . the best marriages are based on equality and mutual respect” (Ann Thompson, ed., “Introduction” in The Taming of the Shrew [Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1984], 18).

There was so much fun to be had from watching the battle that playwrights sometimes stepped into the real world for inspiration. For instance, an anonymous author responded to Joseph Swetnam’s savage 1615 pamphlet Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Inconstant Women with the 1620 comedy Swetnam the Woman-Hater Arraigned by Women. Nor were all the women of the period the submissive victims they are sometimes taken to be. Lawrence Stone writes, “There are plenty of examples of Elizabethan women who dominated their husbands” (The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 [New York: Harper & Row, 1977], 199). There were also women who were quite capable of expressing their opinions of men. Modesta Pozzo, for example, under the pen name of Moderata Fonte, produced a dialogue (published in 1600 but written at least eight years earlier) called The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men. Of male dominance, she writes, “When it’s said that women must be subject to men, the phrase should be understood in the same sense as when we say that we are subject to natural disasters, diseases, and all the other accidents of this life: it’s not a case of being subject in the sense of obeying, but rather of suffering an imposition; not a case of serving them fearfully, but rather of tolerating them in a spirit of Christian charity” (ed. and trans. Virginia Cox [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997], 59).

Obviously, the situations in Shakespeare’s society and the issues in his play are more complicated than some critics imagine. It is well to remember that Shakespeare and many members of his audience, schooled in Latin literature, expected more complicated entertainments than certain modern audiences do. Gilbert Highet puts the matter in perspective when he discusses the complex metres employed in Latin poetry but developed from Greek singing and dancing, “Greek dancing was infinitely subtler than our own pounding three-to-the-bar and four-to-the-bar dances. It contained many more half-steps and cross-rhythms, and, with its complex interweaving movements of arms and draperies, it would make even our classical ballets seem naive. Therefore the best . . . Greco-Roman lyric metres are much more intricate and subtle than any . . . in . . . modern languages” (Poets in a Landscape [Pleasantville, NY: The Akadine Press, 1996], 124). And the subtleties did not stop with the metres.

By using an induction that makes the main story of The Taming of the Shrew a play within a play and by loading that main story with performances and deceptions, Shakespeare has made an extremely complex structure, “leaving us,” as Ann Thompson says, “asking such questions as ‘Is Katherina’s performance as a dutiful wife nearer to “the real Katherina” than her performance as a shrew?’ or ‘Do we ever see “the real Petruchio” as opposed to Petruchio playing the role of shrew-tamer?’ or even ‘Is the whole thing a dream or fantasy in the mind of Christopher Sly?’” (31). Nor is this the end of the complications. Petruchio is not only a shrew-tamer, but also, in a performance especially designed to educate Kate, a shrew. This, as his servants make clear, is not his normal behavior, but it does hold a mirror up to his new bride, eventually causing her to intercede on behalf of the seemingly mistreated servants.

Olwen Hufton is partially right to maintain that “The shrew is tamed by words, by hunger, by deprivation of sleep and by her growing realization of the constraints on her sex, but not by beating. Petruchio is an agent of the civilizing process” (The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500-1800 [New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996], 52). But Petruchio has announced that he is bound by a far more rigid educational protocol than the public standard of how husbands were to treat wives. In the play’s most famous metaphor, he compares taming Kate to a falconer’s taming of a hawk, a process that most Elizabethan men and women would have known firsthand. Violence was out of the question, and the end to be attained was a mutually beneficial partnership, keeping in mind that the hawk could simply fly away if it were unhappy.

As John W. Crawford says of the time, “There were in England as well as on the continent women of brilliant intellect and . . . profound learning. . . . Even more remarkable . . . was a common feeling among men of higher station that intellectual accomplishments were both proper and even desirable in a woman” (“Education of Renaissance Women: Negative Changes Under James I” in The Learning, Wit, and Wisdom of Shakespeare’s Renaissance Women [Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1997], 17). Shakespeare and the characters in The Taming of the Shrew endorse this view; no one questions that Kate and Bianca should have tutors or that those tutors should teach classical literature. Petruchio, who could easily find a wealthy and docile wife, says that he values Katherina for her spirit and works to teach her with copious examples, herculean efforts, and abundant praises how to be herself in the midst of games and shows. Even Kate’s infamous last speech is taken from Aristotle’s Politics and Economics and does not invoke divine law (as the bad quarto does). Besides, that speech is part of one last game where Kate shows up her sister and wins a bet for her husband. Ultimately, The Taming of the Shrew presents the same message that John Fletcher claimed for its sequel: “To teach both Sexes due equality; And as they stand bound, to love mutually” (ed. George B. Ferguson [London: Mouton & Co., 1966], 148).

Utah Shakespeare Festival
Welcome to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. We hope you enjoy this Study Guide, but while you’re here you may want to explore the Festival a bit further. You can learn about this Tony Award-winning theatre, our plays, and so much more by visiting our home page.

What's On

The Taming of the Shrew

June 19 - September 7, 2024

Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Henry VIII

June 17 - September 5, 2024

Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Much Ado About Nothing

June 21 - October 5, 2024

Randall L. Jones Theatre

The Mountaintop

July 13 - October 5, 2024

Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre

The 39 Steps

June 22 - October 5, 2024

Randall L. Jones Theatre

The Winter's Tale

June 18 - September 6, 2024

Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre

Silent Sky

July 12 - October 5, 2024

Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre

© Utah Shakespeare Festival 2023 www.bard.org Cedar City, Utah