The Source for The Taming of the Shrew
Although it is impossible to date The Taming of the Shrew exactly, evidence marks it as one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, written most likely in the late 1580s or early 1590s. In the Shakespeare chronology, Shrew appears to have been written about 8-10 years before Much Ado About Nothing (1598), another comedy to which it is often compared. Although the plots themselves are dissimilar, each play gives us a bold and saucy pair of protagonists who enter into a battle of wits. Much of the cleverness and verbal acumen found in Much Ado is already apparent in Shrew, suggesting that, even early in his career, Shakespeare was extraordinarily skilled in character development, able to pit a headstrong hero and heroine against each other with fantastic results. Shrew shows us a dramatist who is sophisticated in his characterization and his ability to deal with multiple plots, as well as to address socially relevant topics, bringing them to the forefront for our consideration and discussion.
Like all of Shakespeare's other plays, The Taming of the Shrew can be traced to a variety of sources. Unlike most other plays, however, specific texts are difficult to pinpoint. We know that the primary plot, the story of Katherine and Petruchio, finds its roots in folk tales and songs common in Shakespeare's day. In fact, while growing up, Shakespeare was surrounded by a very public debate over the nature of women, including specific arguments on a woman's duty and role in marriage. Shakespeare drew heavily from this debate.
Just as the main story line has its roots in popular debate, so too does the play's Induction. Although inductions were not uncommon in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramas, The Taming of the Shrew is the only play in which Shakespeare features this particular framing device. For The Taming of the Shrew's Induction, Shakespeare features the tale of a beggar who finds himself mysteriously in power in a rich man's world. Like the tales of shrewish wives, tales of beggars miraculously transformed were featured in a London jest-book (1570) and were commonly featured in sixteenth-century English ballads of which Shakespeare was quite likely familiar.
The Bianca subplot also has its roots in sources with which Shakespeare would have been familiar. Unlike the Kate/Petruchio plot, which can only be traced to general pamphlets and debates, the Bianca subplot comes from George Gascoigne's Supposes (1566, 1573), a translation of Ariosto's I Suppositi (1509).
Regardless of where Shakespeare drew the basis for the text, the fact remains that he masterfully presents us with a well-founded, carefully developed drama that can't help but get us talking. From the Induction, which seems to end mysteriously and abruptly, to Katherine's final speech on wifely duty, we can't help but find layer upon layer of meaning buried in this early, but great, comedy. Shakespeare uses his skill expertly, bringing out themes we still debate today, over 400 years later.
Performance History of The Taming of the Shrew
Largely because of the themes addressed in The Taming of the Shrew (marriage, duty, identity, family, and so on), the play has experienced great popularity through the years, although tracing the play's exact performance history is difficult. Little evidence of early productions survives, though we know the play was popular at least into the 1630s. Dramatist John Fletcher created a sequel to Shakespeare's work with his 1611 play The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed wherein Petruchio, now a widower, marries for a second time only to have his wife treat him much the way he initially treated Kate. Aside from contemporary spin-offs, in 1663 the Restoration stage became home to a popular production of Shakespeare's Shrew. After 1663, though, The Taming of the Shrew slipped off the boards, and we have no record of a production in its original form again until 1844.
In the meantime, however, a number of adaptations flourished. John Lacy's Sauny the Scot (1667), a crude farce, was popular for about a century. Although Lacy opted not to include the Christopher Sly scenario, Charles Johnson included it in his 1716 largely political work, The Cobbler of Preston. It wasn't until David Garrick's abbreviated version of Shrew entitled Catherine and Petruchio (1754) that Lacy's Sauny was fully replaced. Garrick's work eliminated the Induction, as well as the Bianca subplot. This adaptation also maintained its popularity for about a hundred years. Noted Shakespearean actor John Phillip Kemble also produced an abbreviated version of Shrew which competed directly with Garrick's and featured what would become one of Petruchio's trademarks during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: cracking a horsewhip to demonstrate his ability as shrew-tamer.
Shakespeare's version of The Taming of the Shrew was revived in 1844, over 180 years after it had last been produced. By the end of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare's Shrew was favored over adaptations by audiences all over the globe. Since then, Shrew has been produced countless times for the stage, as well as for film and television. Although the advent of feminism has caused some audiences to question the relevance of Shrew, the play's eternal popularity suggests that this well-written and developed play possesses a timelessness which delights audiences, generation after generation.