The Taming of the Shrew, popularly regarded as rather sophisticated for such an early Shakespearean comedy, joins the rest of the works in the Shakespeare canon in its ability to extend its roots back to early sources. In addition to being linked to a specific source or two, though, Shrew is linked, as well, to literature, ballads, and courtesy books that council how to deal with a shrewish woman. Although today The Taming of the Shrew might seem chauvinistic to us because it celebrates the merits of male power and dominance, we must consider it within its historical context in order to distill the most meaning from the play. When we look at The Taming of the Shrew in this light, we see the main action of the play takes its cue from a long tradition of works dealing with shrews and shrew tamers. It would be a gross error to say, though, that Shakespeare wholeheartedly endorses complete male rule. Although Shrew does extol some of the common stereotypes of the shrewish woman (and her subsequent need for reformation), it also begins to challenge the common folklore, providing spectators with something familiar which also advances a more non-traditional theme when it comes to dealing with an unruly wife.
During the Renaissance, the controversy over women took various forms, sometimes debating their basic nature, their legal and moral rights, their clothing, and their behavior. The branch of the debate most central to The Taming of the Shrew, though, centers on appropriate and inappropriate female behavior (shrewishness and scolding), particularly within the confines of a marriage wherein the husband was traditionally viewed as the ultimate authority figure.
A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel's Skin, for Her Good Behavior, a popular and fairly lengthy ballad composed around 1550, is commonly regarded as one of the primary works in the public debate regarding the appropriate treatment for unruly women in Renaissance England. Although this work was printed only once and very few copies remain, Shakespeare would have undoubtedly been familiar with this ballad since its popularity led to the story circulating orally as an elaborate folktale.
In A Merry Jest, two sisters figure prominently, the younger of which is favored by the girls' father and sought after by gentlemen callers while the older sister is shrewish and headstrong. The ballad proceeds much like Shakespeare's Shrew, with the curst daughter marrying a man who spends the rest of the ballad trying to break his wife of her headstrong ways and bring her into line with societal expectations. In the end, though, Shakespeare's Shrew ends nothing like the ballad wherein the wife's husband plots to break his wife by beating her and then wrapping her in the freshly salted hide of a horse (formerly) named Morel. Predictably, the wife repents after this treatment (which, admittedly most Elizabethans would not have seen as unusually cruel) and lives the rest of her life peaceably, serving and obeying her husband.
Just as Shakespeare found precedent for his discussion of shrewish women, so too did he find precedent in ways to deal with them. Where there are shrews, of course, there must be shrew tamers — and it is in this regard that Shakespeare is perhaps his most tacitly crafty. Whereas Kate fits quite well within the traditional paradigm of the shrewish woman (being bold, aggressive, talkative, and physical), Petruchio does not so readily fit the stereotype of the shrew tamer. His actions reflect a degree of restraint and understanding not commonly seen in other shrew-tamers of the period. The husband in A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife, for example, sees nothing at all wrong with beating his wife bloody and then wrapping her in a salted horse's hide until she repents her shrewish and headstrong ways. He believes it is his right as her husband, a notion which the wife's family is quick to corroborate. No punishment, however painful and seemingly unjust (by modern standards, anyway), is too harsh for a shrewish wife. Petruchio, though, doesn't resort to such means. He is clever, and it is that cleverness that allows him to reform his wife without ever laying a hand on her. He keeps her awake and denies her a bit of food, but these punishments are small compared to the punishments routinely doled out in the literature and stories of the time.
It is important to note, too, that the Elizabethans clearly delineated between a "shrew" and a "scold." A shrew, although a pejorative and abusive term, had no real legal status. A scold, on the other hand, is a legal category and describes a woman who has offended against public order through her speech. Unlike the shrew whose unruly behaviors are mostly disorderly and aggressive, a scold routinely committed more slanderous acts. Tale-bearing, gossiping, slandering, insulting through speech, and deliberately and maliciously attempting to stir up trouble between neighbors were all actions that could bring legal punishment onto a scold. If a woman were to be punished for such behavior, she would receive a public "cucking" wherein she was strapped to a special stool and then repeatedly dunked into water. Other forms of punishing scolds existed as well, most of which allowed for community participation. Scolds (and occasionally their husbands who allowed them to get away with it) were commonly held in great contempt by their neighboring townsmen and often received public punishment including humiliation in the stocks or being paraded through the city on a leash wearing a scold's bridle (a contraption which fit over a woman's head and contained a metal tongue suppressor to prohibit her speaking) so people could come out and jeer (hopefully shaming the transgressing woman back into line with what was considered proper womanly behavior).
The manner in which Shakespeare has Petruchio tame Kate, though, is not nearly as aggressive (or dangerous) as the methods that were actually used. Petruchio stands out positively, in fact, as being able to manifest the change in Katherine because of his cleverness and his rhetoric rather than brute force and beating. In this regard, Petruchio is much more in line with William Gouge and William Whately, who both received a great deal of pressure for advocating male restraint when dealing with unruly wives. Domestic violence at this time was commonplace, and wives were rarely exempt from forcible correction. As one critic notes, "relatively few men or women in early modern England thought wives had an absolute right not to be beaten" (Hunt qtd. in Dolan 218). Clearly Shakespeare does not endorse this model because in the end Kate and Petruchio function as a team rather than as a master and a servant.
Certainly it is possible to view Petruchio as a tamer, a man out to turn a headstrong woman into a subservient one, but his role goes beyond that. Unlike most men of his time, he seeks not to dominate, but to share his power with his wife. Would he ever have been attracted to a woman such as Bianca whom he could easily rule? Of course not, because he needs someone to match his own fiery nature. Interestingly, the other male characters, though, see only that Petruchio has succeeded in turning the most headstrong of women into a seemingly perfect wife. Hortensio (and Christopher Sly in the variant text, The Taming of A Shrew) sees Petruchio has enacted a metamorphosis in Kate, unaware of the cleverness and rhetorical strategy underlying his techniques. Hortensio (Sly, and presumably many of the men in the audience) thinks he will emulate Petruchio's behavior. However, without the necessary cleverness, tenderness, and motivation (to elevate rather than subjugate), Hortensio will never succeed.
Shakespeare creates wonderful characters in The Taming of the Shrew, wonderful in part because they are not constructed solely from his imagination. They come from a long tradition of stories and ballads on unruly women and the men who try to tame them. Some contemporary readers may view Shrew as a misogynistic work, but it really is much more. It is a work based in historical debate and, in fact, ends more positively than many of its literary and real-life counterparts. Through Petruchio, especially, Shakespeare advocates a world in which men try not to exercise absolute authority over their wives but, rather, to elevate their wives. Shakespeare's text, unlike so many of the historical counterparts, suggests that successful men and women work in tandem rather than in hierarchal fashion, and so doing elevates not only the husband and the wife, but by extension, everyone and everything they come into contact with, as well.