The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew Study Guide

Like many of Shakespeare's plays, the origins of The Taming of the Shrew are difficult to ascertain. The play as we have it today comes from the First Folio of 1623. However, an earlier version of the play, entitled The Taming of a Shrew, was published in 1594. Many scholars have debated the relationship between the 1594 play and the more familiar work of 1623. Some argue that the two plays-A Shrew and The Shrew-are entirely different and should be treated as such. Others maintain that A Shrew is an earlier version of Shakespeare's play, or perhaps "derived from a common original." (Bevington, David, Kastan, David Scott, ed., Four Comedies, 164). Another common view is that A Shrew is adapted from Shakespeare's original.

This confusion over the text of The Shrew illustrates the extent to which the play is embroiled in an Elizabethan cultural debate over a woman's domestic duties. Aside from the two extent versions of the play, other sources, such as A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel's Skin, for her Good Behavior, depict similar battles of the sexes, pitting a forthright and problematic wife against a clever and cruel husband. While Shakespeare's play is the only product of the debate over "shrewishness" that is commonly read today, it is important to keep this context in mind as you read. Also, Shakespeare's play, though it contains many misogynistic characteristics by today's standards, is far less misogynistic than A Merry Jest and other "shrew" literature of the late fifteenth century.

From the available sources it seems that The Taming of the Shrew was a great success in its day. Its farcical elements proved popular, and Shakespeare would later use the same themes of disguise and mistaken identity in Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Taming of the Shrew continued to enjoy significant interest throughout the following centuries. It was first performed in the United States in 1887, by Augustin Daly, and Katharina has been played by such illustrious actresses of stage and screen as Margaret Anglin, Josie Lawrence, Elizabeth Taylor, Meryl Streep, Peggy Ashcroft, and Fiona Shaw. It was adapted to film in 1929 by Sam Taylor, with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. as Kate and Petruchio. In the 1950s, the musical adaptation Kiss Me, Kate was successful both on Broadway and the screen and In 1967, Franco Zeffirelli cast the famously stormy husband and wife team of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in his filmed version. Most recently, the play was adapted in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger.

Despite the play's continued popularity, critics have not been especially kind to Shakespeare's vision. For many, the Bard's version of the battle of the sexes is disturbingly misogynistic. Other scholars have criticized his use of farce as clumsy. The Induction has also come under attack as a faulty framework and an unfulfilled narrative.

Whether or not these aspects of The Taming of the Shrew are as flawed as some have found them to be, Shakespeare's use of language, particularly in the sparring between Katharina and Petruchio, has contributed greatly to its perennial popularity. His poetic skill is all the more impressive considering that the play is one of his earliest. Also, the play is full of difficulties and complications-such as the juggling of plot and subplot, the use of dual identities and plays within plays, and a concern with theatrical illusion-that lend it especially well to critical attention. Much of its content is objectionable to a modern audience, but the play's atmosphere, poetry and vivid characterizations reward close consideration.