The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 15581603) and James I (ruled 16031625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeares company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of Kings Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeares death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeares works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeares life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeares personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeares modest -education that Shakespeares plays were actually written by -someone elseFrancis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidatesbut the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeares plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeares earliest comedies, and it shares many essential characteristics with his other romantic comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Nights Dream. These characteristics include lighthearted and slapstick humor, disguises and deception, and a happy ending in which most of the characters come out satisfied. The lightheartedness of these romantic comedies contrasts sharply with the darker humor and deeper characterization of Shakespeares later plays, both comic and tragic. The youthfulness of the playwright can be seen in the whimsical spirit of the early plays. Like the other romantic comedies, The Taming of the Shrew focuses on courtship and marriage, but, unlike most of them, it devotes a great deal of attention to married life after the wedding. The other comedies usually conclude with the wedding ceremony itself.
A play focusing on the concerns of married life would have seemed particularly relevant to English audiences of the Renaissance period. Theirs was a society concerned with marriage in general, thanks in part to Henry VIIIs separation of England from the Catholic Church in 1534 in order to secure a divorce that the pope had refused to grant him. Henrys troubles highlight one important aspect of Elizabethan marriages among the upper class: they were most often arranged for money, land, or power, rather than for love. Moreover, unless you were the king of England, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries offered few ways out of an unhappy marriage. Thus, the resolution of marital disputes became an important topic in the popular literature of the era.
Of particular worry to this society were shrews or scoldsthat is, cantankerous or gossipy wives, who resisted or undermined the assumed authority of the husband within a marriage. A large number of sermons, plays, and pamphlets of the time address related topics: the taming of shrews by their husbands or the public punishment of scolds by, for example, repeatedly dunking them in a river. Part of this body of literature took a very diplomatic attitude toward women, although much of it was extremely misogynistic. In some of this literature, it is difficult to distinguish between behavior that is being parodied and behavior that is presented as an ideal. This ambiguity may also be found in The Taming of the Shrew, which manages to lampoon chauvinistic behavior while simultaneously reaffirming its social validity. The play celebrates the quick wit and fiery spirit of its heroine even while reveling in her humiliation.
In the English countryside, a poor tinker named Christopher Sly becomes the target of a prank by a local lord. Finding Sly drunk out of his wits in front of an alehouse, the lord has his men take Sly to his manor, dress him in his finery, and treat him as a lord. When Sly recovers, the men tell him that he is a lord and that he only believes himself to be a tinker because he has been insane for the past several years. Waking in the lords bed, Sly at first refuses to accept the mens story, but when he hears of his wife, a pageboy dressed in womens clothing, he readily agrees that he is the lord they purport him to be. Sly wants to be left alone with his wife, but the servants tell him that a troupe of actors has arrived to present a play for him. The play that Sly watches makes up the main story of The Taming of the Shrew.
In the Italian city of Padua, a rich young man named Lucentio arrives with his servants, Tranio and Biondello, to attend the local university. Lucentio is excited to begin his studies, but his priorities change when he sees Bianca, a beautiful, mild young woman with whom Lucentio instantly falls in love. There are two problems: first, Bianca already has two suitors, Gremio and Hortensio; second, Biancas father, a wealthy old man named Baptista Minola, has declared that no one may court Bianca until first her older sister, the vicious, ill-tempered Katherine, is married. Lucentio decides to overcome this problem by disguising himself as Biancas Latin tutor to gain an excuse to be in her company. Hortensio disguises himself as her music teacher for the same reason. While Lucentio pretends to be Biancas tutor, Tranio dresses up as Lucentio and begins to confer with Baptista about the possibility of marrying his daughter.
The Katherine problem is solved for Biancas suitors when Hortensios friend Petruccio, a brash young man from Verona, arrives in Padua to find a wife. He intends to marry a rich woman, and does not care what she is like as long as she will bring him a fortune. He agrees to marry Katherine sight unseen. The next day, he goes to Baptistas house to meet her, and they have a tremendous duel of words. As Katherine insults Petruccio repeatedly, Petruccio tells her that he will marry her whether she agrees or not. He tells Baptista, falsely, that Katherine has consented to marry him on Sunday. Hearing this claim, Katherine is strangely silent, and the wedding is set.
On Sunday, Petruccio is late to his own wedding, leaving Katherine to fear she will become an old maid. When Petruccio arrives, he is dressed in a ridiculous outfit and rides on a -broken-down horse. After the wedding, Petruccio forces Katherine to leave for his country house before the feast, telling all in earshot that she is now his property and that he may do with her as he pleases. Once they reach his country house, Petruccio continues the process of taming Katherine by keeping her from eating or sleeping for several dayshe pretends that he loves her so much he cannot allow her to eat his inferior food or to sleep in his poorly made bed.
In Padua, Lucentio wins Biancas heart by wooing her with a Latin translation that declares his love. Hortensio makes the same attempt with a music lesson, but Bianca loves Lucentio, and Hortensio resolves to marry a wealthy widow. Tranio secures Baptistas approval for Lucentio to marry Bianca by proposing a huge sum of money to lavish on her. Baptista agrees but says that he must have this sum confirmed by Lucentios father before the marriage can take place. Tranio and Lucentio, still in their respective disguises, feel there is nothing left to do but find an old man to play the role of Lucentios father. Tranio enlists the help of an old pedant, or schoolmaster, but as the pedant speaks to Baptista, Lucentio and Bianca decide to circumvent the complex situation by eloping.
Katherine and Petruccio soon return to Padua to visit Baptista. On the way, Petruccio forces Katherine to say that the sun is the moon and that an old man is really a beautiful young maiden. Since Katherines willfulness is dissipating, she agrees that all is as her -husband says. On the road, the couple meets Lucentios father, Vincentio, who is on his way to Padua to see his son. In Padua, Vincentio is shocked to find Tranio masquerading as Lucentio. At last, Bianca and Lucentio arrive to spread the news of their marriage. Both Vincentio and Baptista finally agree to the marriage.
At the banquet following Hortensios wedding to the widow, the other characters are shocked to see that Katherine seems to have been tamedshe obeys everything that Petruccio says and gives a long speech advocating the loyalty of wives to their husbands. When the three new husbands stage a contest to see which of their wives will obey first when summoned, everyone expects Lucentio to win. Bianca, however, sends a message back refusing to obey, while Katherine comes immediately. The others acknowledge that Petruccio has won an astonishing victory, and the happy Katherine and Petruccio leave the banquet to go to bed.
Marriage as an Economic Institution
As a romantic comedy, the play focuses principally on the romantic relationships between men and women as they develop from initial interest into marriage. In this respect, the play is a typical romantic comedy. However, unlike other Shakespearean comedies, The Taming of the Shrew does not conclude its examination of love and marriage with the wedding. Rather, it offers a significant glimpse into the future lives of married couples, one that serves to round out its exploration of the social dimension of love.
Unlike in Romeo and Juliet, inner emotional desire plays only a secondary role in The Taming of the Shrews exploration of love. Instead, The Taming of the Shrew emphasizes the economic aspects of marriagespecifically, how economic considerations determine who marries whom. The play tends to explore romantic relationships from a social perspective, addressing the institutions of courtship and marriage rather than the inner passions of lovers. Moreover, the play focuses on how courtship affects not just the lovers themselves, but also their parents, their servants, and their friends. In general, while the husband and the wife conduct the marriage relationship after the wedding, the courtship relationship is negotiated between the future husband and the father of the future wife. As such, marriage becomes a transaction involving the transfer of money. Lucentio wins Biancas heart, but he is given permission to marry her only after he is able to convince Baptista that he is fabulously rich. Had Hortensio offered more money, he would have married Bianca, regardless of whether she loved Lucentio.
The Effect of Social Roles on Individual Happiness
Each person in the play occupies a specific social position that carries with it certain expectations about how that person should behave. A characters social position is defined by such things as his or her wealth, age, gender, profession, parentage, and education; the rules governing how each of them should behave are harshly enforced by family, friends, and society as a whole. For instance, Lucentio occupies the social role of a wealthy young student, Tranio that of a servant, and Bianca and Katherine the roles of upper-class young maidens-in-waiting. At the very least, they are supposed to occupy these rolesbut, as the play shows, in reality, Kate wants nothing to do with her social role, and her shrewishness results directly from her frustration concerning her position. Because she does not live up to the behavioral expectations of her society, she faces the cold disapproval of that society, and, due to her alienation, she becomes miserably unhappy. Kate is only one of the many characters in The Taming of the Shrew who attempt to circumvent or deny their socially defined roles, however: Lucentio transforms himself into a working-class Latin tutor, Tranio transforms himself into a wealthy young aristocrat, Christopher Sly is transformed from a tinker into a lord, and so forth.