The Taming of the Shrew Historical Background
by Sehwa Kim
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works. The Taming of the Shrew was written between 1593 and 1594 and it is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. In the Elizabethan era, there was a huge demand for new entertainment, and The Taming of the Shrew would have been produced immediately following the completion of the play, so the date it was written is based on the first performance having been on June 11th, 1594, at Newington Butts Theatre in London.
It is believed that The Taming of the Shrew was first printed in 1623 in the First Folio. Shakespeare did not want his work published, so details of the play would likely have been noted during a performance and pirated without his consent.
This piece’s literary period is the English Renaissance (also called the early modern era) and the genre is Elizabethan Comedy.
The piece is set in Padua, Italy. This location would have been chosen because the Elizabethan audiences associated cities in Italy with certain attributes or characteristics: Florence was thought to be a center of old-fashioned courts and manners; Rome was a false paradise; Venice (where Petruchio goes to buy his wedding clothes) was the center of fashion. Padua, in the north of Italy near Venice, was known as a great center of learning. Its university was among the oldest in Europe. The city, which enjoyed the protection of Venice, was considerably freer than other parts of Italy. Padua is considered the oldest city in northern Italy and among the most beautiful. It has many ancient, covered streets that open into large public squares, or piazzas. Many bridges cross the city’s river. The nearby city of Venice, whose rulers protected Padua, built new walls for the city between 1507 and 1544 and several enormous gates. Shakespeare would have heard of these great structures from stories of travelers and students. Padua was also known for its successful industries. Businessmen, or merchants, made their fortunes in the city’s cotton and candle works, as well as in corn and saw mills.
Shakespeare got inspiration from many folktales and ballads popular in England about shrewish wives being tamed by their aggressive husbands. He created a troubling comedy that explored Elizabethan issues of gender. The idea of “taming” one’s wife was common in Elizabethan England, and it was coupled with the popular image of the shrewish wife in the male-dominated literary tradition.
Also, “marriage” is a main theme in this play. A good marriage in Shakespeare’s day was one between members of the same social class—thus not threatening the social order—where the families both approved of the match. Thus, every “good” marriage was an arranged marriage, since it was arranged by the families. A good marriage was also one that was financially sound: the woman’s dowry was intended to support her and the household, and financial concerns were frequently paramount, particularly among nobility—that is, those with property and money to protect. In the play, Petruchio is honest about his goal in marriage; he wants a rich woman, saying “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (Act 1, scene 2.)
“Shrew” is a derogatory term for a woman with a sharp tongue and a bad temper. A shrew was a common character in commedia and in literature of Shakespeare’s day. Elizabethans distinguished between a “shrew” and a “scold”—a scold was much worse than a shrew. A scold was a woman who offended public order through her speech. Unlike the shrew, who utters angry, nagging, mean-spirited words, a scold committed more slanderous acts, punishable under the law, such as gossiping, insulting, and deliberately attempting to stir up trouble between neighbors.
In this period, willful women were beaten until bloody and broken, then wrapped in the salted skin of their husbands’ old plow horse until they agreed to be submissive and obedient.
There were also interesting but cruel punishments for non-obedient wives in the Elizabethan Era. One such punishment was to force a shrew to wear something called a scold’s bridle. Attached to the bridle was a metal pronged that, and when inserted into the mouth of the shrew it depressed her tongue and made it impossible for her talk.
Another punishment was called cucking, in which women were strapped onto a stool and dunked in water. In addition to the public humiliation, many were dipped too low, causing their mouths to fill with mud and resulting in suffocation.
Shakespeare, William. “Taming of the Shrew Overview.” PlayShakespeare.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
“Shakespeare’s England.” Shakespeare’s England. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
“The Taming of the Shrew.” The Taming of the Shrew (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
“The Taming of the Shrew Play by Shakespeare.” The Taming of the Shrew the Play by William Shakespeare. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
Korean National Ballet version of the Taming of the Shrew