Shrew 1: My Household Stuff

Banner - marriage of Petruchio and Kate - Shrew origin gender issues

06 August 2018
· Unpacking ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ ·

Almost four and a half centuries have elapsed since I began my shadow career as a playwright and poet. It’s gratifying to see that my work has held up. This was my aim from the start, regardless of the pother about credit which will sort itself out eventually. My poetry continues to speak to its readers and most of the plays are still relevant, either as they were written or morphed into an infinity of stage and screen settings. Off the top of my head: Samurai Macbeth was a masterpiece. Romeo and Juliet amid modern crime-family gangs combined my words with a heartthrob and a hit soundtrack (YT playlist). An African tribal The Winter’s Tale was told in Yoruban. The Tempest was launched into outer space, and tossed into an LSD trip full of naked people. I could go on.

But nobody bats a thousand, as the baseballers say. If I were to list my problematic plays, I know which one would take the prize.

The Taming of the Shrew.

It’s not so odious that it warrants shunning, and it still entertains its audiences, but nowadays it comes with an accumulation of baggage. If a viewer or reader doesn’t understand who really wrote the thing, as well as when and why, those bags are a lot heavier than they need to be.

First question: How did the name of a tiny rodent-like creature become a synonym for an annoyingly disagreeable woman?

My answer: Read this [tangent post 1]. It contains the word’s etymology, and dabbles with some computational linguistics. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though it’s a tangent for a reason.

Second question: Did The Taming of the Shrew really reflect how women were thought of and treated by men in my part of the world (western Europe) at that time (sixteenth century)?

I will be master of what is mine own,
She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing,
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare

— Petruchio after his marriage, Act 3, Scene 2

I have located a husband and wife from the period. They’re Dutch but they’ll do. Let’s ask them both what they think. Oh, wait.

Ideal Dutch couple print - Shrew origin gender issueswoodcut by Cornelis Anthoniszoon Theunissen
(Dutch) c.1530-1550
British Museum Collection online

My answer: Maybe the dachshund has an opinion, at least he can bark.

I don’t claim early enlightenment regarding gender roles in my era, but Shrew did spice its comedy with satire. Its viewpoint was exaggerated but not fabricated. Compared to that print it wasn’t even exaggerated.

The padlocked and hoofed (!) wife was taken from an earlier print made by another artist. Click on the thumbnail (or here) for a bigger image where the annotations can be read [tangent post 2]. Notate bene: women with high blood pressure are advised to proceed with caution.
Wise woman print thumbnail - Shrew origin gender issuesThird question: Why? Hormonal hard-wiring, testosterone insistent upon proving its dominance by coercion or force, even when it didn’t need to? Subconscious Freudian fear of emasculation? A millennium’s worth of monolithic, misogynistic indoctrination by the Christian androcracy? Were we just a bunch of bullying gits?

My answer: Yes. I’m no psychohistorian, but I would think that all of those factors are factors.

These days, Shrew as written induces cringes as well as laughter. This is a good thing. Whether or not the play represented its day in its day, it does not represent today. Most men presently living in the culture I came from know better, or at least behave better. (There are exceptions.)

Now it’s time to push the baggage aside, because it obstructs the point. When I began to write what would become The Taming of the Shrew, I was not making a socio-sexual statement. I was teasing my sister.

At the end of 1577 my spitfire sibling Mary married Peregrine Bertie, soon to become the 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby. They defied their families to choose each other, and they chose poorly. Unstoppable force wed immovable object. It wasn’t long before their loud, messy, wine-sodden demonstrations of connubial discontent became court gossip.

I was not about to ignore material that good, especially when I’d opposed the marriage in the first place. I was in my late twenties, back from my Italian travels, truant from my wife (whole other subject), feeling my oats. The jest came straight out of the book: turn everyday characters into caricatures, by exaggeration. You can’t get more everyday than your own kin, your household stuff.

Two roasts on a spit at Hampton Court - Shrew origin gender issuesI wrote my prank through the latter half of 1578. It was performed as A Morrall of the Marryage of Mynde and Measure, at Richmond Palace on 1 January 1579. The audience got all the jokes. Even the roasts enjoyed their roasting. Cheeky big brother sent up his shrewish sister and her mulish husband, for kicks and giggles. Simple.

As relatives go the Willoughbys were demons, but as models for parody they were heaven-sent. I sent them up again, less grotesquely, as Mariah and Sir Toby in Twelfth Night. But I owe my bibulous brother-in-law some credit too: during the first half of the 80s he made a couple of diplomatic trips to the Danish court at Kronborg Castle, in Helsingør. That’s Elsinore to you. He let me read his notes. (Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern? His dinner companions.) By that time I regarded him more in sorrow than in anger. Mary remained intractable, Perry remained intransigent, and that marriage was a bigger failure than mine.

A Morrall of the Marryage of Mynde and Measure was never meant to be more than a one-off private entertainment for the court, and it wasn’t. Aside from being the original inspiration and sharing the plot device of matrimonial conflict, A Morrall wasn’t much like The Taming of the Shrew. Many years and many metamorphoses intervened. This isn’t the place for me to dive into a disquisition on Ariosto, George Gascoigne, and the relationship between the uncredited A Shrew quartos and the miscredited The Shrew in the First Folio. If this sort of detail interests you, check out the article by Ramon Jiménez linked at the end of the post. If that raises questions, find me on Twitter.

As Shrew illustrates, some of my plays were begun early in my shadow career, and took years or even decades to mature into the forms most familiar today. [Mr Jiménez has taken a good look at this topic in a book due out this fall, Shakespeare’s Apprenticeship: Identifying the Real Playwright’s Earliest Works.] I was no Mozart, composing finished symphonies without corrections (a story I don’t believe for one second). Shake-Speare required time and effort: drafts, revisions, revisions to the revisions. My plays were mutable things, during my lifetime and after it. Other hands continued to make alterations, adding the possibility of misdirection to later efforts to date the works. It took the stone tablet of the First Folio to interrupt the vandalism. Of course alterations didn’t cease (wait till I get to Garrick in Part 2), and the Folio itself was far from perfect, but at least there was a standard reference after 1623.

A Great Flood’s worth of analytical ink has rained over The Taming of the Shrew. A Google search returns a deluge.

Here is the author’s analysis: Shrew’s origins and evolution are only confusing when the play is misattributed. The gender baggage is ex post facto. Retro-judging the values of the past is difficult, and doesn’t change them. Big brothers haven’t changed either.Ahead to Part 2 — Shrew 2: Whips and Changes
Skip to Part 3 — Shrew 3: Brush Up Your Oxford
Tangents linked from within this post:


  • Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Study of the Oxford Theory Based on the Records of Early Court Revels and Personalities of the Times
  • · by Eva Turner Clark
  • · W F Payson, New York, 1931, 693 pages