‘The Taming of the Shrew’, written by William Shakespeare between 1589 and 1594, is a romantic comedy set in the Italian city of Padua. Since the play was written, the audience’s idea of comedy has changed quite dramatically. In the fifteen hundreds, an audience would have enjoyed obvious, visual aspects of comedy such as we would see in a modern-day pantomime, whereas an audience watching the play today would also enjoy less obvious aspects such as sarcasm, irony and dry humour. Shakespeare, although aware of Queen Elizabeth’s position as a strong and independent woman, also had to fulfil the expectations of the time.
This is why the ‘feminist’ of the play comes out ‘Tamed’ at the end. Women were expected to be obedient to men, whether husband, father or elder, in the same way as commoners were subservient to the King and aristocracy, a model of society often referred to as the Great Chain of Being. This hierarchy supported belief in the Divine Right of Kings and, similarly, in man’s superiority to woman. The fact that the play is set in Italy further strengthens the link with the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, one of the major influences on modern pantomime.
The subject of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ – who shall have sovereignty in marriage – is also part of a long and well established tradition in English literature offering many opportunities for comedy, for example Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ and Noah’s wife in the Medieval Mystery Plays. The play is primarily about love and respect between husband and wife, though there are many other underlying themes: the relationship between master and servant, violence, and oppression, sexual compatibility, marriage and its materialistic assets, family, and the relationship between appearance and reality.
As the title suggests, the play follows the struggles of Petruchio and Katherina in courtship and marriage; Petruchio takes on the challenge of marrying the famed ‘Shrew’, known in Padua for her scolding tongue and uninviting attitude, and by the end of the play manages to tame her. It sheds light on the belief of the time that women should be completely obedient toward their masters, and that Kate realizes she will get nowhere resisting men and relents to Petruchio’s authority.