Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the stories which inspired Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.
The question of who holds the power in a marriage lies behind innumerable stories in folklore. In the English Mystery Plays, Noah's wife was a shrew; Socrates famously had a nagging wife; Chaucer's Wife of Bath tells a story about who is the master in marriage; and Adam and Eve had their own troubles in the Garden of Eden.
Versions of Kate and Petruchio's wooing, wedding and bedding can be found in traditional tales across Europe, India and the Americas, all sharing the main elements of the favoured younger sister, the taming of the wayward sister, the obedience test and the wager. In some versions, the husband tames his wife by patient cunning but, in others, violence and brute strength are the favoured means.
One notorious example of the brutal method is the anonymous tale in verse, Here Begynneth a Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morrelles Skin, for Her Good Behavyour, printed in 1550. Two sisters - one shrewish, one mild - both find husbands. The husband of the unruly wife first beats and strips her, then kills and flays his horse, Morrel, in order to wrap the salted skin around the bleeding body of his recalcitrant wife. After this treatment she, unsurprisingly, meekly serves her husband's guests at his feast.
The resourceful ingenuity shown by Petruchio in his 'teaching' of his new wife is a long way from this cruelty. His hawking metaphor and his strategy of 'killing her in her own humour' are Shakespeare's own addition to the taming tradition. The Tudor plays in this tradition, such as John Heywood's Merry Play between 'John John the Husband, Tyb his Wife and Sir John the Priest', are much simpler affairs.
Shakespeare's original audience would have been familiar with sermons and pamphlets on the subject of decorous marital behaviour. Katherina's long speech on the relationship between a husband and wife echoes one of the Colloquies of the sixteenth-century humanist scholar, Erasmus.
Juan Vives's The Office of and Duetie of an Husband (translated by Thomas Paynell in 1553) is another example of an intellectual Christian perspective on the subject. The subjection of the wife to the authority of the husband is very clearly set out in the Anglican Homily on Marriage, which was one of the many sermons read in church from 1562 onwards by order of the Crown.
The story of the beggar man waking up to find himself a king is an age-old folk tale: one of the earliest written versions is that in the Arabian Nights. It was the subject of many ballads and jigs current in Shakespeare's time.
For the third strand of his plot, Shakespeare turned to more a classical, literary source: the entanglements around Bianca and her wooers are similar to those in George Gascoigne's play Supposes. Gascoigne translated his play in 1566 from Ariosto's Italian comedy, I Suppositi (1506). Ariosto had himself drawn on the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence. The 'Supposes' of the title refer to the many mistakes and confusions where one person is mistaken for another. Masters are taken for servants, servants for masters, strangers for fathers - all in aid of the secret courtship of a young man for the daughter of a rich merchant.
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo shows Alexandra Gilbreath as Katharine and Jasper Britton as Petruchio in the RSC's 2003 production of The Taming of the Shrew © RSC