The Arden Shakespeare third series edition of The Taming of the Shrew offers two plays for the price of one. As well as the text printed in the First Folio edited to Arden’s usual standards, Appendix 3 features an unedited facsimile of The Taming of a Shrew, the anonymous play, often mentioned in critical studies but rarely published. It’s the ur-Hamlet or Hamlet Q1 of Shrew, a work which simultaneously aids and infuriates our understanding of the Folio text, and a prop which has recently helped the play’s feminist credentials as it eases into the modern world.
Perhaps recognising the weight of feminist criticism which already exists in relation to the play, Hodgson instead spends much the pagination investigating both plays as part of a tradition of Shrew narratives. Jan Harold Brunvand recently carried out a study of these tales (similar to Vladimir Propp’s classification of fairy tales) listing a wide range of “motif complexes” and “free floating narrative elements” of which The Shrew matches at least eleven, suggesting Shakespeare was calcifying a story which already had a strong oral tradition.
Like the Hamlet texts, critics have become very exercised over the years as to whether one is a rewrite of the other, the extent of Shakespeare’s involvement in A Shrew and the implications that in terms of attribution in contemporary written records. The mention in Henslow’s diary could relate to either play, which has implications when dating The Shrew whose writing has variously been put somewhere across over two decades, only recently having settled somewhere in the late 1880s thanks to textual similarities with the earlier histories.
As is often the case in this Arden third series, editor Barbara Hodgdon is reluctant to make sweeping decisions simply there isn’t enough evidence either way. The easy option is that it’s an earlier play, which a young Shakespeare still learning the ropes as a kind of script doctor gutted, improved and readied for his new company. There’s certainly enough textual similarities to suggest that. Another suggestion is that it’s an early play by Shakespeare which he later extensively rewrote. The rather more murkier idea is that it’s a memorial reconstruction.
But like the various iterations of Hamlet, the theatrical history of The Shrew is intertwined with A Shrew, because of the implications it has on the famous final scene in which the shrew, Katherina, apparently does an unheralded about face and falls in line withthe tamer, Petruccio. For some feminists that makes the play as misogynistic as The Merchant of Venice is anti-semetic and for decades has created fundamental issues for some directors and actors on how to portray that speech as part of the character’s logical trajectory.
Which is where A Shrew comes in. The Shrew’s folio edition already includes an “induction” in which a drunk, Christopher Sly is tricked into believing himself nobility and The Shrew becomes a theatrical fantasy being performed for him after his indiscretions with a hostess. A Shrew extends Sly’s contribution across the play, the drunk and attendant lords commenting on the action, the final scene giving way to a coda that concludes this parallel narrative, the Pyramus and Thisbe conceit from A Midsummer Night’s Dream spread across a whole play.
These framing scenes are now often included in modern productions, in effect of nullifying Katherina’s about face as the fantasies of Sly or at least the slightly nefarious writer of this play within a play. This has the effect of, as Guardian critic Michael Billington suggests, transforming “(a brutally sexist polemic) totally offensive to our age and society” into “just a play”. You could also argue that it ruins the verisimilitude of the characters but since Shakespeare’s characters perennially address the audience, that’s less of a concern than it might be.
But in illuminating these issues, Hodgdon underlines that Shakespeare’s plays, far from being static entities, become transformed through interpretation and that even The Shrew which has received acres of negative criticism across the years, can become a feminist symbol and even critical of the male psyche depending on the staging. What Shakespeare himself was implying we’ll never know, but considering his facility with writing strong female roles (including Katherina for the most part), thanks to the induction, it seems to be men who are the butt of this joke.
The Taming of the Shrew (Arden Shakespeare. Third Series). Edited by Barbara Hodgdon. Methuen Drama. 2010. RRP: £9.99. ISBN: 978-1903436936. Review copy supplied.