A common view about The Taming of the Shrew is that modern feminism opened our eyes to the sickening violence and sexism in a rip-roaring comedy that once gave hearty pleasure to all. In the bad old days, Shakespeare's original audiences would have enjoyed seeing an unruly woman brought under the heel of her lord and master, because they fully believed that women were the weaker sex whose duty was to obey their husbands. Since women lived slave-like existences with no rights or power in a world ruled by men, their opinions about a play or about wife abuse didn't matter. Even if they did, women would have sided with Petruchio, because "the patriarchy" made them passive and compliant.
You've probably caught on: the common view is totally wrong. The Taming of the Shrew was never ideologically safe and never a comedy everyone could enjoy. The play managed to amuse, irritate, and divide audiences along gender lines since it opened in 1594. Like Mamet's Oleanna the play is tailor-made to split its audiences into factions, fomenting not just laughter, but angry dissension and debate. Shakespeare wrote for a theater that depended on a steady influx of women among its paying customers. His actors were all men and boys, but not his audience or his professional world. Some women bankrolled theaters, others worked as artisans, seamstresses, and suppliers, and others gathered money at the door. Many women went to plays and judged them, audibly and forcefully. His most important spectator was the Queen of England. The opinions of women mattered in this world. That's why The Taming of the Shrew has always been outrageous. The comedy is often compared to a sporting match, but one intent on offending the women watching, who were not used to seeing a popular shrew become a mouthpiece for wifely submission. A real shrew always fought to the bitter end and never gave up. Some women may have booed Petruchio, others may have booed Kate. Some may have sided with the dark horse Bianca, who is not tamed at all. Certainly, female flaws are not the only ones on display. The play is a virtual catalogue of offenses that men were criticized for in the period, including the violence of drunken rogues, the greed of fortune hunters, the callousness of fathers who auction off daughters, and the tyranny of husbands who torment their wives verbally and physically. A few women might revel in the taming of a scold and applaud Petruchio and his "taming school." But given what we know about the lives of women in the period, there is strong evidence that many would have pushed back in the manner of Bianca and the Widow refusing to be "schooled" by Kate: "We will have no telling!"
Taming proved so popular and controversial that it generated the only sequel to a Shakespeare play in his time. In The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher, Petruchio marries again after Kate dies from the rigors of being his wife. His new bride Maria hears he plans to beat her. So she pulls a Lysistrata, refusing to have sex with her husband and inspiring other wives to do the same. He rages at his locked door as his wife mocks at him from above, among her gossips. Finally, they reach a compromise in which Petruchio agrees to his wife's demands, in radical distinction to the ending of Taming. The joy at seeing Petruchio tamed was probably greatest among women spectators: it certainly was when I saw it performed back-to-back with The Taming of the Shrew. Afterward I reread Taming to mull over the meaning of its fascinating metadramatic frame, which is often dropped in production (as in Shrew!). An Italianate Lord plays an elaborate trick on a drunken tinker, making him think he is a rich lord too. The Lord orders up a comedy: The Taming of the Shrew. This Italian-style farce with a dose of moralizing is entertaining but divisive, and the proof is that no one (including feminists) has the same opinion about this play. I think the play had a double aim: to amuse fools who would enjoy seeing a clever man break down a troublesome woman and put her in her place, and to anger women who were fed up with lectures from abusive men about their duty. Shakespeare succeeded in his aims, which were not lofty, but that was (and is) show business. One thing is certain: without its strong appeal, there would be no Shrew!
University of Connecticut