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The most influential writer in
all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to
a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded
no further. In 1582 he married an older woman,
Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he
left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor
and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and
Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England
and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns
of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and
James I (ruled 1603–1625),
and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s
company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members
the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired
to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age
of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries
such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various
editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century
his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was
well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works
led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth
of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s
personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded
from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s
plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the
Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support
for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory
is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary,
Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays
and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy
of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays
seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming
so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature
and culture ever after.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s
earliest comedies, and it shares many essential characteristics
with his other romantic comedies, such as Much Ado About
Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These
characteristics include lighthearted and slapstick humor, disguises
and deception, and a happy ending in which most of the characters
come out satisfied. The lightheartedness of these romantic comedies
contrasts sharply with the darker humor and deeper characterization
of Shakespeare’s later plays, both comic and tragic. The youthfulness
of the playwright can be seen in the whimsical spirit of the early
plays. Like the other romantic comedies, The Taming of the
Shrew focuses on courtship and marriage, but, unlike most
of them, it devotes a great deal of attention to married life after
the wedding. The other comedies usually conclude with the wedding
A play focusing on the concerns of married life would
have seemed particularly relevant to English audiences of the Renaissance
period. Theirs was a society concerned with marriage in general,
thanks in part to Henry VIII’s separation of England from the Catholic
Church in 1534 in order to secure a divorce
that the pope had refused to grant him. Henry’s troubles highlight
one important aspect of Elizabethan marriages among the upper class:
they were most often arranged for money, land, or power, rather
than for love. Moreover, unless you were the king of England, the
late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries offered few ways
out of an unhappy marriage. Thus, the resolution of marital disputes
became an important topic in the popular literature of the era.
Of particular worry to this society were “shrews” or
“scolds”—that is, cantankerous or gossipy wives, who resisted or
undermined the assumed authority of the husband within a marriage.
A large number of sermons, plays, and pamphlets of the time address related
topics: the taming of shrews by their husbands or the public punishment
of scolds by, for example, repeatedly dunking them in a river. Part
of this body of literature took a very diplomatic attitude toward
women, although much of it was extremely misogynistic. In some of
this literature, it is difficult to distinguish between behavior that
is being parodied and behavior that is presented as an ideal. This ambiguity
may also be found in The Taming of the Shrew, which
manages to lampoon chauvinistic behavior while simultaneously reaffirming
its social validity. The play celebrates the quick wit and fiery
spirit of its heroine even while reveling in her humiliation.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Taming of the Shrew!