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 ceremony itself.
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.