Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I take a look today at The Taming fo the Shrew. It might surprise you to know that this is one of my favourite plays. I say this because it can be produced and told in so many ways – from a touching romance to a very dark tale of abuse. It reminds us of the potentially fine line between love and hate, between being cruel and being kind. It is always a play that leaves me thinking. This is one of those plays with a myriad of sources, reaching back into antiquity. The basic story of a man marrying a strong willed woman and the subsequent battles is probably as old as history but can certainly be traced back to the stories that grew up around Socrates and his wife Xanthippe. There are so many sources, oral and literary for this kind of ‘taming’ story that it is really impossible to say which if any directly inspired Shakespeare’s story.
However there is a direct literary source for the sub-plot of the play in which Lucentio changes places with Tranio to win the love of Bianca (the so called good sister). This was available to Shakespeare in George Gascoigne’s 1573 version which is itself based on Ludovico Ariosto’s I Suppositi (1551), In I Suppositi, Erostrato falls in love with Polynesta. Erostrato disguises himself as Dulipo a servant, whilst the real servant Dulipo pretends to be Erostrato. Having done this, Erostrato is hired as a tutor for Polynesta. Meanwhile, Dulipo pretends to formally woo Polynesta so as to frustrate the wooing of the aged Cleander. Dulipo outbids Cleander, but he promises far more than he can deliver, so he and Erostrato dupe a travelling gentleman from Siena into pretending to be Erostrato’s father, Philogano, and to guarantee the dower. Soon after, the real Philogano arrives, and all comes to a head.
You can see that many details are taken directly from this source – even down to the false father trick. But Shakespeare’s skill is evident in the way he weaves the plots together, so that Lucentio’s real father arriving in Padua gets caught up in Kate and Petruchio’s power games and finds himself greeted as if he were a beautiful young woman. Shakespeare also leaves out some details for in I Suppositi Polynesta gets pregnant with Erostrato before they are married and while he is still disguised as the servant/tutor Dulipo. Perhaps Shakespeare leaves out this detail to enhance the difference between the shrewish Kate and her ‘good’ sister Bianca. Amusingly of course many modern productions fly in the face of this distinction by using stage business to sexualise the relationship between Lucentio and Bianca. Whether Shakespeare used stage business to imply this also (in a sort of homage to Polynesta’s pregnancy) is sadly impossible to tell – but typically for The Taming of the Shrew we are left with plenty of think about.