During the Tudor period of Queen Elizabeth’s reign when audiences first watched The Taming of the Shrew, long-held traditions and social values were very much in a state of flux. For centuries, the marriage contract was exactly that: a financial agreement by two parties (the parents or guardians of the bride and groom) that constituted a “merger,” not unlike corporate mergers of today. Such a contract was based upon movement of property and the resulting power that accompanied the new combined wealth of two families. The trading of goods between the two parties was not, however, symmetrical. The bride’s dowry was transferred to the groom, who administered it. His parents provided financial backing to the new “merger,” too, but it remained under the husband’s care and did not pass to the woman or her family.
Modern audiences might be disturbed by Baptista’s auctioning of his younger daughter to the highest bidder, but his methods were customary, and were meant to assure the financial future of his daughter—and his own heirs. But with the Renaissance and its more exalted view of the individual, “property” marriage was challenged by “companionate” marriage—that is, a bond of marriage based upon the free choice of two individuals. But the unfixing of any long-held belief comes slowly, and with much public debate and social anxiety. Elizabethan society—and its literature—reflected this unsettling of tradition and the contradictions that existed side by side in a culture in flux.
The ambiguity apparent in The Taming of the Shrew (“Is Kate sincere in her speech of obedience?” “Does Shakespeare believe in two partners equally matched?”) reflects a time of social transition in Early Modern England with its contrasting images of marriage: its nostalgia for the old order on the one hand, versus a growing awareness of the individual, his passions and emotions on the other. It is quite possible to imagine a William Shakespeare who set out not to endorse a particular dogma via his Shrew, but rather, one who understood the anxieties of his Elizabethan audience, as diverse ideologically as it was socially.