Shakespeare spun his intricate web of plot and subplot in The Taming of the Shrew from threads of old stories—and a brilliant imagination. No specific source for the Kate/Petruchio plot is known, though stories of shrewish wives and husbands’ efforts to tame them have existed in folklore since the Christian mystery plays (when Mrs. Noah refused to heed her husband’s bidding to board his ark). Chaucer’s Wife of Bath was a shrew well known to Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audiences.
For many years, scholars looked at an anonymous play published in 1594, titled The Taming of a Shrew, as Shakespeare’s primary source. "A Shrew" is similar to Shakespeare’s The Shrew in plot, but not in language. In recent years, however, scholars have taken another look at this anonymous play and agree that, because of its intricacies, it could not be the work of any known contemporary of Shakespeare. Instead, "A Shrew" has come to be viewed as a poor rendering of Shakespeare’s own play, transcribed from an actor or rival director’s memory of a staged production of Shakespeare’s own play. Such transcriptions ("memorial reconstructions") were common in a day when plays were not typically published or sold until a theater company viewed their popularity waning. The few handwritten copies were held closely by the acting company as precious collateral.
Plays were not looked upon as "literature" at all in the way that we view them today. Instead, a play to the Elizabethans was an active—and ever-changing—form of entertainment. It is quite likely that with each production of his plays, Shakespeare the writer/director/actor changed them, and, in certain cases (King Lear being the prime example) more than one text considered to be authentically Shakespeare still exists. Theater was an ongoing act of cultural creation, and its words were heard, not read. If this more recent theory is true, then Shakespeare’s play was probably written before 1592, when "A Shrew" was first compiled. The many references in the play to Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire suggest that perhaps he wrote this early comedy soon after he arrived in London from his home in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1588 or 1589.
The Bianca subplot of The Taming of the Shrew also appears in "A Shrew", though altered. This, too, was a well-known story to Shakespeare’s audiences and was based upon a popular play entitled Supposes, first performed in London in 1566 and published in 1573. Its author, George Gascoigne, based his play on a popular Italian drama. Both these earlier works portray male suitors who adopt disguises and false behaviors ("supposes") to pursue a beautiful but unavailable young woman.
But it is in the weaving of the two plots—the taming of Kate and the wooing of Bianca—that Shakespeare’s creative genius discovered new ground in this early play. To these he added yet a third story—the "lording" of Christopher Sly that frames the play-within-a-play and announces its themes before we ever meet the main characters. It is Shakespeare who takes these very different stories and traditions and creates his own themes, their separate worlds now as one.
Why did he use others’ stories so freely? In the Renaissance, stories did not "belong" to an individual. There were no copyright laws and material was borrowed freely. But more important was the fact that stories were meant to be told and retold—as they had been for centuries and centuries before. Because so few people were yet literate (the printing press was invented only a century before Shakespeare’s lifetime) much of the history and the tales that people knew were communicated in speech, and passed from one generation to another. Stories belonged, in a sense, to a common pool for all to reach into and create their own story. Creativity was based not upon new stories but on new tellings and reworkings of the old stories.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department