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Short Shakespeare!

The Taming
of the Shrew

March 24, 2012

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by Rachel Rockwell

Something Borrowed, Something New

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 with certainty, 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 that an actor or rival director transcribed from memory of a staged production of Shakespeare's play. Such transcriptions by memory were common in a day when plays were not typically published and sold until a theater company viewed their popularity waning. The existing, handwritten copies were held closely by the theater 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 in 1588 or 1589 from his home in rural England.

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. And 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 every 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.

– Contributed by the CST Education Department

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