The Textual Problem of “Shrew” and how a Number of Productions Have Responded


by John Moore for School of Continuing Studies: Shakespeare Studies first assessment December 1998.


The Textual Problem of “Shrew”

The problem with “Shrew” is that two distinct plays have been handed to us. By far the best known is, of course, “The Taming of the Shrew” by Shakespeare (authorship claims concerning the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, et al are outside of the scope of this essay) which appears in the Folio of 1623; it is in the half of the Canon that does not exist in Quarto. The anonymous “The Taming of a Shrew” (“a Pleasant Conceited Historie”) dates from 1594 when it was apparently performed at Newington Butts. To hopefully reduce confusion “The Shrew” will be referred to below as “Shakespeare’s play” whereas “The Taming of a Shrew” will be termed “A Shrew”.


Many theories have been put forward to reconcile the two texts since they are not only similar in name but also in plot and characters; although not character names, lengths or location. Both plays feature a rough countryman called Sly (or Slie) who begins the play the worse for drink (“warm’d with ale” - line 30 of the Scene 1 of the Induction) and falls prey to a practical joke by Lords/Huntsmen. In both plays there is a wild young woman named Kate, whose father is intent on marrying her to almost anyone who will take her on. All other names differ but similar roles appear in each play. Petruchio the young man who comes to “wife it wealthily in Padua” in Shakespeare’s play is analogous to Ferando in “a Shrew” where he tells us Kate’s father “hath promised me six thousand crowns” to marry in Athens where the earlier play is set. Apart from setting there are a number of other minor differences such as Shakespeare’s play only has two daughters but introduces rivalry but the plays also share major plot elements. Namely, a “shrew” is tamed in a particular way - she is publicly humiliated on her wedding day, she is starved at home, obliged to call the sun moon, and to call an elderly man a beautiful girl. None of this can be disputed and it is inconceivable that two such similar plays are not linked in some way - we would need octillions of playwrights with octillions of quills for it to be otherwise.


However, there have been many commentators on the similarity or lack of similarity of the texts. Analysis of the various theories is too vast and detailed to be discussed here at any length but to be brief there are three schools of thought:


1)    Shakespeare used “a Shrew” as a source for his play - much like he used “Arthur Brooke’s” narrative poem "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet" as the basis for “Romeo and Juliet” - but without the self-effacing comments he made on that occasion, as far as we know.

2)    Others re-constructed “A Shrew” from audience memory of productions of Shakespeare’s play and/or memories of actors who had appeared in it. (Amongst other things this leads to a possible explanation of how analogous roles in the two plays changed in size - actors are better at remembering their own lines than those of others.) This is the Bad Quarto theory.

3)    The two plays are both based on another play now lost. This is the Ur-Shrew theory. Where Ur[i] is a reference to the Mesopotamian city of Ur that was abandoned in the 4th Century BC.


(In addition it has been suggested that the two plays are a result of an accident in the printer’s room where sheets were dropped on the floor[ii]! The idea’s supporters argue that the end of “A Shrew” should be added to the end of Shakespeare’s in order to complete it. But perhaps that way lies madness as if we accept that we are part way to accepting the proposition that since the entire text of “The Shrew” is an anagram of “King Lear” (with a good measure of letters left over) a particularly spectacular accident must have occurred at the printers during the production of the Folio.)


The generally, but not universally, accepted view is the “Bad Quarto” theory. I.e. “A Shrew” was constructed by some enterprising (if only in a politically correct sense) people who saw the opportunity to make money by breathing new life into a play already known to the public.


Thus we have the Shakespeare play generally credited as being both the original and the “superior” of the two works and that would be the end of the problem if Shakespeare’s play was simply a more intricately plotted and poetically implemented piece of comic drama. However, there is another complication. “A Shrew” brilliantly (to its supporters) contains a complete theatrical framing device. This is the Sly part of the story which although present in its birth in both plays as the Induction is only continued to the end in “A Shrew”. From the perspective of plays in Shakespeare’s time and in particular his own plays there is not a problem with having an opening device that disappears a short way into the play. While it is true that “The Shrew” is Shakespeare’s only play to feature an Induction, many of his plays feature a prologue and these are more common than epilogues. It apparently didn’t upset the Elizabethan sense of form or style to do this. One could have a device to help jump-start the play and it was by no means essential to bring it back once the play had gathered its own momentum. However, a contemporary audience tends to expect things to be wrapped up with a certain sense of symmetry. This is probably a result of so much television and film being hopelessly low brow with everything tending to be very pointed and obvious to ensure that nobody who can count to ten without using their fingers is left behind. Epilogues are now bound more in the public’s mind as pairing with prologues and to fulfil this some have duly appeared. Thus in any modern production it is difficult to imagine staging “the Shrew” without at least thinking what to do with the appealing sense of symmetry afforded by taking on board the envelope of “A Shrew”. But apart from a purely aesthetic nicety of applying a concentric circle around Shakespeare’s play there is also the undeniable veil that this can provide to what can be a sensitive play. In the same way as “A Merchant of Venice” can be seen as “anti-Semitic”, “The Shrew” can be seen as anti-feminine. Although in the text Petruchio never hits Kate people often think that he does and certainly in some productions he does. The closest to Petruchio doing any violence to Kate in the text is in Act 2 Scene 1 where Petruchio says “I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again”. There is also the tradition of the whip started by John Philip Kemble. These ideas inevitably form part of the public’s mindset and encourage a director to do something about the source so that it appears neither dated nor to be making fun of violence towards women. The next section discusses several productions that have “done something” with the source and several that haven’t.


How Various Productions Have Responded to the Two Texts

There have been many productions this century, this essay concentrates on those seen or heard by the author either on stage, film, television or audio (a much underrated medium!).


There are three main ways of resolving the problem of the two sources.

1)    Simplistic. The Induction and “A Shrew’s” conclusion can be deleted. This won’t confuse the audience’s sense of symmetry but can restrict the director’s choices made in the core of the play itself. Since without the Induction we are left without a veil around the Kate and Petruchio story. So the director doesn’t have the option to go one way with the core and have it balanced by the envelope which as it operates closer to reality is open to more serious interpretation than the inner story - which after all is just a play and/or dream.

2)    Purist. Put on Shakespeare’s play as handed down to us and leave the Induction potentially hanging in the audience’s mind.

3)    Rounded. The Induction can be retained and rounded with the use of lines from “A Shrew’s” conclusion.


The productions outlined here cover all three possibilities.


1)         The 1967 film by director Franco Zeffirelli with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor[iii]. This is the Simplistic or degenerate solution to the problem of what to do with the two source texts and is only mentioned here as since it is the only recent filming of the play it is the production that more people will have seen than any other. Shakespeare being placed before the public in this form may perhaps be better understood by considering two events of the previous year. 1966 saw Burton-Taylor during their first marriage star so successfully in the harrowing, for the day, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” 1966 also saw the re-release of a newly scored and shortened film of the 1929 Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford version of “Taming of the Shrew”. This was the only film in which the Fairbank-Pickfords, who had been married for ten years at the time, both starred. So perhaps owing to these two events and the actor’s eternal quest to show their range the Zeffirelli-Burton-Taylor 1967 collaboration is not very surprising[iv]. The production although good fun, easy going, accessible and well suited for a mass audience makes unimaginative use of its two potential sources. In this film Sly is abandoned altogether and both sub-plots and “boffin”[v] and “peasant” parts are diminished to give more time to banter and slapstick frolicking between the box-office drawing couple playing the “mark one” roles. This makes it to an extent part of the tradition started by Garrick in 1754 with his Catherine and Petruchio. An enjoyable romp of a film but a simplified version of Shakespeare’s text losing the ensemble feel of the source and drawing nothing whatsoever from “A Shrew”.


2)         The 1963 audio production directed by George Rylands with Derek Godfrey and Peggy Ashcroft[vi]. This is an example of a Purist production. It has the entire Induction virtually word for word as in the Arden Shakespeare. It also retains the following from the end of Act 1 Scene 1:


FIRST SERVANT: My lord, you nod; you do not mind the play.

SLY:                        Yes, by Saint Anne do I. A good matter, surely; comes

there  any more of it?

PAGE.                    My lord, 'tis but begun.

SLY.                        'Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady

                                Would 'twere done!                        [They sit and mark]


Sly and Petruchio are played by different actors as are Kate and the Hostess. This Purist approach is also the decision of director Howard Sackler in his 1960 audio production starring Trevor Howard and Margaret Leighton[vii] which, although arguably better performed than the former, is, within the parameters of this essay, the same production.


3)         The 1995 RST production directed by Gale Edwards with Michael Siberry and Josie Lawrence. This is an example of the Rounded approach to the play. In this politically correct production “A Shrew” is used to frame the piece. Its clear from the production, but repeated in the programme notes, that the intention is that the Kate and Petruchio part of the play is Christopher Sly’s dream. I.e. a poor man changing his Katie for a wealthy Katherina (the male characters are played by Siberry with the female by Lawrence). A cut version of the Induction is used with the Huntsmen dressing Sly on stage as a Lord. We don’t have Sly’s words at the end of Act 1 Scene 1, of course, and the page boy dressing up as Sly’s wife in the Induction is also cut as this is Sly’s own dream and if it were left in the audience would wonder the strangest things!


After a fairly routine middle the Shakespeare text is cut precisely at the end of Kate’s long speech (which is not delivered devotedly[viii] in contrast to the other productions considered here) at the end of Act 5 Scene 2. (i.e. Petruchio: “Why, there’s a wench” in line 181 through to line 190: Lucentio: “’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tam’d so.”) By which time Petruchio is bowed with shame and then we are back at the start of the play with Siberry again as Christopher Sly. Darkness comes, there is a noise of thunder and we pick up the text from “A Shrew” with one of the Lord’s saying the words assigned to Tapster:


Tapster:                  Now that the darksome night is overpassed,  

                And dawning day appears in crystal sky, 

Now must I haste abroad.


The next few lines are improvisation to the effect that they will put Sly (or Slie) where they found him and then we rejoin “A Shrew” with


Tapster:                  What how Slie, Awake for shame!


The rest of “A Shrew” is cut and we see a changed Sly, still on the floor, embracing Katie Hacket. A reconciliatory ending from a previous director of “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest”. All very safe and politically correct but making a happy union of the two source texts.



4)  1994 Animated Tales of Shakespeare production with screenplay be Leon Garfield[ix].  In this inspired, charming and Rounded production we see a dint of the Edwards version. “A pair of stocks you rogue!” is one of the few lines to survive from the Induction but nonetheless the essence is there with the animation and we see Sly being whisked off by the huntsmen and presented a play. In Kate’s Speech at the end the camera pans back to see Sly watching the play but rapidly dozing off. When he does so he is whisked off again by the huntsmen and the play within a play ends with Petruchio: God bid you good night. Then we cut to see Sly waking outside the inn, and he says a reduced form of the end of “A Shrew”:


Slie:         Sim some more wine: whats all the

Plaiers gon: am I not a Lord?

I have had the bravest dream.

I know now how to tame a shrew.


Whereupon he walks confidently into the Inn only to be met again with words plucked from line 2 of the Induction:


Hostess: A pair of stocks you rogue!


And she beats him out of doors. So its not entirely unlike Edwards’ version: male domination has not triumphed so political correctness is achieved. It makes good use of “A Shrew” for rounding the story and distancing what we see in the main body of the play. That is, it balances any thoughts some may have that Kate was browbeaten by Petruchio in the immediately preceding scene. So presumably even Fiona Shaw’s hecklers would see little here to take offence over. In fiction we may see a warm and obedient Kate transformed from almost autistic behaviour at the start of the play - but in reality outside the dream Sly does not get his way - we have come full circle and all is well.



Few directors would be brave enough to stage “The Shrew” today along the lines of the Burton-Taylor film - which showed it, in the absence of the Induction of Shakespeare’s play and the conclusion of “A Shrew”,  as a direct ‘real’ story (for a farce, that is). But even then the film was helped by the audience’s knowledge of and familiarity with the two leading players. This encouraged the film to be seen as presumably how it was originally intended four centuries earlier as a knockabout comedy with plenty of both verbal and slapstick humour (or to quote “A pleasant comedy” as the Induction describes it). With the two stars so firmly appearing above the title of the film in the public’s mind as well as on the celluloid, its critics will surely have been disarmed from trying to read too much into the subject matter. However, in the current (waning?) age which expects films to have Schwarzenegger accompanied by a similarly armed and attired woman to have a whipped Kate or an emotionally broken Kate with an unchanged Petruchio at the end would be dangerous at the box office. Especially considering that most people wanting to go to the theatre are women[x]. So having a version that could easily be seen as offensive to women would likely be a box office failure. Hopefully without descending too much into what George Bernard Shaw so dismissively termed Bardolatry its seems entirely plausible that Shakespeare put the Induction there for the very particular purpose of ensuring that his good-natured comedy would not be taken too seriously and annoy half the public, rather than out of vain or experimental conceit. The intellectual stimulation of playing about with levels of reality echoed by impersonations of one sort or another in the body of the play were a bonus to the wordsmith and dramatist nonpareil. The veil had to be there and Shakespeare knew it.


If the induction were not present in either source and if the conclusion in “A Shrew” did not exist it would be a very good idea to invent them.



General note

 In writing in the computer age it is very convenient and efficient to consult ‘virtual’ or ‘soft’ information rather than paper information. Particularly in an essay like this where two texts are compared. So in the main any quotes from the text are direct cut and pastes from ‘soft’ sources although the introduction by Brian Morris in the Arden Shakespeare was read some weeks before starting this essay and together with lectures both recent and in previous years provided the background for the three theories on the two surviving “taming” texts. There is not any lengthy paraphrasing of, or unacknowledged quoting from any source.


Taming of The Shrew - from the MIT server. Presents the entire text broken down into HTML pages each containing a scene.

Taming of The Shrew - from the Gutenberg Project. Presents the entire play as a single text file so good for rapid searching.

Taming of A Shrew - from Oxford Text Archive (after having to fill in and sign an agreement and send it by paper fax - electronic submissions not allowed! Something of a palaver to obtain a text that in theory at least has been out of copyright for several centuries!)


[i] Britannica 98 CD and Microsoft Encarta 98 for information on the ancient city of Ur.


[ii] Pamela Mason in a lecture on “Taming of the Shrew” for the Shakespeare in Performance course in January 1996 mentioned this theory briefly which she said had been put forward “in all seriousness by renowned academics”. She was not a subscriber to it.


[iii] Taming of a Shrew. Film made by Columbia Pictures in 1967. On video from VCI. 1 hour 56 minutes. VHS CC 7453T.


[iv] Cinemania 97 by Microsoft for years of films. But the observation on the releases of “Virginia Woolf” and the Fairbanks-Pickford “Shrew” is original as are comments on the Burton-Taylor film.


[v] Boffins, Peasants and Mark Ones. These terms were used in a lecture by Julian Glover to the Shakespeare Summer School at Stratford in 1995. They were coined by a famous dresser at Stratford for thirty years named John McLoud (more usually known as Black Mac). Mark ones are leading roles, boffins are good sized parts like Mercutio, and peasant roles are minor roles like “second murderer”.


[vi] Marlowe Dramatic Society 1963 audio production directed by George Rylands with Derek Godfrey and Peggy Ashcroft in the leading parts. 2 hours. Recently available as audio cassettes as Argo 1160.


[vii] HarperCollins AudioBooks “The Taming of the Shrew” 1960 audio recording directed by Howard Sackler” with Trevor Howard and Margaret Leighton (and, interestingly, Tranio played by a young Robert Stephens). 2 hours. HCA 68.


[viii] The angry or bitter delivery of Lawrence (explained by sight of the money wagered) is perhaps not surprising given that as recently as 1987 in Jonathan Miller’s production Fiona Shaw was heckled in that speech. Shaw continued the speech to the hecklers but this response was unlikely to encourage a theatre ever more desperate to pack bums on seats.


[ix] Shakespeare - The Animated Tales: “Taming of the Shrew” video.


[x] As Jane Lapotaire so accurately observed in a talk to the Shakespeare in Performance course in January 97 - men often see a theatre trip as “her treat” and would rather not go - as in the school-boy in Act 2 Scene 7 of AYLI: “creeping like snail Unwillingly to school”.