The first production of The Taming of the Shrew that I remember seeing was at a local community theater. I had just decided not to be bar mitzvahed, and, facing pushback from my grandparents, was questioning all religious tradition. I came away from the production (put on by mostly Christian homeschoolers) feeling that the play was moralizing, didactic, and unambiguous.
Indeed, re-reading the play now side-by-side with Prof. Greenblatt’s and Prof. Garber’s scholarship, it is hard to miss the influence of the early modern morality play in which, after being corrupted by vice, an Everyman is reformed with the aid of virtue. The plot of Taming of the Shrew aligns easily with the conventional narrative of a morality play, in which a corrupted Everyman is bettered with the aid of Virtue. According to a surface-level reading of Shakespeare’s play, Katherine, corrupted by “shrewishness,” is returned to a state of righteousness by angel stand-in Petruchio.
However, the often violent Petruchio can also be cast as the corrupting Vice. Throughout the play he transforms himself into many shapes, most strikingly a half-dressed demon at his own wedding. In each shape he tries to influence Katherine–just like the vice of the Early Modern morality play. In a play so fascinated by entertainment, acting, and persuasion, shapeshifting is particularly relevant.
Morality plays are not the only kind of Early Modern popular entertainment which appears in Taming. In the final act, Katherine, Bianca, and the Widow become a form of entertainment for their husbands, who bet on their wives performances. Professor Marjorie Garber explains in Shakespeare After All that that these bets are interspersed with references to bear baiting. In what might be a reference to the solstice folk-theater known as the mummers’ play, Katherine seems to be resurrected at the end of the play. Just before her final and infamous speech, her father promises Petruchio, “Another dowry to another daughter, / For she is changed as she had never been.” Katherine’s father believes she has been reborn as a new woman. Resurrection is crucial to the Mummer’s Play, which celebrates both the re-birth of the sun, and in later times, the birth of Christ. The theme of rebirth is common in Shakespeare’s later plays, including mother-daughter pairs Perdita and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Thaisa and Marina in Pericles who are all seemingly resurrected by the ends of their respective plays.
Tickets to open-air theaters in London were cheap, making theater an accessible form of entertainment. Tropes from bear baiting, morality plays, and mummer’s plays–all amusements familiar to lower-class Londoners–would be recognizable to much of Taming’s audience. Yet the play itself, performed in a theater filled with a cross section of London life, presents drama and other entertainments as luxuries of the elite. In the frame tale which begins the play, the unnamed Lord fools a beggar, Christopher Sly, into thinking he is noble by summoning music. “Wilt thou have music?” he asks. “Hark, Apollo plays.” Soon, the Lord recruits a group of actors to reinforce Sly’s newfound nobility by performing a play for him. So, in front of a largely working class audience, an actor playing a Lord tricks a beggar into thinking he is a lord, by himself acting as a servant and hiring a group of actors (also played by actors of course) to perform a play. The entire deception is, within the frame tale, for the entertainment of the Lord, but his antics and the following play are all for the pleasure of the ordinary audience. The way in which Taming references and imitates popular early modern entertainment further undermines any sense within the play that theater is art for the elite.