The Taming of the Shrew written by William Shakespeare is an extremely humorous piece of romantic comedy, which students will enjoy, relate to, and learn from, because the underlying themes of the play still have relevance to our modern lives.
The story begins with Katarina, the central character and the eldest daughter of Baptista, a rich gentleman of Padua. She inherits the title of the "shrew" which is a word used to indicate an opinionated, domineering, sharp-tongued and fiery tempered woman, from her family and local gentlemen. These personality traits ensure that she will never marry, as no gentleman can tame her. Baptista's younger daughter Bianca, however, is a beautiful and much more ‘feminine' woman than her sister, cannot marry until Katarina finds a suitable husband and is off her fathers hands. This is where tension of the plot begins: can anyone tame the Shrew?
As it happens, Petruccio, a young gentleman comes to Padua looking for a wife, and is undeterred by the rumours of Katarina's temper. He hopes to tame her into a suitable wife, and obedient lady. Through Petruccio's conquest to woo Katarina, a tense but humorous relationship develops between these characters. Providing that Petruccio succeeds, Lucentio, a young university student, (known for his lack of intelligence) would be free to set his sights on Bianca. Lucentio is a romanticist at heart whose studies are forgotten when Bianca arrives on the scene. However, Lucentio is not the only suitor for Bianca, Gremio, an old foolish gentleman, and Hortensio, a young man posing as the music tutor Litio, are also infatuated with Bianca and consequently, a struggle between the three gentlemen ensues. To win Bianca's hand these gentlemen must prove their worth to the lady herself, but more importantly to her father, and they employ numerous tactics such as role swapping and disguise in an attempt to do this.
Overall, this play (written around 1592) focuses on the concerns of married life which were particularly relevant to English audiences of the Renaissance period. Theirs was a society concerned with marriage in general, thanks in part to Henry VIII's separation of England from the Catholic Church in 1534 in order to secure a divorce that the pope had refused to grant him. Henry's troubles highlight one important aspect of Elizabethan marriages among the upper class: they were most often arranged for money, land, or power, rather than for love. Moreover, unless you were the king of England, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries offered few ways out of an unhappy marriage. Thus, the resolution of marital disputes became an important topic in the popular literature of the era.
Of particular worry to this society were 'shrews' or 'scolds'—that is, cantankerous or gossipy wives, who resisted or undermined the assumed authority of the husband within a marriage. A large number of sermons, plays, and pamphlets of the time address related topics: the taming of shrews by their husbands or the public punishment of scolds by, for example, repeatedly dunking them in a river. In some of this literature, it is difficult to distinguish between behaviour that is being parodied and behaviour that is presented as an ideal. This ambiguity may also be found in The Taming of the Shrew, which manages to lampoon chauvinistic behaviour while simultaneously reaffirming its social validity. The play celebrates the quick wit and fiery spirit of its heroine even while revelling in her humiliation.
Activity One: Ask the students to divide into three groups and allocate an extract from the play that describes a character or makes suggestions about their personality and nature, in his/her absence.
Some examples of extracts from the play which describe characters in their absence are as follows:
The first extract is taken from Act 1 Scene 1 and consists of a conversation between Lucentio and Tranio about Bianca (in her absence). In this conversation Lucentio first uncovers his love for Bianca and he lists all of her attribute's which have attracted him to her, describing her as young, modest, beautiful etc.
LUCENTIO: O Tranio, till I found it to be true
I never thought possible or likely.
But see, while idly I stood looking on
I found the effect of love in idleness.
And not in plainness do confess to thee,
That art to me as secret and as dear
As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was,
Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,
If I achieve not this young modest girl.
Counsel me, Tranio, for I know thou canst.
Assist me, Tranio, for I know thou whilt.
TRANIO: Master, it is no time to chide you now.
Affection is not rated from the heart.
If love have touched you, naught remains but so –
Master, you look so longly on the maid
Perhaps you marked not what's the pith of all.
LUCENTIO: O yes, I saw sweet beauty in her face,
Such as the daughter of Agenor had,
That made great Jove to humble him to her hand
When with his knees he kissed the Cretan strand.
In the second extract from Act 1 Scene 1, Hortensio and Gremio have begun concocting a plan to find Katarina a husband so that they will be free to marry Bianca. In this conversation the men describe Katarina in a very negative way suggesting that she has many faults and that any man who would marry her must be a devil and would be damning himself into a living hell:
Marry, sir, to get a husband for her sister.
A husband! a devil.
I say, a husband.
I say, a devil. Thinkest thou, Hortensio, though
her father be very rich, any man is so very a fool
to be married to hell?
Tush, Gremio, though it pass your patience and mine
to endure her loud alarums, why, man, there be good
fellows in the world, an a man could light on them,
would take her with all faults, and money enough.
As a group, ask students to portray these characters to the class using the information given to them in the extract. They must to this by each coming up with one line to be followed by a physical pose – which will be presented one by one as a group. Therefore we end up with a freeze frame of the character. You may want to give each group a different character from the play. This way the whole class will get an idea about all the characters.
Extension: Character Motivations
Get the students into groups of three and allocate an area of the room to each group.
Hand each group a stimulus piece of text from Taming of the Shrew (a character performing a specific action in order to achieve something – in this way the students can see the motivation behind the character's actions). Each student needs a pen and paper.
The student's task is to read each line and derive a meaning for it. From this meaning they must identity what the character is really thinking. Once the group has done this, ask them to create a subtext for each line in modern language (not merely creating a modern day version of the text). They ask them to derive the movement of the character, physicalising their feelings.
Allocate them a 10-minute time frame.
This will help students understand the characters motivations for their actions.