The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 1)

The Taming of the Shrew, written perhaps as early as 1592, is Shakespeare’s earliest treatment of the subjects of love, marriage, and the relationships between men and women. It is also, arguably, his fullest treatment of those subjects, particularly the subject of marriage. While other later plays, perhaps most notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, offer a commentary upon these subjects as well, The Taming of the Shrew is the only play by Shakespeare that is focused totally upon the subject of marriage and what makes for a happy—or unhappy—relationship between husband and wife. It also features the couple, Petruchio and Kate, whom Harold Bloom, the Yale-based scholar of literature, describes with characteristic succinctness and insight as the couple “who rather clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare.”[1]

As a commentary upon marriage, The Taming of the Shrew is also a commentary upon the primeval marriage between Adam and Eve as described in the Book of Genesis. As a denizen of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare lived at a time and in a place in which the doctrines of Christianity were still taken seriously. Disputes over doctrine and church order had recently and violently shaken England and certain mores derived, in part, from the Bible still dictated acceptable behavior and language both onstage and off.[2] One of the most important marriage manuals of Elizabethan England, Edmund Tilney’s The Flower of Friendship, of which “seven editions were published between 1568 and 1587,” including “three . . . within the first year of issue,” derives its principles for the proper relationship between husband and wife from the relationship between Adam and Eve.[3] According to Valerie Wayne, a professor at the University of Hawai’i whose work has focused upon women in Early Modern England,

only three other Renaissance texts on marriage appeared in more English editions [than did Tilney’s work]: Heinrich Bullinger’s Christen State of Matrimonye of 1541 . . ., John Dod and Richard Cleaver’s Godlie Forme of Householde Government of 1598, and Erasmus’s Encomium matrimonii in its English translations.[4]

All three of these works make extensive use of the biblical account of Adam and Eve in their respective discussions of marriage.

Indeed, the service for the “Solemnization of Matrimony” itself, from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, the service book then in use in the Church of England, contains a prayer specifically invoking the example of Adam and Eve immediately before the Communion prayers begin:

Almighty God, who at the beginning did create our first parents, Adam and Eve, and did sanctify and join them together in marriage; Pour upon you the riches of his grace, sanctify and bless you, that ye may please him both in body and soul, and live together in holy love unto your lives’ end. Amen.[5]

Significantly, this is the same book Petruchio knocks down along with the priest presiding over the marriage ceremony “when,” as Gremio describes it,

the priest

Should ask, if Katharina should be his wife,

‘Ay, by gogs-wouns,’ quoth he; and swore so loud,

That, all-amazed, the priest let fall the book;

And, as he stoop’d again to take it up,

The mad-brain’d bridegroom took him such a cuff

That down fell priest and book and book and priest:

‘Now take them up,’ quoth he, ‘if any list.’[6]

 

It is this disdainful attitude toward decorum and social convention that characterize both Kate and Petruchio. Through a presentation of a commonality that begins with this mutual hostility toward the expectations of society and culminates in their eventual agreement to manipulate those expectations for their own benefit, Shakespeare offers to the audience of his play a new and altogether original commentary upon the story of Adam and Eve.

[1] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 28.

[2] There was, for example, “An Act to Restrain Abuses of Players” passed by the English Parliament in 1606, which stipulated that ‘no person or persons . . . in any stage play, interlude, show, maygame, or pageant’ might ‘jestingly or profanely speak or use the holy name of God or Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost or of the Trinity.’ Thus,” says Marjorie Garber, a scholar of Shakespeare at Harvard University, “swearing by the name of the Christian God on the stage was forbidden by law.” Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Anchor Books, 2004), 660.

[3] Valerie Wayne, “Introduction,” in Edmund Tilney, The Flower of Friendship, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2005), 297.

[6] The Taming of the Shrew, 3.2.158-165.

 

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