Source of Confusion, Source of Controversy

Like Titus Andronicus last month, there is no obvious direct source for The Taming of the Shrew‘s main plot, or for its framing device (the Christopher Sly plotline) for that matter.  The shrewish woman is an archetype in literature: when Petruchio references both Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale and Gower’s Cofessio Amantis, as well as “Socrates’ Xanthippe” (I.ii.68 and I.ii.70, respectively), we see how the concept of the “curst and shrewd” (I.ii.69) wife has come down through the ages in literature.  The framing device, a simple story-within-a-story, is a time-honored trope, dating back to ancient Sanskrit texts (Panchatantra) and the Arabian Nights… though the first dramatic usage is from The Spanish Tragedy (see last month’s discussion of the sources for Titus).  The concept of the audience for that nested story being a man fooled into thinking he’s a lord . . . well, that too is a well-worn tradition (again, used in Arabian Nights [though that, interestingly, is a work that wasn’t available to Shakespeare, as it wouldn’t be translated into English until nearly a century and a half later]).  So while both elements are not original, there’s no direct lineage for these particular usages by Shakespeare.

One of the subplots, however, does seem to have a source, coming from a Spanish play called I Suppositi (Supposes), written in 1551 by Ariosto (translated into and produced in English in 1566, published in 1573).  A young man (Erostrato) falls in love with the daughter of a rich businessman (Damon)–a young woman named Polynesta–and so he disguises himself as a tutor to teach her, and allows his servant (Dulipo) to woo her in his (the master’s) name in an attempt to derail the romantic attempts of other suitors, while the master (in guise of the tutor) woos the girl.  Substitute Lucentio, Baptista, Bianca, and Tranio, for Erostrato, Damon, Polynestra and Dulipo, and you have the entire “little sister” subplot of The Taming of the Shrew.

The Taming of the Shrew… that’s our play.  There is also a play called The Taming of a Shrew (c. 1594), and while this play follows the plot of the play-within-a-play of the Shrew pretty closely (though the character of Hortensio doesn’t play as large a role as suitor), it does a better job of completing the Christopher Sly framing device (and we’ll discuss that at more length tomorrow).  For some, the existence of this second, similar and similarly titled, play raises chicken-and-egg questions.  Most critical opinion, however, is that a Shrew is based on Shakespeare’s the Shrew, not the other way around… (while there are those that believe that Shakespeare used a Shrew (by another author) as a source for his own play, this is not a well-accepted theory).  A small group believes that Shakespeare wrote both, but that we don’t know which came first.  Still others believe that both plays were based on yet another version written either by Shakespeare or another playwright, a play that no longer exists.  Most likely, though (at least according to a reasonable pseudo-consensus among critics), a Shrew was an attempt by some actors and production staff to sell a copy of the play (to make money) based on their memories, rather than any script.

which again raises some question about that pesky Induction… but more on that tomorrow…

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