February 22, 2018

Shakespeare & Shrews

On this day in 1594, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew was entered in the Stationers' Register by printer Peter Short. The Stationers Company was the official organization of printers and publishers, given a monopoly in 1557 to practice "the art or mystery of printing." As early as 1538, Henry VIII had issued a proclamation against "naughty printed books," and the creation of the Stationers' Company was yet another attempt to regulate and censor the "many false, scandalous, seditious, and libelous" books that were emerging from the private presses.

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," says Samuel Johnson, but the Stationers had little legal responsibility to writers, and Shakespeare probably got nothing from Peter Short. The play Short registered may very well have been a pirated text -- an actor's promptbook, a "foul" copy from Shakespeare's drafts, a "fair" copy that somehow got into circulation, even a plagiarized patchwork made from lines cribbed during performances by an enterprising spectator. Shakespeare made his money primarily by writing for, acting in and being part owner of the Chamberlain's Men.

Not that the Bard was beyond borrowing. Much of the main plot for The Taming of the Shrew seems to come from a 1550 popular ballad called "Here Begynneth a Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morrelles Skin, for her Good Behaviour." By the endeth, this contribution to the shrew-taming canon -- one researcher has compiled over 400 folktale versions of this theme from around the world -- was merry from only one perspective: the husband carries through with his threat to kill and skin his old horse, Morel, wrap his wife up in the salted hide, and beat her with sticks until the salt in her wounds makes her pledge to reform. When the mother-in-law protests, he offers to tame her too. The father-in-law is noticeably quiet through this exchange.

Whatever else was borrowed, there was no flogging a dead horse in Shakespeare's Shrew, perhaps thanks to Kate's famous knuckle-under at the end. Her speech is often delivered as if ironic, or as if a new strategy in the battle of the sexes -- before a blinking, jaw-dropped and totally disarmed Petruchio. The closing lines:
    ...I am ashamed that women are so simple
    To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
    Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
    When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
    Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
    Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
    But that our soft conditions and our hearts
    Should well agree with our external parts?
    Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
    My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
    My heart as great, my reason haply more,
    To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
    But now I see our lances are but straws,
    Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
    That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
    Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
    And place your hands below your husband's foot:
    In token of which duty, if he please,
    My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

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