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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
William Shakespeare's life (1564-1616) spanned the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign (1558-1603) and the first half of James I's (1603-1625). It was a very interesting time, with considerable social change and intellectual excitement and a general broadening of the horizons of the English. England had adopted a national Christianity in 1539, when Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, established the Church of England and threw off allegiance to the Roman Catholic Pope. In 1588, as Shakespeare began to write his first plays, England defeated the great Spanish Armada in the English Channel. London was a bustling center of commerce, politics, and learning, with the Royal Court as the pivotal point. Expeditions to the New World set off almost every year, and the gold of South America was buying silks and satins from China for the English merchants and aristocracy.
But, as England moved toward economic supremacy and scientific sophistication, older ideas kept their hold. Most of society still believed in a hierarchical system in which everything and everybody had a fixed place. The world was organized into a series of pyramids- the overarching pyramid had God at its apex. In the political sphere, the sovereign ruled by divine right with subjects in ranks below. In the family, the husband was the equivalent of God in the universe- the wife was to obey the husband, the children were to obey their parents in the same order, and the servants were supposed to obey all above them.
Yet at the same time Elizabethans were acutely aware that the world did not always conform to this ideal order. In an era when political dissent was still expressed in religious terms, the new religious movement called Puritanism challenged aspects of the established regime. On the other hand, to neighboring Catholic countries England's defiance of the Pope was itself a kind of radical defiance of authority. And some English subjects felt that Elizabeth was not harsh enough on either Catholics or Puritans. One of these, the 2nd Earl of Essex, attempted to overthrow her in 1601. In the name of mounting a more effective defense of "order," this man committed the most extreme offense against the established order, the attempted overthrow of a monarch. Shakespeare was well aware of these tensions and ironies, and his plays express them. In The Taming of the Shrew order is re-established by teaching a wife to obey, yet that disobedient wife is often a more appealing character than the people who are shocked by her behavior.
Just as England was expanding its commercial and intellectual horizons, the English language was enjoying a huge expansion of vocabulary, in part from the languages encountered by explorers and merchants. Language was a source of pleasure to the Elizabethans. English literature blossomed as poets, playwrights, translators, politicians, and literary hacks kept the printing presses turning out epic poems, political pamphlets, translations of the classics and the Bible, ballad sheets, and plays. Puns and verbal backbiting were as much a sport for servants as for their educated masters. Everyone in Shakespeare's plays- the uneducated bumpkins, clowns, gravediggers, ladies, lords, kings- plays with words. In The Taming of the Shrew wordplay becomes an important part of Katherina and Petruchio's courtship.
When Shakespeare began writing, the theater had just become a popular entertainment. Plays still competed with cockfighting and bearbaiting, which were held in the theater when plays were not being presented. Companies of actors, who were often subsidized by a nobleman like the Earl of Pembroke, and even by James I, kept resident playwrights. The plays belonged to the company, which sometimes chose to make money by selling them to a publisher. The standards of production in publishing and printing operations were not high. Sheets of manuscript could get lost as they were taken from the playhouse to the printing shop by errand boys. This may have happened with the last few sheets of The Taming of the Shrew, which seems to be lacking the final scenes to match the introductory framework of the Induction. Printers botched lines and attributed speeches to the wrong characters, although the fault wasn't always theirs. They had poor copies to work from- the playwright's scrawled papers, copies used as promptbooks, or even manuscripts dictated by the actors remembering a play.
Record keeping was not precise, so we know little about the actual dates of Shakespeare's plays or the details of his life. The few facts we know can be quickly recounted. Shakespeare was born in 1564, the son of a shopkeeper who made and sold leather goods in Stratford-on-Avon, in the county of Warwickshire. His father was prosperous and was at one time elected bailiff of Stratford, an office not unlike that of mayor. William was the eldest of six children and apparently was educated at the Stratford Grammar School, although no direct record of his attendance exists.
He must have read widely in both ancient and contemporary literature. Consider the wealth of allusions to classical literature in his plays and the fact that he used as one of the sources for The Taming of the Shrew a play by an Italian poet, Ariosto, translated by an English court poet, George Gascoigne, around 1566. In The Taming of the Shrew some characters pepper their speech with literary allusions, while others favor Elizabethan slang. The differences in the styles of speech indicate differences in the characters.
Shakespeare knew the Warwickshire countryside well, as you will see from the Induction scenes in The Taming of the Shrew, where names of the county's villages and people appear. He married a Stratford woman, Anne Hathaway, in 1582, when he was 18 and she 26. Their first child, a daughter they named Susanna, was born six months later. The couple had two other children, twins named Hamnet and Judith, two years later.
Shakespeare must have gone to London before 1592 and become involved with the theater, for in that year, when he was 28 years old, he was ridiculed in a pamphlet by Robert Greene, a playwright well known for his biting insults. Greene called Shakespeare a hayseed who was conceited enough to believe that he could write better plays than university graduates like Greene. But Shakespeare's reputation was already firm enough to withstand the assault, and Greene's editor apologized in the next pamphlet.
By the time of this incident Shakespeare may well have written The Taming of the Shrew. Some scholars think that it may have been his first play, composed about 1590; it appears certain that it was completed by 1592. Shakespeare became fabulously successful, and during the next 20 or so years, he wrote 36 more plays, some long poems, and a famous collection of sonnets. After James I succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, the company for which Shakespeare wrote was officially named the King's Men, and it was assured subsidies from the royal budget.
In 1611, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, where he had previously bought New Place, the second biggest house in town, with the wealth from his London successes. He died there in 1616 and is buried in the parish church. Shakespeare's plays were collected and published together seven years after his death. Some of the more popular ones had been published separately in Shakespeare's lifetime, but The Taming of the Shrew was published for the first time in the 1623 collected works.
The play has been a universal favorite on the stage. Versions of it have been acted continuously since the 1660s. In 1948 a musical version written by the noted American composer Cole Porter was staged; entitled Kiss Me Kate, it was later made into a popular movie. Though the play has been popular, it has been performed with revisions more often than many of Shakespeare's other plays. Some directors have tried to exaggerate Petruchio's brutality. Others, uncomfortable with a play that seems to endorse the subordination of women, have given Katherina lines that make her motives for acquiescing more explicit and more acceptable. Those who have staged the comedy without changes have faced difficult decisions about how to make it enjoyable to audiences who might well find the treatment of Katherina too cruel to laugh at. This challenge is an important reason to keep staging The Taming of the Shrew. Each actress interpreting Katherina's lines in a new and different way has the possibility of casting fresh light on this long-lived play.
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