First, a little background and summary for the Shrew. A shrew is a small "mouselike insectivorous" mammal.
Yes. That was the original, and enduring definition. The word was adapted along the way to mean a "spiteful person" (c. 1250), "wicked, or dangerous," and "evil or scolding" person. And it meant a male. Not until 1386 was the term applied to a woman. It is possible even that Shakespeare's creation had some hand in refining the word to become the term we associate most often with a nagging, scolding, violent-tempered woman.
And so begins the play, with a shrew. Or more specifically the play begins with an "induction." The induction frames the play, and sets up the players as a vision or dream watched by a man named Christopher Sly. The theme introduced here is: beware of appearances.
The conflict is evident from the beginning: The merchant Baptista has two beautiful daughters--Bianca, lovely and desirable and Katharina, lovely, but despicable. He insists he must marry off his eldest daughter Katharina before he will give Bianca away in marriage.
Bianca's suitors agree the only way to succeed in their pursuit is to find a man who is willing to take the fair Kate for his wife. Petruchio, a fortune hunting man of Padua, enters and agrees to woo the maid. What follows is a cacophony of concealment and deception. Bianca's suitors don complicated disguises to wheedle themselves into her and her father's good graces.
Petruchio begins the difficult task of taming Katharina and arranging for their impending marriage. In the end, Petruchio and Katharina are quite happily married. Bianca has married Lucentio, a man of Pisa, and another of her suitors has found contentment by marrying a widow. It is in the final scenes that we see who the real "shrew" is.
- Could it be the fiery Katharina who scolded and screeched all of her life?
- The fair and docile Bianca who was evidently a victim of her sister's rages?
- Or perhaps the father who favored one daughter over the other?