However, while we know how Kiss Me, Kate came about - a musical inspired by the backstage bickering of the stars in Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne’s spectacularly successful 1935 production of The Shrew - we do not know what the origins of A Shrew are. Scholars have fought bitterly over the many theories put forward to explain A Shrew’s existence but no one has proved for certain what the provenance of this text really is.
It might be an early version of The Shrew written by Shakespeare (or someone else); or a rewrite of The Shrew by Shakespeare (or someone else); it might be an adaptation for touring by Shakespeare (or someone else); it might be a badly remembered or pirated version of The Shrew mixed in with fragments from Christopher Marlowe.
Whatever its origins, however, A Shrew offers some real
gems that The Shrew does not. It supplies the full framework
story of Christopher Sly, which in the Folio, which is normally
seen to be the trustworthy text, is largely missing.
In the Folio, Sly, who is drunk, is thrown out of a tavern, falls
asleep and is discovered by a lord who decides to play a trick on
him. The trick is to convince Sly that he is a lord, not a tinker,
and as part of this trick the lord has a company of players perform
a play - the story of Katherina Minola and her marriage to Petruchio
- for Sly to watch. In the Folio, after a couple of scenes of Sly’s
story, he disappears mysteriously. In A Shrew, he stays
onstage interrupting, commenting and on one occasion attempting
to intervene and change the story of the inner play. At the end
he is thrown back onto the streets and wakes up convinced he has
had a wonderful, and didactic, dream and that he now knows how to
tame his wife. This full frame is theatrically effective and renders
the inner play proto-Brechtian - the audience always sees Katherina’s
story partly through the lens of Sly, and so they are distanced
from her story and more likely to question it, to resist the simplistic
and enthusiastic responses to her taming voiced by Sly.
As early as 1844, Benjamin Webster produced The Taming of the
Shrew with material taken from the full Sly story in A
Shrew and since then there have been many, many productions
which have followed suit - as well as many which have expanded on,
rewritten and relocated the Sly story.
A Shrew also tells us things that The Shrew doesn’t, such as why Katherina actually marries Petruchio. In The Shrew, one minute Katherina is saying she will see Petruchio hanged before she will marry him (2.1) and in her next scene (3.2) she is upset because he is late for the wedding. Something seems to have happened offstage to change her mind but the audience is not told what. In A Shrew the reason for her change of mind is spelled out rather reductively:
But yet I will consent and marry him,
For I methinks have lived too long a maid,
And match him too, or else his manhood’s good (A Shrew 3.191)
There is no evidence to indicate that the original Shakespearian Katherina said anything along these lines, but it suggests that very early on someone felt that Katherina needed to explain her change of mind.
A Shrew also spells out bluntly what Katherina does at the end of her long submission speech. Many actresses have found ways to subvert the promise she makes to place her hand under her husband’s foot if it ‘will do him ease’ (5.2) and often nowadays Petruchio will catch Katherina’s hand before she places it on the floor and kisses it, or her. However in the 1590s it was more acceptable for women to submit utterly to their husbands than it is now and A Shrew’s Kate, as the stage directions make very clear, unequivocally ‘lays her hand under her husband’s feet’ (scene 14).
Without the existence of the Folio Shrew, A Shrew would probably be seen as an interesting and competent 16th-century comedy. As it is destined always to be read alongside its better-known relation (even though no one knows the precise nature of the relationship), it will probably always suffer by comparison. But the great gift that the Quarto offers us - the full story of Christopher Sly - ensures that the Quarto will continue to be read, sampled, used and abused by theatre directors as well as Shakespeare scholars.