This ballad is sold as a ‘Merry jeste’, but it tells the violent tale of ‘a shrewde and curste wyfe’ who is beaten and wrapped in salted horse skin to teach her ‘good behavyour’. Written around 1580, it has much in common with The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1593) and is sometimes thought to have been a source for Shakespeare’s play. But in its vicious taming methods, it makes Petruchio look comparatively gentle.
‘Shrewish’ women in early modern England
Both this ballad and Shakespeare’s drama are part of a wider tradition of popular tales about the ‘shrew’ – a sexist stereotype in 16th- and 17th-century England. The word not only described a mammal with a long snout, but also a bossy, disruptive scold – who was almost always a woman. Tales like this explore early modern gender roles by turning them on their head, with the ‘shrew’ asserting herself to take the master’s place. But such texts usually end by reaffirming the accepted order by ‘taming’ the rebellious shrew and putting the man back on top.
What happens in the Merry jeste of a shrewde and curste wife?
As in The Taming of the Shrew, the plot revolves around two contrasting sisters, one ‘meeke and gentle’, the other a ‘franticke’ girl who wants to ‘play the maister’. The youngest, her father’s favourite, has many suitors while the oldest is ‘curste’ like her mother – a figure absent from Shakespeare’s play.
When a young man unexpectedly asks for the eldest’s hand, the father offers him ‘Gold and sylver’ but warns that he’ll ‘repent’ the marriage all his life. The mother gets the girl’s approval and the wedding goes ahead, but things turn nasty when the new groom leads his wife off to bed. They have ‘good game’ but, shockingly, he hits her and demands that in ‘all sportes’ she should ‘abide’ by his ‘will’. Nevertheless, her ‘curste’ behaviour continues, and she scares off the servants with ‘lewd’ words and aggressive blows.
At this point, the young man plots a cruel way to make her ‘bow to his pleasure’. With sinister calculation, he plans to beat her ‘with sharpe roddes’ to make her ‘body bleede’, before intensifying the pain by wrapping her in the salted skin of his dark ‘morel’ horse. Although, at first, she fights back, she eventually vows to fulfil his ‘commaundements’. Her ‘diligence’ is put on show at a dinner for her proud father and disappointed mother, while the husband sits there ‘like a man’. The author reassures us that this is the right outcome, saying: ‘Forgave the yong man if he did sin / But I thinke he did nothinge amisse’.
Read a full online transcript of the text here.