The cruel ‘shrew’, as depicted in this ballad, was a sexist stereotype in 16th- and 17th-century England. At that time, the word ‘shrew’ not only described a mammal with a long snout, but also a bossy scold – almost always a woman – who caused ‘great paine’ to others with her rude, ranting speech and unruly behaviour.
Jokes, songs and ballads like this one – and plays like The Taming of the Shrew – convey the fear and fascination provoked by the ‘shrew’, who refused the role of obedient wife and tried to wear the breeches. When a woman is defiant, she is made to seem masculine, frightening and funny.
The ballad of ‘The Cruell Shrow or The Patient Mans Woe’
In this ballad, the husband presents himself as a ‘harmelesse’, ‘Patient man’ whose life is made a ‘misery’ by his ‘unquiet’ wife. He lists her numerous offences, many of which stem from her ‘wicked tongue’, as if women are most threatening when they attempt to assert their independence through language. Her ‘tongue it is so loud’ and ‘railing’, it ‘will not be contrould’. She curses, gossips and ‘abuse[s]’ him, while he toils in the ‘durt and mire’. But like Shakespeare’s Katherina, this shrew also turns to violence against her husband, using a cudgel to ‘break his head’, brawling if he goes for a ‘Beere’, but crying out blue ‘murder’ if he tries to retaliate.
Is this shrew tamed?
Many early modern tales of the ‘shrew’ – like Shakespeare’s for example – give the woman a radical power, but only to suppress it. Ultimately, they ‘tame’ her, letting the man take charge to resume what was seen as the rightful order. In this ballad, however, the husband is ‘tormented still’. He dreams wistfully of dying or swapping places with a widower, but in the end he can only pray that ‘all wives’ will mend their ways.
What is a broadside ballad?
Broadside ballads are lively narrative verses or songs, printed cheaply on single sheets and often illustrated with woodcuts. They were recited and sung to familiar melodies in alehouses and public places, and were circulated widely in early modern Britain.
- Full title:
- The Cruell Shrow: or, The Patient Mans Woe. Declaring the misery, and the great paine, by his unquiet wife he doth dayly sustaine. To the tune of Cuckolds all arowe.
- c. 1601–1640, London
- Broadside ballad / Ephemera / Woodcut / Illustration / Image
- Arthur Halliarg
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- "C.20.f.7.(28-29). "
- Article by:
- Michael Billington
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Renaissance writers, Tragedies, Power, politics and religion
Michael Billington explores the source material for The Duchess of Malfi and the play's reception over the last 200 years, and argues that Webster uses the tragedy to offer a vision of human existence as chaotic and unstable.
- Article by:
- Rachel De Wachter
- Comedies, Power, politics and religion, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage
Does The Taming of the Shrew advocate sexual inequality or does it show and critique men’s attempts to subordinate women? Rachel De Wachter discusses how we should think about relations between the sexes in the play, and examines how writers, directors and actors have explored this question over the past four centuries.
- Article by:
- Dympna Callaghan
- Renaissance writers, Tragedies, Power, politics and religion, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage
The Duchess of Malfi is an unusual central figure for a 17th-century tragedy not only because she is a woman, but also because, as a woman, she combines virtue with powerful sexual desire. Dympna Callaghan places Webster's character in the context of contemporary drama, politics and discourses about widows and female sexuality.