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.
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.
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.
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.