Main and sub-plots

The main plot

The main plot in The Taming of the Shrew is the taming plot which centres on Petruchio and Katherina. Shakespeare could have drawn on a plethora of popular literature and drama which featured the stereotypical ‘shrewish’ woman who was loud, unpleasant, violent and aggressive. The Shrew was a popular cultural stereotype: 
  • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales describes Noah’s wife as a shrewish woman
  • Socrates’ wife Xanthippe was commonly thought to be shrewish
  • A merry jeste of a shrewde and curst Wyfe, lapped in Morrelles Skin, for her good behauyour was a contemporary ballad about the punishment for a shrewish wife. 
Shakespeare was most probably familiar with all of these variations on the popular theme. His own treatment of the shrewish woman draws on these cultural stereotypes, but also includes theological ideas and religious rhetoric drawn from scripture and sermons. An understanding of marriage drawn from homilies such as A Homily on the State of Matrimony (1570) or sermons such as Henry Smith’s Preparative to Marriage (1591) questions the often violent and degrading treatment of women in popular literature.
Shakespeare nods at the conventional stereotype in the attitude of other observers towards Katherina. However, he develops a story which pursues a more psychologically complex way of meeting the individual needs of the protagonists, whilst upholding the need for social cohesion and order. 

The sub-plot

The sub-plot centres on the other partnerships which develop throughout the play, primarily focusing on Bianca and her suitors, but also following Hortensio’s relationship with the Widow. The subplot based on the romantic love between Lucentio and Bianca is modelled on Italian comedies which featured young lovers and complicated disguises. One of the main sources for the subplot was a translation of Lodovico Ariosto’s I Suppositi, translated by George Gascoigne in 1587 with the English title Supposes. This imitated the classical comedies of the Roman writers Plautus and Terence, as did Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew.
The subplot’s exploration of romantic love and social responsibilities also reflects on the characters and themes of the main plot. Lucentio and Hortensio are compared with Petruchio at the end of the play and Katherina’s final speech reveals her wifely qualities against the backdrop of the unpleasant behaviour of Bianca and the Widow. The two fathers of the sub-plot unite in their disappointment with Lucentio and Bianca at the end of the play. The dramatic impact of the sub-plot adds to that of the main plot and Shakespeare’s careful treatment of the same themes from different perspectives is drawn together in the final scene in which Petruchio and Katherina, against all odds, have the final say.
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