Have you heard the one about the guy who was taking his bride back home in a wagon? As they bump along the rutted road, the horse stumbles. “That’s number one,” says the man. Further on, the horse stumbles again. “That’s number two,” he says. When the horse stumbles a third time, the man says, “That’s number three,” and shoots the horse. The wife says, “Husband, your anger is too harsh!” The husband replies, “‘That's number one!”
The story I heard as the new bride of a man from Boston undoubtedly differs in detail from the version you heard, but its outline and punchline are about the same. Also, most people who attend a Shakespearean festival will probably have heard some version of the story. That’s the way folklore works: We hear a story, we pass it along, sometimes to someone who’s already heard something like it. Like a childhood game of Rumor, the story continues around the table (or neighborhood, or region, or world), adapting itself at each telling to the concerns of its teller.
In fine shrew-taming tradition, the tale implies a threat of violence toward the bride if she challenges her husband, lord, and master. Some versions, such as the 1550 ballad “A Merry Jeste of a Shrewde and curst Wyfe lapped in Morelles Skin for Her Good Behavior,” present the violence graphically: The husband locks the wife in the cellar, rips off her clothes, beats her bloody and senseless with wooden rods, then wraps her in the salted skin of an old workhorse named Morel. As the salt burns into her open wounds, the wife promises obedience and becomes a perfect wife. In “The Wife Wrapt in Wether’s Skin” (cited in Jan Harold Brunvald, “The Folktale Origin of The Taming of the Shrew” [Shakespeare Quarterly, 17, August 1996]), the husband thrashes a sheep’s hide he has placed on the his wife’s back. In other versions, the husband shoots his dog and his horse or beats a cat or basket or pack his wife is holding, all of which bring the wife to submission (Brunvand 345).
Now, have you heard the one about “how her horse fell, and she under her horse; . . . in how miry a place, how she was bemoil’d, how he left her with the horse upon her, how he beat me because her horse stumbled, how she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me [number one?]; how he swore, how she pray’d that never pray’d before” (4.1.70–84)? Or about Petruchio striking a servant bringing water, and Kate saying, “Patience, I pray you, ’twas a fault unwilling [number two?] (4.1.156)? Or about Petruchio throwing food around—especially the choler-engendering, over-roasted mutton— and Kate saying, “I pray you, husband, be not so disquiet. / The meat was well, if you were so contented [number three?]” (4.1.169-70)?
In this “tale,” which you may have recognized as Kate’s arrival at Petruchio’s “Taming School” in The Taming of the Shrew, the horse indeed stumbles, the husband indulges his temper, and the wife pleads for patience, but the violence is diverted from the bride and the animals to the servants and inanimate objects like dishes and food, bedclothes, and clothing. Also important is Petruchio’s response to Kate’s attempts to calm him: “Sit down, Kate, and welcome” (4.1.142); “Be merry, Kate” (4.1.149); “Come, Kate, and wash, and welcome heartily” (4.1.154); “I tell thee, Kate, ’twas burnt and dried away / . . . Be patient, tomorrow’t shall be mended” (4.1 170, 176). His words to her are gentle and solicitous, though abundantly interspersed with robust and colorful epithets for the servants.
In spite of the differences, the tales have much in common. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, most celebrated for his recent collections of urban folklore (The Vanishing Hitchhiker, among others), believes these tales to be part of a complex of oral narratives he calls “The Taming of the Shrew Complex.” For his 1961 Indiana University dissertation, The Taming of the Shrew: A Comparative Study of Oral and Literary Versions, Brunvand assembled more than 400 literary and oral texts from thirty different nations around the world. Most have never been published, but were made available to him from folklore archives.
A primary problem with source studies, he says, is that literary scholars focus primarily on literary sources. Any edition of Shakespeare’s plays describes how he transformed a passage from Plutarch, for example, into a speech by Julius Caesar or an earlier Hamlet or King Lear into his own great tragedies. Sometimes a mysterious “lost play” is offered as a source, and sometimes, more rarely, as in the introduction to Much Ado about Nothing in The Riverside Shakespeare, a scholar will write, “There is no specific source for the Beatrice and Benedick underplot” (Anne Barton [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], 329).
Barton’s sentence continues, “but it is important to remember that several years earlier, in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare had already experimented with the idea of an unconventional couple who arrive at love and understanding by way of insult and aggression” (329). Instead of admitting “no specific source” for this plot, however, Barton’s introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, also in The Riverside Shakespeare, posits “a different play, now lost” (106) as a source for both Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and the inferior The Taming of a Shrew, published in 1594. Richard Hosley, in a Huntington Library Quarterly article, concludes that “the basic situation of the play proper is taken from the anonymous ballad of A Shrewde and Curste Wyfe,” modified so that beating a virago into submission is replaced by “the humanist tradition of inducing a spoiled young wife to mend her ways—perhaps specifically by the Shrewd Shrews and Honest Wives of Erasmus” (“Sources and Analogues of The Taming of the Shrew" [27, 1963–64], 207).
In contrast, Brunvand suggests, not a lost play, but an oral tradition with specific plot details in specific order, some of which occur in neither the ballad nor The Taming of a Shrew: “The wealthy father with good and bad daughters, the warnings to the suitor about the shrew, the bizarre wedding behavior, the trip home on horseback, the taming, and the later return trip to the father’s home where a wager is laid are all traits commonly found in the folktales” (347). A few pages further he adds, “It seems completely beyond reason to suppose that Shakespeare somehow knew a foreign manuscript containing only some traits of the story and then individually made up the same elaborations for his comedy that are found in numerous folk tales. It is more logical to assume that through some medium the playwright must have encountered the popular tradition” (349).
We know that Shakespeare read widely; we even know which books he read. But why should books be his only source? The Bianca plot is clearly traceable to The Supposes (1566), George Gascoigne’s English translation of Ariosto’s I Suppositi. But what about the Katherina-Petruchio plot? It’s an old joke? No problem. Unless Shakespeare lived with his books under a rock, he would have been completely in tune with the stories and “accepted truths” of his day—those, for instance, shared in taverns with an elbow to the ribs; those told by men about women, the weather, and taxes; those represented as the wisdom of the old to solve the problems of the young—maybe even how to tame a shrew.