Shrew or False: an Ngram reading

Upon finishing the play, I immediately began to think of Taming of the Shrew in its historical context. Naturally, like most 21st century, Western readers, the treatment to Katherine—the psychological games, starvation tactics, and sleep deprivation—by Petruccio was grossly disturbing. The harsh physical and mental abuses perpetrated by Petruccio made me wonder if the maltreatment of women was a common theme in not only Shakespeare’s works, but also 16th and 17th century literature entirely. Was Shakespeare one of the only writers describing women as “shrews” and “devils,” or was this present in much of the literature at the time? Moreover, if these words were considerably seen throughout the time period, were they all used as sexist epithets, or did they carry additional/different meaning? Using the digital tool,Google Ngram Viewer, I hope to yield results that further open up this discussion. The tool will help me identify how often these words were used during the period between 1500-1700.

You may go to the devil’s dam. Your gifts are so good here’s none will hold you” (1.1.105-106).

Here, old Gremio is comparing Katherine to the devil’s mother, which is imagined at the stereotypical shrew, and is often characterized as being more evil than Satan.  I found this to be one of the harshest epithets thrown at Katherine, especially since Gremio was saying this whilst trying to get the hand of Baptista’s younger daughter, Bianca. The term, “devil’s dam,” was reached its usage apex in 1520, which was roughly seventy years prior to the publication of Taming of the Shrew. While the phrase never again reached its 1520’s height, it’s important to note the considerable rise in usage in the 1590’s, around the publication of this work. Did the phrase reemerge in popular culture with the publication?

“Petruccio, shall I then come roundly to thee and wish thee to a shrewd, ill-favoured wife?” (1.2.56-57)

Here, Hortensio is using “shrewd” as an adjective to describe Katherine, but throughout the work (and including the title), she is called a “shrew,” or a bad-tempered and aggressively assertive woman. In the play, “shrew” is never used in a positive manner, and it is often accompanied with some form of punishment for Katherine. Using Ngram, the term “shrew” emerged in the 1580’s and reached its height in 1619-1620, when Taming of the Shrew was circulating around theatres. While it may only be a word, the term carries negative connotations and could have been used to quickly dismiss women who had their own thoughts and values, not their husband’s. Though Shakespeare is being comedic, it does nothing to diminish the impact of the word, especially in a period of extreme gender disparity.

While I’m not saying these sexist epithets emerged solely because of Shakespeare’s publication, I do believe they have some correlation. Just like in today’s society, derogatory words often arise when they begin circulating in popular culture, and, in 17th century England, Shakespeare’s plays were highly popular. While I haven’t come to any definitive answers, I hope providing historical usage opens up discussion on gender roles within Taming of the Shrew. 

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