A shrew is a small mammal with small eyes and a pointy nose. Even though it looks like a mouse, the shrew is actually related to moles and hedgehogs. It has sharp, pointy teeth and eats insects, seeds and nuts. One of the most distinctive features is their odour, created by the multiple scent glands in various places on their bodies. There are numerous species of shrew, of which some, but not all, are venomous.
As far back as the 11th century, shrew was also used to describe a woman who nags, gossips or argues, or is otherwise hard to get along with. This came from the Old English word for the animal: screawa.
This probably came from the popular medieval superstition about shrews because of their aggressive nature and sharp bite.
“In such a nightLorenzo in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, V.i
Did pretty Jessica (like a little shrew)
Slander her love, and he forgave it her.”
“Is she so hot a shrew as she’s reported?”Curtis in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, IV.i
To beshrew someone was to corrupt, curse or invoke evil upon them.
“A pox of that jest! And I beshrew all shrews.”Princess of France in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.ii
To shrew was to scold or nag.
“Go bid my womanImogen in Cymbeline, II.iii
Search for a jewel that too casually
Hath left mine arm. It was thy master’s. Shrew me
If I would lose it for a revenue
Of any king’s in Europe!”
We don’t use the word so much now, but in medieval times, being a shrew or a scold was a punishable offence that often ended in women being subjected to the stocks or the ducking stool in the hopes that they would learn to be quiet and submissive.
The shrew became a stock character or stereotype in storytelling and literature, by which stories would deliver morals about how women should behave and the negative outcomes of their refusing to change their ways. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is just one of the hundreds of plays and texts that have followed this trope.
“Ay, and amid this hurly I intendPetruchio in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, IV.i
That all is done in reverend care of her,
And in conclusion, she shall watch at night,
And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl,
And with the clamour keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew
Now let him speak, ’tis charity to shew.”
Thus, in the writing of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Shakespeare drew on an idea that was and still is very familiar to his audience, and was probably inspired by some of the other stories and legends that existed. That this play has lasted so long and remained so popular is testament to the enduring wit and quality of his writing, as well as the continued relatability of the characters and plot.
These days, there are all sorts of words we use rather than shrew: dragon lady, witch, fury, battle-axe, and 2020’s own contribution: Karen*.
The Shrew & Why It Needed Taming.Tweet
* I offer all due apologies to the nice Karens out there.