The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed acts as a sort of ‘sequel’ to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-4). Written nearly twenty years after Shakespeare’s violent Padua comedy, Fletcher’s city comedy relocates the ‘tamer’ Petruchio to London for his remarriage to the seemingly docile Maria, after the death of his shrewish first wife, Katherina. Maria, however, turns the tables on Petruchio and quickly takes control of all aspects of their marriage, from sexual relations to interior décor. Meanwhile, her sister Livia attempts to avoid marriage to the elderly Moroso and win back her nervy fiancé, Roland.
Recent decades have seen a desire to bring Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s plays together in performance, such as Greg Doran’s 2003-4 RSC productions, which changed the names of some of the later play’s character in order to heighten the continuance of the narrative, and thus highlight Petruchio’s rise and fall and the similarities of the social backdrops of London and Padua.
Whereas Shakespeare’s play focuses on the ‘taming’ of an individual ‘shrew’ (a wayward, over-talkative, sexually available woman), Fletcher’s reworking reaches out to the wider cultural co-ordinates of early modern misogyny and proto-feminism. Written at a time when the London theatre scene was abounding with plays about ‘excessive’, transgressive women, shortly before the battle of the sexes would heat up with the ‘pamphlet wars’ of the 1610s, the play inverts commonplace gender hierarchies to put women – at least, temporarily – on top. Maria and her fellow ‘shrews’ dominate the stage spatially, verbally, and sexually. Dramaturgically mimicking rural customs such as the charivari and the skimmington, the coming-together of the city and country wives in support of Maria overturns the play’s patriarchal agenda with a jubilant carnival of women’s noise. In the face of this seeming celebration of female empowerment, then, critics and theatre-goers alike have found the play’s ending, as that of Shrew, hard to swallow: Maria vows to Petruchio that she will dedicate her life ‘in service to your pleasure’.