The Woman's Prize
The Woman's Prize, or the Tamer Tamed is a Jacobean comedy written by John Fletcher. It was first published in the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1647, though it was written several decades earlier (Fletcher died in 1625). There is no doubt that the play is the work of Fletcher alone; his highly distinctive and characteristic pattern of linguistic preferences is continuous through the text.
The play is a sequel to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, in which (as the subtitle indicates) the gender tables are turned and Petruchio the "tamer" is "tamed" by his second wife Maria, whom he marries after the death of Katherine. As a "reply" to Shakespeare's play, The Woman's Prize attracted critical attention in later generations and centuries. Maria's principal weapon, a sex-strike, shows the influence of Aristophanes' play Lysistrata.
The date of the play is very uncertain and has attracted a large body of dispute and opinion. A reference to the siege of Ostend in Act I, scene iii has led some commentators to date the play as early as 1604 (the siege ended on 8 September that year)  — though this is significantly earlier than the generally recognized start of Fletcher's dramatic career. Some scholars have argued for an early date, on the reasoning that a date closer in time to Shakespeare's play makes more sense than a later date. The non-Shakespearean or pre-Shakespearean version of the story, The Taming of a Shrew, was reprinted in 1607, and may have influenced Fletcher to make a reply. Other critics have favored a date as late as 1618-22 for the original version of the play, based on internal characteristics of Fletcher's evolving style. Scholars who see a debt in the play to Ben Jonson's Epicene favor a date c. 1611.
The question of date is complicated by the matter of revision. The characters all have Italian names, and the original was likely set in Italy — but the existing version is set in London instead. The date of revision and the identity of the reviser are equally unknown, though a reasonable conjecture holds that the revision was likely done just before the 1633 revival of the play by the King's Men, when the play was acted in conjunction with Shakespeare's.
The 1633 revival
The 1633 revival provoked the wrath of Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of the Revels and the overseer of London theatre in the Caroline era. On 19 October 1633, Herbert ordered the King's Men not to perform The Woman's Prize that day, because of the "foul and offensive matters" it contained; the company acted the Beaumont/Fletcher play The Scornful Lady instead. Five days later, on 24 October, John Lowin and Eliard Swanston, two of the leading actors in the company, came to Herbert's office to apologize personally for having given offense; their fellow actors Joseph Taylor and Robert Benfield were also present at the meeting, but apparently uninvolved in either the original offense or the apology. In regard to the same matter, Herbert addressed a 21 October letter to Edward Knight, the "book-keeper" or prompter of the King's Men, on the subject of "oaths, profaneness, and public ribaldry" in the company's plays.
Fletcher's play was cleaned up in time for a Court performance the next month: The Taming of the Shrew and The Woman's Prize were acted before the King and Queen at St. James's Palace on 26 and 28 November respectively. According to Herbert, Shakespeare's play was "liked" but Fletcher's was "very well liked." The existing Prologue and Epilogue, perhaps by the unknown reviser, may date from this performance; the Epilogue claims that Fletcher's play urges "both sexes due equality...to love mutually" (lines 7-8).
A manuscript of The Woman's Prize also survives, dating from this era. The editing of the manuscript has been interpreted by some scholars as showing that Herbert had other goals besides suppressing "public ribaldry." The original text of the play had some blatant anti-Catholic elements, which, according to this view, Herbert wanted to suppress out of deference to the Queen, Henrietta Maria.
In the Restoration
The play was popular and was revived early and often in the Restoration era. Samuel Pepys saw it performed at the Cockpit Theatre on Tuesday 30 October 1660; it was played at the Vere Street theatre in Dec. 1661, and at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in November 1668. It was revived once in the next century, at Drury Lane on 30 April 1757. When Fletcher's sequel and Shakespeare's original were revived jointly, in 1633 and in the 1660s, Fletcher's proved the more popular work; around 1667 The Shrew was adapted by John Lacy to make it a better match with The Woman's Prize.
Petruchio's stormy marriage to Katherine ended with her death. Petruchio is now married to Maria, who is even more resistant to domination than Katherine initially had been. Petruchio's tactics and manipulations are no longer effective, and Maria has some resourceful tricks of her own. Maria refuses to consummate their marriage till Petruchio changes his ways; she bands together with other women in abstension from sex with their husbands. The women barricade themselves with provisions in the upper floor of Maria's house, to the displeased surprise of their husbands below.
In Act Three Maria settles in to pursue a career of scholarship and horsemanship at Petruchio's country estate, but the peace is again broken when Maria once more refuses to perform her conjugal duties and imposes further demands on her husband. Petruchio resolves to play ill in an attempt to awaken his wife's pity. His ruse fails totally when Maria catches on: in an extremely effective and humorous scene has Petruchio walled up in his house on the pretext that he has caught the plague.
Petruchio finally fights his way out, but in Act Four he discovers that his wife has "gone mad"—she has begun to dress like a common whore (in a perfect counterpart to Petruchio's entrance in fantastic attire in the earlier play) and is busy flirting with his friends. When Petruchio announces that he has had enough of marriage and is abandoning Maria for foreign travel, she encourages him to depart on the pretext that his journeys may broaden his vision and turn him into a better human being.
Almost totally defeated as Act Five opens, Petruchio tries one final stratagem in an attempt to awaken some spark of compassion in Maria. He decides to play dead, and in one of the Elizabethan theater's celebrated scenes he is borne onstage in a coffin before his wife and friends. Maria is indeed moved to tears, but they are inspired, as she tells us in a famous speech, not by his person but by his "unmanly, wretched, foolish life......how far below a man, how far from reason" Petruchio has remained.
This last salvo of abuse brings Petruchio back from the dead: he sits up in his coffin, prompting in Maria a state of final bafflement if not total respect. The two pledge that they will start life anew together amidst the richly comic and ironic mood that ends the play.
In the play's subplot, Livia joins in the protest of the married women, though her primary motive is to avoid an arranged marriage with the old and unpleasant Moroso and marry her own choice of husband. Both Maria and Livia succeed in attaining their wishes by the play's end.
After more than two centuries absent from the stage, The Woman's Prize was revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company in early 2003; their production opened on 6 March that year. The play subsequently moved to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
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- The Woman‘s Prize. From the Rare Book Room.