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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch summed up the general attitude toward the play when he wrote in the New Cambridge Shakespeare (1928) that The Taming of the Shrew may not be Shakespeare's greatest comedy to "any modern civilised man," but it is always a success when acted on the stage. Here are some critical comments about the play in general and some of its larger themes.
THE PLAY IN GENERAL
As tamer, Petruchio is a gay and witty and precocious artist and, beyond that, an affectionate man; and hence, a remarkable therapist! In Kate, Shakespeare has imagined, not merely a harridan who is incurable or a moral stepchild driven into a misconduct by mistreatment but a difficult woman- a shrew, indeed- who combines willfulness with feelings that elicit sympathy, with imagination, and with a latent cooperativeness that can bring this war of the sexes to an honorable settlement. To have started with farce, to have stuck to the main lines of farce, and yet to have got so much of the suprafarcical into farce- this is the achievement of The Taming of the Shrew, and the source of the pleasure that it has always given
Robert B. Heilman, Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, The Signet Classic Shakespeare, 1966
The Taming of the Shrew is, then, at least in its broad outlines, a significant piece of social comedy that has something to say about marriage in Elizabethan England, and says it in a truly dramatic manner through a contrast of actions and characters. It is also concerned with the inner world of psychological experience, and particularly with the imagination in relation to human behaviour. These two themes, the social and the personal, are intimately connected with each other, so that the total experience becomes a unified whole. The comedy is a complex work of art....
G.R. Hibbard, ed., The Taming of the Shrew, New Penguin Shakespeare, 1968
THE PLAY AS FARCE
The interest of the audience will be in the devices, not in the persons who work them or upon whom they are worked. A certain callousness will be induced to form in the sensibilities of the beholder, so that whereas in another case he would be outraged he will now laugh freely and steadily for two hours. The practitioner in farce, no less than the practitioner in melodrama, must possess the art of insulating his audience's heart so that it cannot be shocked while the machinery hums.
Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare, 1939
THE PLAY AS SOCIAL DESCRIPTION
Though the last scene lacks romance it contains in a highly representative manner those things in the play which I believe best characterize it and give us the greatest pleasure....
All is not easy and intimate; and the talk, though its kind of wit is not ours, convinces us that real people are talking. Shakespeare in fact exercises here his adorable gift of making us feel close to his characters, almost of allowing his readers to share in the social life he presents so lucidly....
All through the play there is the impression of the genuine domestic life, humanizing the cruder parts of the main plot and bringing to life the rigid and potentially arid conventions on which the subplot is founded....
The most sustained picture of domestic life is that of Petruchio's country house. True, the things that happened there were exceptional but at the same time we gather the sense of what was normal. Grumio in one sense is the conventional, necessary clown but he is also that genuinely recurrent character, the humorist of the gang. Arriving after the dreadful journey he calls Curtis, one of the servants, who enters and asks who "calls so coldly." Grumio, undefeated, answers, "A piece of ice. If thou doubt it, thou mayst slide from my shoulder to my heel with no greater a run but my head and my neck" (IV, i, 12), and we feel that this is the kind of thing the other servants expect of him.... And later the visits from the tradesmen complete the picture of life in the country.
E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies, 1966
A WOMAN'S RESPONSE TO THE PLAY
In working on the play I have found that my own problem with its overt endorsement of patriarchy does not decrease, though my pleasure in its formal qualities, the sheer craft and detail of the construction, continues to grow.
In performance I suspect that the personality of the actor playing Petruchio is crucial to the play's success, and this is a factor that Shakespeare would have been able to take into account. The man must have real stage presence, and the ability to convey an underlying intelligence and sensitivity; he must not be a loud-mouthed bully. As Germaine Greer remarks, "Kate has the uncommon good fortune to find [a husband] who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it." By most standards, including feminist ones, Petruchio is a more interesting and challenging possibility as a husband than the Orlandos and Orsinos of this world, just as Kate is a more interesting wife than Bianca.
Ann Thompson, ed., The New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of The Taming of the Shrew, 1984
We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.
Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts