Review of

"The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew"

Heilman, Robert B. "The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew."
Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 27 (1966), 147-161.
Thesis: Heilman opens by reviewing the history of commentary on The Taming of the Shrew and stating a problem:
After three centuries of relative stability, then, Petruchio has developed rather quickly, first from an animal tamer to a gentleman-lover who simply brings out the best in Kate, and then at last to a laughable victim of the superior spouse who dupes him. Kate, at the same time, develops from a shrew to a mistreated and lovelorn daughter to a fighting young feminist who defeats both family and husband. Not only have we tamed the tamer; we have been taming The Taming itself. We have been hacking away at its bounding and boisterous freedom, and, with inclinations that would doubtless be called liberal, have imprisoned the play in a post-Ibsen world modified by the Wilde of The Importance of Being Earnest and the Shaw of Man and Superman. We have domesticated a free-swinging farce and made it into a brittlely ironic closet drama, the voice of a woman's world in which apron strings, while proclaiming themselves the gentle badge of duty, snap like an overseer's lash. We have, as I shall try to show, got too far away from the text, or at least from some of it. We have done so, in the main, because, perhaps out of some unrecognized aesthetic snobbery, we have gradually become less willing to recognize The Taming as a farce. (151)
The next step in Heilman's argument is to define "the spirit of farce":
The essential procedure of farce is to deal with people as if they lack, largely or totally, the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral sensitivity that we think of as "normal." . . .  Farce offers a spectacle that resembles daily actuality but lets us participate without feeling the responsibilities and liabilities that the situation would normally evoke. Perhaps we feel superior to the diminished men and women in the plot; perhaps we harmlessly work off aggressions (since verbal and physical assaults are frequent in farce). Participation in farce is easy on us: in it we escape the full complexity of our own natures and cut up without physical or moral penalties. . . .  It carries out our persistent if unconscious desire to simplify life by a selective anaesthetizing of the whole person; in farce, man retains all his energy yet never gets really hurt.  (152)
Heilman goes on to categorize The Taming of the Shrew as a farce by identifying its farcical elements, such as the rapidity of the action, the presence of knockabout sequences which don't advance the plot, and actions which have "a mechanical, automatic quality" (153). Most importantly, says Heilman, the main action of the play — the taming of a shrew — is farce. In real life, he argues the Katherine's transformation from shrew to obedient wife would require a long process of psychotherapy, but in the play it happens like magic.

However, Heilman does not believe that Katherine's taming is entirely farcical. He says that Petruchio, "in addition to wanting a good financial bargain and enjoying the challenge of the shrew, develops real warmth of feeling for Kate as an individual" (158), and that Katherine has "painful emotions [which] take her way beyond the limitations of the essentially painfree personality of basic farce" (158). The result, Heilman writes, is a Shakespearean triumph:
What Shakespeare has done is to take an old, popular farcical situation and turn it into a well-organized, somewhat complex, fast-moving farce of his own. He has worked with the basic conceptions of farce — mainly that of a somewhat limited personality that acts and responds in a mechanical way and hence moves toward a given end with a perfection not likely if all the elements in human nature were really at work. So the tamer never fails in his technique, and the shrew responds just as she should. Now this situation might have tempted the dramatist to let his main characters be flat automatons — he a dull and rough whip-wielder, and she a stubborn intransigent until beaten into insensibility (as in the ballad which was perhaps a Shakespearean source). Shakespeare, however, makes a gentleman and lady of his central pair. 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 coöperativeness 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.

Evaluation: As I hope you can see from what I have quoted, Heilman is very eloquent, and his heart is in the right place. He wants to save Shakespeare's play from being seen as a rather depressing piece in which a spirited woman learns to respond to male oppression with hypocrisy. And he certainly does not see the play as a primitive story of a woman cowed into submission. So far, so good. On the other hand, I'm uncomfortable with the way in which he makes his argument. When Katherine makes her final speech, about why wives should obey their husbands, that's farce, but the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio is "suprafarcical," something which has the appeal of farce's magical thinking, but is persuasively realistic, positive, and progressive. In my opinion, Heilman finds farce where it suits him, but realistic psychological portrayal where it doesn't.

Bottom Line: Eloquent, insightful, and questionable.