Shakespeare's Early Comedies:
"The Taming of the Shrew"
Note: E.M.W. Tillyard, whose most well-known book is the highly influential The Elizabethan World Picture, is always a pleasure to read, but Shakespeare's Early Comedies, was unfinished at the time of his death in 1962.
Thesis: Tillyard's grand plan is to examine Shakespeare's early comedies in light of "literary kinds" which "correspond to parts of the human mind" (9). He asserts that the "comic norm" appeals to a fundamental human impulse, which he defines by quoting another critic L.J. Potts:
We cherish our separateness jealously; but we need also to merge it in the life of the world into which we were born, to mix with other people, to adjust our wills and even our characters to the milieu in which by choice or necessity we live to the general laws of nature. (35)Tillyard goes on to contrast this comic norm with farce, which he says makes us laugh because "it gives us a complete holiday from things as they are" (37). Yet Tillyard also says that comedy can exist within comedy, and comedy within farce. On this matter, Tillyard is not quite clear, and says that he has "entered a complex matter" on which "I have not space to say more" (37).
In his chapter on The Taming of the Shrew Tillyard's has very persuasive sections on the pleasures of the sub-plot, especially the charming characters of Tranio and Biondello, but his general theories come into play only in his discussion of the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine. He is sure that in the scene in which Katherine changes her tune "she is not the blindly obedient animal whose spirit has been broken but the willing ally," and that she and Petruchio "have suddenly reached mutual understanding" (83). However, Tillyard is seriously troubled by Petruchio's methods of taming Katherine. He says, "the total effect of his courtship is more apt to farce than to comedy" (87). He means that those passages which indicate that Petruchio brutally breaks Katherine's spirit are disgusting unless they are regarded as "farce," but he cannot believe that they are so. He concludes that the play is
more comedy than farce but not sufficiently more to enable you to take it serenely as such. All you can do is to admit that The Taming of the Shrew suffers from a bad inconsistency and perhaps to conjecture that one of Shakespeare's motives in writing Much Ado About Nothing was to mend this failure. (87)Here Tillyard seems to consider "farce" as not something "gives us a complete holiday from things as they are," but as a depressing representation of the dark side of human relations.
Bottom Line: Thoughtful and puzzled.