On November 20th, 1946, the celebrated poet and critic W. H. Auden delivered a lecture at the New School for Social Research, in Greenwich Village, as part of a course he was teaching that year on Shakespeare. The lecture concerned three plays: King John, Richard II, and The Taming of the Shrew. It began as follows:
"We will not spend very much time on Taming of the Shrew. It is the only play of Shakespeare's that is a complete failure, though Titus Andronicus may be another." (Auden, W. H., Lectures on Shakespeare, 63)
He then proceeded to outline why he thinks the play fails. He offered two primary reasons. First, it "belongs to farce," and Shakespeare commits the error of introducing "a real individual" into the narrative - something which farce, based as it is in unsuffering archetypes, non-characters who exist "entirely in the moment," cannot handle. Second, Shakespeare links the farce to "a serious issue" - that of the battle of the sexes. Both these mistakes stem from Shakespeare's inherent unfamiliarity with farce as a mode or genre. "Ben Jonson might have made the play a success," Auden noted, "but it is not up Shakespeare's alley." (63)
Auden proceeds to charge Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) with the same offense: of combining farce with seriousness. Chaplin, he suggests, should not concern himself with suffering. However, Auden's attempt to compare The Great Dictator and The Taming of a Shrew in terms of their failure undermines his thesis.
Whether or not you regard Chaplin as a great screen comedian, it goes without saying that the essence of Chaplin's Tramp - who is comparable to the the Jewish barber in Dictator - is in suffering. When Auden defines farce as free of real hardship and describes farcical characters as invulnerable, he does little justice to the interrelationship of pathos and humor. Both pathos and humor emerge from primal need to survive. Chaplin understood this, as evidenced in the voracious eating scenes in all the Tramp's features.
The marriage of comedy and pathos that Auden objects to in both Shrew and Dictator is in fact what makes a film like Dictator great. The film produces discomfort in an audience, forcing them to reckon with the depths of suffering and the basest of human impulses through the veil of laughter. Shakespeare, I would argue, pursues a similar tack in The Taming of the Shrew when he couples vital issues - class, wealth, the problems of marriage and the intricacies of human relationships - with a farcical mode of humor.
Sure, modern audiences can become uncomfortable at the end of Shrew as Katharina delivering her impassioned sermon on a wife's duty to her all-powerful husband. But isn't it possible that Shakespeare intended this reaction? The apparent seriousness of purpose in the final moments of the play is ironically matched with puns, jokes, and over-the-top grandiloquence. In Katharina's final speech, Shakespeare does not prompting the spectator to forget his problems; rather, he subversively emphasizes that those troubles are an inescapable part of daily life - just as he presents battling and quarreling and taming as necessary ingredients of marriage.
We should not go too far in comparing The Great Dictator to Taming of the Shrew: on the one hand we have a work concerned with fascism, on the other a romantic comedy. But both works share a willingness to reject the supposed rules of farce, as Auden outlines them, and this willingness is in both cases a source of excitement. That said, these notes are by no means intended to discredit Auden's viewpoint. Certainly Petruchio's taming of Katharina is a dark matter indeed, and oughtn't to be treated loghtly. Likewise, Chaplin himself stated, after World War II, that if he had known of the extent of Hitler's campaign of genocide when he made The Great Dictator, he never would have gone through with the film. Some things cannot and should not be made a laughing matter. However, both Shakespeare and Chaplin contend that comedy should confront rather than appease, should point to contradictions and complexities in society and human nature rather than hide them, should open eyes rather than shut them. And this, perhaps, is the greatest contribution that comedy can ever make.