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  • The Framing of the Shrews: Dream Skepticism from The House of Fame to The Taming of the Shrew
  • Nathanial B. Smith (bio)

Christopher Sly, who slumbers drunkenly through the first “Induction” scene of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, wakes in the second scene into an experience of sensuous comfort and visual delight that critics have likened to the setting of one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s dream vision poems.1 The dream analogy is raised explicitly by a lord who decides to “practise” upon him: if Sly “were convey’d to bed, / Wrapp’d in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers, / A most delicious banquet by his bed, / And brave attendants near him when he wakes, / Would not the beggar then forget himself? (Ind.1.34–39).2 Such theatrical machinations, the lord speculates, would make Sly’s waking experience resemble “a flatt’ring dream or worthless fancy” (Ind.1.42). At issue in this trick, I suggest, is what the ancient skeptics called the problem of the criterion, the difficulty of determining a framing, mastering perspective that could help distinguish illusion from reality. Despite the outpouring of scholarship exploring Shakespeare’s skepticism in the wake of Stanley Cavell’s writings, few Shakespeareans have explored the skeptical implications of the Chaucerian-influenced framing devices used in The Taming of the Shrew and its close analogue, the anonymous quarto text The Taming of a Shrew (1594).3 Skeptics held that all knowledge originates from the senses and the reasoning faculties but that it was impossible to know for certain whether sense-data or reasoned conclusions were true or illusory. In clear cases of sense-distortion, such as an oar that appears bent when submerged, a tower that looks small from a distance, or what Cicero called the “false sense-perceptions” (visiones inanes) of dreams, [End Page 234] distinguishing truth from illusion requires a stable criterion or method.4 But how do we know whether this method succeeds without first having determined which appearances are true and which false? As the second century C.E. Greek Pyrrhonian skeptic Sextus Empiricus puts it, such a problem forces a dogmatist into “a regress ad infinitum,” a kind of “circular reasoning” from which one cannot ultimately escape.5

The lord’s trickery in The Taming of the Shrew reads like a comedic version of this ancient philosophical problem. “Persuade [Sly] that he hath been lunatic,” he directs to a participating servant; “say that he dreams” about his actual identity, “For he is nothing but a mighty lord” (Ind.1.61–63). Yet Sly’s meconnaissance—his “flatt’ring dream” (Ind.1.42)—originates not from “lunatic” hallucination but from his inability to determine a clear criterion that would enable him to distinguish the truth from the very physical, sensual illusions of the trick:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?Or do I dream? Or have I dream’t till now?I do not sleep. I see, I hear, I speak.I smell sweet savours and I feel soft things.Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,And not a tinker nor Christophero Sly.


The material vividness of his senses—what the ancient Stoics would call the enargeia of his perceptions—convinces Sly that, despite his confusion, he cannot be a mere tinker.6 His certainty lampoons the dogmatic Stoic position against which skeptics defined their epistemology. As we will see, both Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and the anonymous Taming of a Shrew offer a skeptical parody of Stoic certainty. If it is ultimately impossible, as Barbara Freedman suggests, “to distinguish the ‘real’ Kate and Petruchio from the roles they assume” in Shakespeare’s Shrew, the same is true of their counterparts in The Taming of a Shrew.7 Both plays foreground the difficulties in perception, judgment, and reasoning from cause to effect that make any claims of certainty about gender roles or future behaviors (of new spouses) appear foolish. Significantly, both plays make a show of controlling and containing these epistemological and interpretive complications neatly within a framing fiction that turns out to be a false promise of mastery, resulting...