The Framing of the Shrews: Dream Skepticism from The House of Fame to The Taming of the Shrew


William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and its lesser-known analogue, the anonymous Taming of a Shrew, model their fractured framing fictions on Geoffrey Chaucer’s skeptical dream vision The House of Fame to encourage audiences to question the “taming” techniques of the plays’ husbands. The House of Fame engages thirteenth- and fourteenth-century skeptical philosophers, who deployed dream imagery to question a more stoic epistemology grounded in reason and sense-perception. Foregrounding the skeptical potential of extradiegetic frame tales that often introduce and conclude the dream vision, Chaucer’s “wonder”-filled poem repeatedly promises a dogmatically stoic, mastering perspective that collapses into a dizzying play of perspectives and vantage points. Both Shakespeare’s and the anonymous author’s shrew plays open with framing fictions: elaborate deceptions that dramatize the skeptical problem of the criterion, that is, the difficulty of determining a mastering perspective capable of disentangling illusion from reality. Like The House of Fame, both plays offer a skeptical approach to authority and education, with Shakespeare shifting the setting of the anonymous shrew play from Athens to Padua, an Aristotelian center of skeptical fideism. While the anonymous play’s ending casts doubt on the husband’s success in “taming” his wife, Shakespeare’s play leaves audiences suspended in Chaucerian “wonder,” unsure whether to take Katherina’s words at face value. The plays thus rework The House of Fame’s inconclusive frame to undermine authoritative closure and encourage in audiences an affect of skepticism, raising doubts about the underlying misogynist cultural dogmas surrounding marriage and gender at the heart of their taming plots.

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