Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, one of the most effective plot strategies springs from characters who are deceived by another’s demeanor or language. When these otherwise intelligent men and women observe a sequence of action or hear an address, they tend to accept the implications of what confronts them without probing further or even questioning the motives of those involved. Such lack of perception is frequently dramatized in imagery of sight, almost always with implications of “insight,” and the consequences of this “blindness” may be either comic or tragic. For Shakespeare, how characters respond when they distinguish between appearance and reality reveals a great deal about the characters themselves.
In Shakespeare’s comedies, the conflict usually has psychological overtones related specifically to romance. In The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, when Petruchio arrives for his wedding with the shrewish Katherine, his servant, Biondello, describes the groom’s garb as outlandishly unsuitable for so dignified a ceremony (III, ii, 43–63). Tranio, another servant, understands, however, that Petruchio “hath some meaning in his mad attire” (III, ii, 124). That meaning, we soon learn, is to teach Katherine to refrain from judging people by clothing or other superficial evidence:
For ’tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honor peereth in the meanest habit.
(IV, iii, 171–174)
Later, after Kate has undergone Petruchio’s brutal, if well-intentioned, punishment, she learns this lesson as well as many others, and consequently the uncertain meaning of appearance becomes the stuff of hu