The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Appearance versus Reality

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:


Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,

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

-9-

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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction xi
  • Acting 1
  • Appearance versus Reality 9
  • Clerics 23
  • Commoners 35
  • Cynicism 45
  • Divine Right 53
  • Fate 63
  • Fathers and Daughters 71
  • Fidelity 81
  • Fools 89
  • Forgiveness 99
  • Gender 107
  • Generations 117
  • Honor 127
  • Innocence 135
  • Intoxication 143
  • Justice 151
  • Language 161
  • Love and Romance 171
  • Machiavels 187
  • Madness 199
  • Male Friendship 211
  • Marriage 219
  • Money 229
  • Mortality 237
  • Nationalistic Pride and Prejudice 245
  • Nature 255
  • Order 263
  • Politics 273
  • Power 285
  • Reason versus Passion 295
  • Revenge 305
  • Supernatural Phenomena 315
  • The Tragic Flaw 325
  • War 335
  • Conclusion 345
  • Further Reading 347
  • Index 349
  • About the Author 362
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