Dreams, Identity And The Play Within The Play In "Taming Of The Shrew"

3490 words - 14 pages

Am I a lord, and have such a lady?

Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed 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 lord indeed,

And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.

From The Taming of the Shrew (Induction 2.66-71)

Themes of memory and dreams echo throughout the works of Shakespeare, just as these concepts still resonate in postmodern literature. In The Taming of the Shrew the lower class drunken character Christopher Sly is picked up off the streets by a nobleman and, for sheer amusement, dressed up to be a lord. Though at first skeptical of his identity, as Sly remembers who his father is, what his profession is, and what his hobbies are, the poor drunk man soon believes the nobleman that his memories are false and that he is in fact of noble blood. Though the audience knows of the game, and what Sly's background actually is, Sly himself contemplates the difference between his dreams and his memories, blurring the boundaries of the dream world and waking life. Sly ponders, "do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?" considering the possibility that his memories are nothing more than dreams and that he has now awakened to his true identity. In this sense, Sly is battling with the contradictions of the condition of the liberal human subject. Sly has been taught by society to believe that his memories form his identity, but at the same time his surroundings suggest something other than those memories and thus he no longer is sure of who he really is. Sly is still guided by the notion that memory forms identity and so he assumes that his memories are false and that his new identity has been his all along.

The play continues with a play within a play, as the true lord wishes to present Sly with a performance. The characters of the induction are never returned to, and thus Sly's true identity is left dangling and unresolved. The concept of the play within a play illustrates Katherine Hayles' notion of autopoiesis illustrated in her text How We Became Posthuman. Autopoiesis relates to the idea that there are systems effecting systems and that those within a particular structure cannot clearly see what is outside of that structure. The characters within the play being performed for Sly have no idea of Sly's existence and to Sly they are not real but merely actors "programmed" to play certain roles. Sly himself however appears to be "programmed" by the Lord to believe that he is also a Lord. Above both the actors and Sly, and Sly and the Lord, is the absent programmer responsible for all of the characters' actions: the author.

The Taming of the Shrew is made up of systems within systems; those inside certain systems cannot perceive what is outside, even as it affects them. The play within the play focuses on the roles of Katherine and her sister Bianca, who also seem to be unaware of the larger system outside of them (i.e., how the...

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