Deception is essential to Shakespeare’s dramatic works in that it governs the relationships between the characters and drives the plots. It is the many acts of deception, both unintended and intended, through the comedies, histories and tragedies, that provide the dramatic devices that inform the action.
The world in which Shakespeare lived was a dangerous one. If you held political or religious views that differed from the authorised ones your life would be in danger. The Elizabethans were used to that and so deception was a way of life. If you were a Catholic you would have to conceal it. You would have to pretend to support the Protestant religion and attend church regularly. But you could attend mass in private houses, conducted by priests who were disguised as someone else. Pedlars, travelling around with their bag of goods for sale, were sometimes priests in disguise. Buried in their bags would be all the items they needed to deliver mass. Catholic villagers were delighted when a pedlar turned out to be a priest, and would then gather at someone’s house for mass.
A convention of Elizabethan theatre was the use of men to play the female roles as women were prohibited from appearing on the stage. That was itself a deception but in addition, in many of Shakespeare’s plays a man or a boy would play a woman who would then disguise herself as a man, so we would have the double deception of a man playing a woman playing a man. Wearing masks was another strong convention. The audience knew that if someone had a mask over his or her eyes, although they would know who the character was, the other characters would not recognise him/her. That led to many, mainly comic, situations which would have an effect on the development of the plot.
Deception in Shakespeare’s plays has many different faces. It could be accidental, as in The Comedy of Errors or it could take the form of well-planned tactics in the hands of evil characters, as in Othello and Julius Caesar. In taking two plays, for example, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – one a tragedy and one a comedy – one can easily list many instances of deception in both forms – an unhappy or happy ending, seriousness and mockery, lightness and momentousness.
A quick survey of some of the plays indicates the widespread use of deception in Shakespeare’s works:
In Hamlet, the prince’s father is murdered in a secret plot by his uncle to seize the throne; Hamlet pretends to be unbalanced to avert his uncle’s suspicions while he gathers evidence of his crime; Hamlet employs a group of actors to stage a play depicting Claudius killing his father to confirm Claudius’ guilt. All of those deceptions drive the plot and have the consequences of the deaths of most of the play’s characters.
In Romeo and Juliet the two young people fall in love and court each other against the wishes of their families; Juliet secretly marries Romeo; Juliet fakes her death to avoid marrying Paris. The consequences of those deceptions are that Romeo arrives at Juliet’s tomb, sees her apparently dead and, unaware of her deception, kills himself; Juliet wakes up, sees Romeo’s dead body and kills herself; the two families end their feud. (Read about more Romeo and Juliet themes.)
In Macbeth we mainly have Macbeth deceiving himself. He convinces himself that he can control fate when he is told by the witches that he will become king; he deludes himself that no man could harm him; he deludes himself into believing that the witches are on his side and not agents of his destruction . The results of the self deception are that everyone in McDuff’s family is killed and that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth die.
In Othello Iago deceives Othello into believing that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio; Iago plants a handkerchief on Cassio to frame him; Iago tricks Roderigo into killing Cassio. The results of the deception are that Othello kills Desdemona and later commits suicide. over that act; Roderigo, Cassio, and Emilia all die and Iago is imprisoned.
One could examine every play to see how deception acts as its main building block. But taking just one, Julius Caesar, a play that depicting the worst aspects of Ancient Rome, with its conspiracies, treacheries and bloody battles, has deception as its main building block. The device that moves the plot forward, is deception – the power of deception and manipulation is crucial to the development of the narrative. Brutus joins the conspiracy as a result of the anonymous letters Cassius sends him. They are a big step towards the assassination of Caesar. Moreover, without the use of deception Cassius would not have gained power over Brutus and induced him to kill Caesar.
In the second act, when Caesar has decided not to attend the Senate that day Decius, playing on Caesar’s vanity, deceives him into believing that his wife’s dream has been misinterpreted. If he had not done that Caesar would not have proceeded to the place where the conspirators had the opportunity to kill him. Using powerful rhetoric, Antony lies to the people about Caesar’s accomplishments and attitude towards them, and using irony, paints Brutus as a traitor, turning them away from their initial perception of Caesar’s death, thereby manipulating them into rampaging through the streets of Rome, which leads to the conspirators fleeing Rome and preparing for a war that will bring about their deaths.
The above examples should serve to demonstrate the central role of deception in Shakespeare’s and other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ dramas.
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