Saturday, 29 September 2012

Shakespeare and Deception | Disguises, Lies and Misunderstandings in Shakespeare's Plays

Deception is a mainstay of Shakespearean
drama, regardless of the genre

Deception is rife within Shakespeare's plays, perhaps because deception is rife within human nature. 

Interestingly, deception in Shakespeare takes many forms. For example, there are instances of accidental deception, as in The Comedy of Errors.

There are many cases of characters using deception as a form of self-preservation, as in Twelfth Night and As You Like It. And then, of course, there are the occasions when deception is used in a more malevolent fashion, as in King Lear, Julius Caesar and Richard III.

Consequently, the dramatic effect of deception varies greatly. It can be purely comedic, it can be suspenseful, evil or cruel and, in some instances, it can create a bizarre mixture of all of these effects. For example, the torment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Common Deception Motifs in Shakespeare

Cross-dressing is a major form of deception in Shakespeare's
plays | Bryce Dallas Howard in As You Like It
Throughout Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and histories, there are some recurring motifs of deception.

The most frequently used technique is cross-dressing and/or disguise, which is used by Viola and Feste in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like it and Portia in The Merchant of Venice to name but a few.

Deception can also be created by interfering, but generally well-meaning, magical or mystical forces, such as puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Ariel in The Tempest.

Of course, there are much more sinister motifs of deceit, including false expressions of love and/or devotion, found in plays such as King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

Deception in Shakespeare’s Comedies

In Shakespeare’s early comedies, such as The Comedy of Errors, characters are deceived, but it is not due to a deliberate attempt by any individual. However, Shakespeare could clearly see the comedic value in confusing a character, and he used it to full effect. This example of deception, like the play itself, is quite crude in concept.

Deception in Shakespeare's comedies often
hinges on mistaken identity
However, as Shakespeare’s skills as a playwright developed, he also began to create more elaborate deceptions.

Often, as mentioned above, these deceptions are based on mistaken identity, particularly mistaken gender identity.

On the whole, deception in Shakespeare’s comedies is done without malice. In the cases of Viola, and Rosalind deception is necessary for their survival.

Similarly, in The Merchant of Venice Portia dresses as a man to help protect her new husband’s friend (although she also uses her disguise to test Bassanio later in the play).

However, these comedic examples of deception can sometimes cross the line from humour to cruelty, as demonstrated in the torture of Malvolio in the latter part of Twelfth Night.

Deception in Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Examples of deception in Shakespeare’s tragedies are just as common as in his comedies. However, these depictions of deceit are usually more malevolent. In addition, we find that, as in the case of Macbeth and Hamlet, even heroic and seemingly ‘good’ characters can be drawn to deception to achieve their ends.

Feigning loyalty to Duncan and innocence over his death,
Macbeth is a master of deception | Ian McKellen as Macbeth
Unlike the comedies, there is very little humour to be derived from the deception in tragedies.

In most cases, deceit is used within a tragedy to destroy a character's standing or reputation. In fact, in some cases, it is used to destroy a character’s sanity, such as Iago’s use of deceit in Othello or the deception of King Lear by Goneril and Regan.

These illustrations of deceit are intended to prompt empathy for the victim of the deception and aversion towards the perpetrator, but even this is not clear cut.

For example, Hamlet’s feigning madness leads to Ophelia’s suicide and ultimately the deaths of the majority of the cast. However, an audience can recognize the just cause he was trying to achieve and probably, therefore,does not entirely condemn his actions.

One thing is clear, the audience’s awareness of the deception, whether deliberate or otherwise, is crucial, because it is the dramatic irony which leads to humour, tension and/or empathy.

To find out more about Shakespeare, take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon?