Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day. It was the nightingale, and not the lark, That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear. Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree. Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
Juliet is very sweet and very young, yet she bears the stigma that Shakespeare attaches to many of his female characters. She is deceitful. Juliet knows quite well that it was the lark and not the nightingale that warned Romeo to leave. She probably even knows she cannot deceive her handsome lover but tries to do so instinctively. She may also be deceiving herself. Naturally she doesn’t want her new husband to leave but must realize it would be very dangerous for him to stay.
Shakespeare seems to have the opinion shared by many men that the common denominator of female character is deceitfulness or dissimulation. In Othello, the father of Desdemona says:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee.
In As You Like It, the heroine Rosalind goes so far as to deceive everyone into thinking she is a young man and then getting Orlando to practice making love to her as Ganymede.
Lady Macbeth is flagrantly deceitful to King Duncan. She tells her husband:
To beguile the time, look like the time. Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under it.
These last chilling words call to mind what the misogynist August Strindberg says about women in his play The Father:
This very unconsciousness of their instinctive duplicity is what is so dangerous.
And the Three Witches deceive Macbeth from beginning to end. When Macduff says he was not literally born of a woman, Macbeth replies:
Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, For it has cowed my better part of man! And be these juggling fiends no more believed That palter with us in a double sense, That keep the word of promise to our ear And break it to our hope.
Goneril and Regan are prime examples of deceitful women in King Lear, where they tell the old man how much they love him.
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter, Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty; Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare; No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor; As much as child e'er loved, or father found; A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable; Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
In The Merchant of Venice, the heroine Portia deceives the entire court into believing that (1) she is a male, and (2) she is a lawyer.
In Hamlet, both Ophelia and Gertrude are deceitful. The beautiful ingénue tries to get Hamlet to reveal his thoughts and feelings to her while she knows her father and the King are eavesdropping nearby. And when Gertrude goes to Claudius to tell him how her son has just murdered Polonius, she deliberately leaves out much of what she knows, intentionally deceiving her husband:
Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit, Behind the arras hearing something stir, Whips out his rapier, cries, “A rat, a rat!” And in this brainish apprehension kills The unseen good old man.
And a few lines later she gives a totally false account of Hamlet’s reaction to discovering that he has killed Polonius, ending with
A weeps for what is done.
This is a deliberate lie to protect her son. Hamlet actually called Polonius a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” and a “foolish, prating knave.” And Gertrude fails to mention that both she and Polonius were calling for help because they thought Hamlet was threatening to kill his mother. She also, of course, leaves out any mention of Hamlet apparently talking to his father’s ghost.
The German philosopher Schopenhauer had an extremely negative opinion of women. He was thoroughly acquainted with the works of Shakespeare and may have picked up some of his ideas from the great English dramatist. Here is an excerpt from Schopenhauer’s essay “On Women”:
For just as nature has armed the lion with claws and teeth, the elephant and boar with tusks, the bull with horns, and the cuttle-fish with ink that blackens water, so for their defence and protection has she endowed women with the art of dissimulation. She has bestowed on them in the form of this gift all the force she has given to men in the form of physical strength and power of reason. Dissimulation is, therefore, inborn in women and is thus almost as characteristic of the stupid as of the clever woman; and so to make use of it on every occasion is as natural to her as it is to the above-mentioned animals to make immediate use of their weapons when they are attacked, and to a certain extent she feels that here she is exercising her right. Therefore an entirely truthful and unaffected woman is perhaps impossible. For the same reason, they so easily see through dissimulation in others that it is not advisable to try it on them.
If thou be’st born to strange sights,Things invisible to see,Ride ten thousand days and nights,Till age snow white hairs on thee,Thou, when thou return’st, will tell me,All strange wonders that befell thee,And swear,No where,Lives a woman true and fair.
If thou find’st one, let me know, Such a pilgrimage were sweet; Yet do not, I would not go, Though at next door we might meet, Though she were true, when you met her, And last, till you write your letter, Yet she Will be False, ere I come, to two or three. -John Donne
In Julius Caesar, Calpurnia, who is begging her arrogant husband to stay at home because of her bad dreams, immediately thinks of the expedient of lying:
We'll send Mark Antony to the Senate-house, And he shall say you are not well today.
Caesar might have gone along with this idea if Calpurnia had not suggested it in front of a witness. Instead he says:
Shall Caesar send a lie? Have I in conquest stretched mine arm so far, To be afeard to tell graybeards the truth? Decius, go tell them Caesar will not come.
Cleopatra is a queen of deception. Note her duplicity in the following dialogue:
See where he is, who's with him, what he does:--I did not send you:--if you find him sad,Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report That I am sudden sick: quick, and return.
Madam, methinks, if you did love him dearly,You do not hold the method to enforce The like from him.
What should I do, I do not?
Im each thing give him way; cross him in nothing.
Thou teachest like a fool,--the way to lose him.
The reader will recall other women in Shakespeare’s plays who practice deception, including Viola in Twelfth Night. But getting back to Juliet, she deceives her father and mother to marry Romeo and then deceives everyone, including Romeo inadvertently, by pretending to be dead. She is not malicious. Her deceitfulness is motivated by love, but it is natural to her sex and shows most flagrantly in her because she is still a child. Is there any female character in Shakespeare who is not a bit deceitful? Look at the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. She takes to deceit like a fish to water.
To be fair to women, Shakespeare did not have any better opinion of men.