Deception in Shakespeare's Plays
Deception in Shakespeare's Plays
Deception as an element in Shakespeare's plays takes a variety of forms. For many of Shakespeare's male protagonists, the fear of deception by their lovers consumes them, often to an irrational degree. Other characters deceive themselves, ultimately believing they are something they are not. Although deception is frequently manifested through some type of physical disguise, it is more often conveyed through language. While Shakespeare's characters strive to deceive each other through disingenuous dialogue, Shakespeare himself attempts to deceive his audience and readers through the language and structure of his plays.
In four plays—Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale—Shirley Nelson Garner (1985) has explored the male protagonists' unreasonable fear of being deceived by their wives and lovers. Garner observes a pattern in which the man, at the faintest hint of impropriety, begins to suspect his innocent lover of infidelity. As his convictions grow, he then schemes to hurt or humiliate the woman. After she is dead or thought to be dead, the grief-stricken man repents. Garner has contended that this pattern suggests a psychic need among men to be betrayed, noting that as the men sever their ties with their lovers and women in general, they reaffirm their bonds with other men. According to Garner, these plays dramatize a male fantasy in which a woman will always forgive the man no matter how brutishly he has behaved, while reflecting a male fear of heterosexual relationships.
Another form of deception in Shakespeare's plays is the characters' ability to deceive themselves. Hugh Dickinson (1961) has demonstrated the manner in which King Henry VI deceives himself and others into believing he is a capable ruler. Cyrus Hoy (1962) has argued that the action of Love's Labour's Lost is dedicated to the "undeceiving of the self-deceived," and that like many of Shakespeare's comedies, the play progresses from an emphasis on the artificial to the natural, proceeding to the final objective of self-knowledge. Similarly, Barbara L. Parker (1970) has observed a thematic focus on illusion, delusion, and self-deception in Macbeth. The self-deception found in Twelfth Night takes on an ironic twist, according to Carl Dennis (1973), who has noted that the characters that set out to deceive through the use of physical disguises (Viola and Feste) are actually the least likely characters to practice self-deception. Yet Orsino and Olivia—posturing as the love-struck suitor and long-grieving sister—both indulge their vanity in the roles they assume and consequently deceive themselves throughout the play.
While these characters succeed in deceiving themselves, characters in other plays manipulate language in order to deceive others. James L. Calderwood (1973) has studied Falstaff's "counterfeiting" nature in Henry IV, observing that it seems as much directed at the audience as it is at the other characters in the play. Calderwood has suggested that Falstaff highlights the lie that forms the basis of theatrical illusion, a lie that is necessary for drama to be successful. Jean MacIntyre (1982) has discussed how the deceptions of Kent and Edgar in King Lear function in much the same way as Falstaff's doublespeak. MacIntyre has demonstrated that while the lies told by Kent and Edgar do in fact deceive Lear and Gloucester, these deceptions also aid Lear and Gloucester in understanding and accepting their actions and what they have become. In this way, according to MacIntyre, Shakespeare defends his art. Russ McDonald (1989) has examined how the characters in Richard III manipulate language, and has contended that Shakespeare recognized the dubious nature of language and that perhaps he doubted or feared it as the medium in which his art was rooted.
Critics also have explored the ways in which Shakespeare used the language and structure of his plays to deceive his audience or readers. Trevor McNeely (1989) has examined Othello as rhetorical allegory, maintaining that Shakespeare strove to use rhetoric to dupe his audience into accepting the plot and characters as plausible rather than as wholly absurd, just as Iago deceives Othello into accepting the plausibility of Desdemona's infidelity. Likewise, Michèle Willems (1990) has suggested that Shakespeare encouraged a misreading of Henry IV as a morality play in which Shakespeare appears to accept a providential view of history and the Tudor myth. In fact, Willems has argued, the play presents Prince Hal not as the Prodigal son, but as a politician who completely sacrifices his private feelings to his public image. In this way, Willems has contended, Shakespeare questions the traditional politics of the contemporary court as well as the personal void which results from the pursuit of Machiavellian political values. According to Willems, if Shakespeare had dealt directly with such political issues, the play may have been viewed as too subversive.
The prevalence of deception in Shakespeare's plays seems to stem as much from the deceptive tendencies in human nature as it does from Shakespeare's love affair with the theater and its language. His plays—themselves a deception in the sense that they are fictions, or theatrical illusions—reveal a fascination with the power of language to not only deceive, but to inspire and to reveal truth and self-knowledge.
The Language Of Deception
James L. Calderwood (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Henry IV: Art's Gilded Lie," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 131-44.
[In the following essay, Calderwood studies the way in which Falstaff's language in 1 Henry IV seems to refer as much to the "counterfeiting" or deception practiced by actors as it does to his own actions within the play.]
After the collapse of Richard II's divinely certified symbolism, Shakespeare begins Henry IV with a fallen language whose verbal emblem is the lie and whose human form is Falstaff, the corporealized lie. Falstaff, however, is by no means the only dealer in deception. As an interior playwright, Hal begins his drama of emergent royalty—which might be titled "The Prodigal Prince and the Reformed King"—with a lie, a deliberately beclouded identity by means of which he will "falsify men's hopes." Surrounded by counterfeit kings, he will counterfeit unkingliness himself so that in a belated recognition scene his suddenly revealed royalty will shine forth the more goodly to his English audience. Thus an unprincely lie will beget a most kingly truth. The effectiveness of Hal's strategy is suggested in the deathbed scene of 2 Henry IV when the lie (his "theft" of the crown, which makes him falsely appear both a callous son and a usurping prince) is made to yield the truth that he is both a...
(The entire section is 19750 words.)
Male Fear Of Deception
Shirley Nelson Garner (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Male Bonding and the Myth of Women's Deception in Shakespeare's Plays," in Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 135-50.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1985, Garner examines the pattern of male suspicion of female infidelity in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, arguing that the fear of being deceived manifests itself in the physical or verbal abuse of women, followed by the reassertion of male bonds.]
The problem of trust recurs in Shakespeare's works, from his earliest to his latest. Nowhere does he present it more prominently or explicitly than in his plays that deal with the actual or supposed infidelity of women: Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. In only one of these plays, Troilus and Cressida, is the woman unfaithful. In the others she is innocent—appallingly virtuous, in fact. Nevertheless, her husband or lover, believing her guilty, may revile her, abuse her physically or psychologically, plot her death, or even murder her. Like a recurrent dream, this repeated drama follows certain patterns, which, I believe, define and satisfy male psychic needs—Shakespeare's, his male characters', or...
(The entire section is 6262 words.)
Hugh Dickinson (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Henry Yea and Nay," in Drama Critique, Vol. IV, No. 2, May, 1961, pp. 68-72.
[In the essay below, Dickinson studies the way in which King Henry, of the Henry VI plays, deceives himself into thinking that he is a capable ruler. The critic demonstrates that this self-deception is maintained until the King's impulsive and inconsistent actions reveal his weak will.]
Scholarship and criticism, once less than kind to Shakespeare's youthful effort, the trilogy of Henry VI, have finally come to regard it as a little more than kin. With his authorship now accepted for most of it, if not all, the critical stature of the dramatic chronicle has also risen beyond its former dismal level as a subject for graduate study only. Best of all, it was the theater that in the last decade rescued Henry VI from the limbo of plays unplayable and unproduced. It did so in England when the Birmingham Repertory Company vindicated the long-held conviction of its producer, Sir Barry Jackson, that the plays were both actable and stageworthy.
Sir Barry's revivals of 1951, directed by Douglas Seale, later repeated their success at the Old Vic in London. Shakespearean audiences thus owe these men a debt of gratitude, and a double debt to Seale who, in London and later at Stratford in Canada, also rescued from a neglect...
(The entire section is 17295 words.)
Shakespeare's Deception Of His Audience
Trevor McNeely (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Supersubtle Shakespeare: Othello as a Rhetorical Allegory," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1989, pp. 243-63.
[In the following essay, McNeely analyzes Othello as Shakespeare's allegory on the power of rhetoric to deceive. McNeely observes that just as Iago dupes Othello, Shakespeare dupes his audiences and critics, persuading us to believe in the plausibility of the story, rather than its essential absurdity.]
Criticism has been aware for almost three centuries, since Rymer first raised the question in 1693, of a striking contradiction in Othello and in the character of its hero. E.É. Stoll, writing in 1915, sketched something of the critical history of this contradiction, noting that while the contradiction has sometimes been acknowledged by the critics, it has invariably been ignored in interpretations of the play. The contradiction has to do, of course, primarily with the incredible facility of Othello's fall at Iago's hands, leading directly and precipitately to the murder of his wife. Whether in terms of time, of method, of motivation, or of character, the whole process of Othello's conversion is manifestly incredible and absurd, it is suggested. Many approaches to the problem are possible, but, most succinctly, I can perhaps demonstrate the supposed absurdity of this transformation in terms of a...
(The entire section is 16364 words.)
Carabine, Keith. "Man's 'ingenuity in error': Construing and Self-Deception in Julius Caesar and Under Western Eyes." The Conradian 10, No. 2 (November 1985): 94-115.
Examines the common subjects of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Conrad's Under Western Eyes, and contends that the characters Brutus, Razumov, and Halden are "blessed and cursed with 'the gift of expression' and with an ability to 'construe' themselves and their world through language."
Holly, Marcia. "King Lear. The Disguised and Deceived." Shakespeare Quarterly XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1973): 171-80.
Examines the relationship between the "disguised and deceived" in King Lear, and suggests that the study of this relationship may help to reveal Shakespeare's world view.
Rozett, Martha Tuck. "Tragedies within Tragedies: Kent's Unmasking in King Lear." Renaissance Drama, New Series XVIII (1987): 237-58.
Examines the scene in which Kent is unmasked in King Lear, arguing that the moment comprises a self-contained tragedy, in which Kent is "cheated. . .of the important moment with which he could have expected his disguised journey to end."
Takahashi, Yasunari. "Speech, Deceit, and Catharsis: A Reading of Hamlet." In...
(The entire section is 202 words.)