William Shakespeare Essay - Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks

Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks

Julia Briggs, Hertford College, Oxford

Shakespeare's Use of the bed-trick has often given offence and so invited justification or apology. Its explicit content was sufficient to make Charles and Mary Lamb, rewriting the plot of All's Well That Ends Well for children, change Helena and Bertram's sexual intercourse into a midnight conversation. Twentieth-century critics have been troubled by the bed-trick's coarseness, its fictive or mechanical nature, its implausibility.1 G. K. Hunter considered it "irrelevant and tasteless", while acknowledging that Shakespeare's contemporaries did not apparently share his view, and admitting that 'in the literature of the time the trick is, of course, very common'.2 He instances R. S. Forsythe's list of twenty-one plays that make use of it: though incomplete, it includes two examples each from Marston and Heywood, three from Middleton, and others from Fletcher, Massinger, Shirley and Davenant.3 Yet all but two of these plays were first performed in or after 1605, that is, after the usually accepted terminal date for All's Well and Measure for Measure; more than half were written after 1620, and a third are Caroline comedies or tragicomedies. Measure for Measure is known to have been performed at court on 26 December 1604; All's Well has never been dated with certainty but is assumed to be the earlier, and so is usually assigned a date somewhere between 1599 and 1603.

It looks therefore as if Shakespeare's practice helped to bring the device into dramatic currency, and Marston's use of it, which follows most closely in terms of date, was directly influenced by his example: in Sophonisba, the Wonder of Women (1605) a bed-trick is used to save the heroine from rape, and in the sub-plot of The Insatiate Countess (1607), it is used to contain adulterous desire within marriage. Fletcher's The Queen of Corinth (1617) also recalls Measure for Measure: at the denouement, a double rapist is confronted by the women he has wronged, and threatened with marriage, followed by beheading, but like Angelo he is saved from death by a bed-trick and survives to marry. In Massinger's The Parliament of Love (1624), Clarindore escapes execution when it is revealed that he has been tricked into making love to his own wife, rather than his intended victim.

The two pre-Shakespearean dramatic examples give little sign of having anticipated or influenced him. In the tragic Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany (1594), the sinister Emperor tricks the princess into spending her wedding night alone, whereupon she is visited and raped by a man whom she accepts in the dark as her husband. When her mistake is revealed, she and her child are murdered by her angry father. In Grim the Collier of Croydon or The Devil and his Dame (1600), a comedy based in part on Machiavelli's novel Belfagor, a manipulative father tricks his daughter into marrying the wealthy but ancient Earl Lacey, while his niece sleeps with and then marries the 'Belfagor' character. Both plays show men manipulating women for their own purposes, and the bed-trick is incidental in the sense that the same outcome could have been achieved by different means. In Shakespeare's plotting, however, it is integral to the plot, and the denouement depends entirely upon its use.

Despite the lack of dramatic precursors, the bed-trick had long been a popular narrative device, as W. W. Lawrence pointed out in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (1938), where some of its folk tale origins are recorded in a well-intentioned effort to produce a more innocent context for the All's Well bed-trick. It had been used in prose fiction since the middle ages, and especially in the novella. The plot of All's Well derives from Boccaccio's story of Giletta of Narbonne, related in the Decameron and translated into English by William Painter as novel 38 of his Palace of Pleasure (1566-7, 1575). The basic plot of Measure for Measure, fastidiously referred to by Mary Lascelles as 'the story of the monstrous ransom', is widespread4; among the versions closest to Shakespeare's are the several novellas and a closet drama by Cintino, as well as William Whetstone's play Promos and Cassandra (1578). The novella lent itself to adaptation for the stage because of its many and varied plots, and its evident popularity with women, who were also a significant presence in Shakespeare's theatre. The Decameron addresses itself specifically to women readers in the first instance, and acknowledges that men and women have different narrative concerns, both as story tellers and audience. The tales provide occasions for debate, and opportunities for those discussions of love-questions and gender perspectives that had been so popular throughout the middle ages. This aspect was developed even more explicitly in later novella collections such as Marguerite de Navarre's The Heptameron (1558), where the framing discussions are more elaborate.

Boccaccio's tale of Giletta of Narbonne, the ninth tale of the third day, is told by the Queen, and belongs to the aristocratic mode of high romance. It reworks the type of eastern folk tales described by W. W. Lawrence. In such stories an ingenious and enterprising wife wins her husband by fulfilling a series of impossible conditions: she must get his ring on her finger, get herself pregnant by him and, in some versions, obtain a foal from his stallion without his knowledge. Boccaccio's Beltramo finds the physician's daughter Giletta beautiful ('molto bella'), but socially beneath him. Forced to marry her by the King, he sets her impossible conditions and runs away to the wars. In Florence he falls violently in love with an unnamed gentlewoman whose main characteristic is her poverty. When Giletta takes her place in bed with Beltramo, he is delighted with their encounter, leaving her many presents in the morning and returning for further secret meetings until Giletta finds herself pregnant. When she finally returns to him and holds up her twin babies, he responds by catching her up in his arms with unfeigned joy, as did the husband in the traditional folk tale. Giletta uses the bed-trick both to contain Beltramo's desires and to consummate their marriage, but her primary motive was to meet the conditions he had set her, so that this tale exists halfway between those in which the wife is set the task of winning her husband, and those in which the bed-trick is employed to save a husband from committing adultery.

While there are numerous variations on this theme, one of the simpler examples is Bandello's story, retold by William Painter as 'Two Gentlewomen of Venice', and introduced by him, in The Palace of Pleasure, with the story of Queen Marie, wife of Don Pietro, King of Arragon, who became pregnant by her husband by taking the place of another woman in his bed:

These passing good pollicies of women many times abolish the frantik lecherous fits of husbands gieven to superfluous lusts, when … they contayne that which they be loth to see or heare of, and then … excogitate sleights to shun folly, and expell discurtesie, by husbande's carelesse use. Sutch practices, and devises, these two Gentlewomen whom I now bring forth, disclose in this discourse ensuing.5

In the tale that follows, two women friends re-route the transgressive intentions of their husbands, who are enemies and rivals,by secret bed-swapping (their houses conveniently back onto one another), and their ruse continues until, as the result of an independent accident, their husbands are discovered naked in each other's bed-chambers, and arrested.

Characteristic of this type of plot is the husband's strong arousal, as he imagines a forbidden consummation, and his extra activity is traditionally associated with the begetting of sons ('usinge us with more earnest desire than you were wont to do, both wee were begotten with childe … '6); the twins, in the story of Giletta of Narbonne, presumably reflect a similar activity. In its most basic form—a wife substituted for a mistress in her husband's bed—this plot does not merely enact but embodies sexual fantasy, providing an imaginary freedom and an actual safety, while leaving unresolved questions about the place of such desires within marriage. One response, however, is that of the wife, who voices her anger not merely on her own behalf but for all those who have been so deceived. In this Bandello/Painter version, one of the wives 'say[s] her mind' to the assembled company for the best part of six pages, the main brunt of her argument being 'Eyther of you ought to have been contented with your Wyves, and not (as wickedly you have done) to forsake them, to seeke for better breade than is made of Wheate'.7

Further novella variants in the Decameron (such as the sixth tale of the third day) or in Marguerite of Navarre's Heptameron (the eighth tale of the first day) add the favourite twist of 'the biter bit', so that the husband's misbehaviour unknowingly draws his wife into adultery. Painter's city wives, energetically policing the boundaries of their marriage, have something in common with Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, though it was actually Marston who adopted this novella as the sub-plot of The Insatiate Countess.8 Two ingenious wives turn up again shortly before the closing of the theatres in Jasper Mayne's The Amorous War (1640); they dress themselves up as Amazons and are told (mistakenly, as it happens)

                                   You are
The Two first Ladies that ere made their
  Husbands
Cuckold themselves with their owne wives.
                                          (V. viii)

What Shakespeare took from stories of this kind was an exploration of the role of desire within society, and the conflict between its disruptiveness and safe containment in marriage. Erotic power games are played out within marriage and outside it, and those attending, both the listeners within the frame and the readers, may participate in these fantasies within fantasies, identifying with the different players as they choose. As Janet Adelman argues in her book Suffocating Mothers, the bed-trick allows Shakespeare to catch up the marital, familial and social tensions that the novella had explored, and deploy it as 'a forced and conspicuous emblem for what needs working out'. In the two plays that make use of it, the bed-trick is

the primary device through which desire is regulated, both legitimised and relocated in the socially sanctioned bond of marriage … [it allows] both Bertram and Angelo to enact fantasies in which a virgin is soiled … only to find out that their sexual acts have in fact been legitimate, that the soiling has taken place only in fantasy. The bed-tricks thus offer to save Bertram and Angelo from their own fantasies.9

Bed-tricks of the type that occur in the novella are typically played out by consenting adults in private: pleasure or power are the goals for which they compete, and the narrative commonly attempts to achieve some kind of balance between men and women so that advantages won or wrongs endured are subsequently rectified or revenged, often in the second half of the story. This exercise of rough justice is widely evident throughout the Decameron and not merely in the bed-trick stories; it is also apparent in the title and structure of Measure for Measure, and to a lesser extent in All's Well. Boccaccio's tales are carefully divided between male and female tellers, and the diverging narrative interests of men and women are catered for in different stories, or even by different developments within individual stories. The gender and status of the story-teller always inflects the tale: the Queen's role as storyteller in 'Giletta of Narbonne' may find its equivalence in Shakespeare's version, either in the introduction of the Countess as a figure of female authority, or else in the way that Helena moves from a position of rebellion and social marginality at the outset to become the chief agent, controller and commentator on the action in the second half.

While the novella's focus on the sexual games people play can be opened out into the kinds of psychological conflict that Adelman analyses, its brevity and balanced structure tend to keep the resulting anxieties under control. Sexual pleasure is normally a positive, available both to men and women, although power, money or the respect of your neighbours may also be at stake. However the action is predominantly limited to domestic circumstance, and wandering desire is too common an event to be viewed as a major threat to the workings of society. Sir Philip Sidney provides an altogether darker view of sexual transgression, seeing it not only as a potentially disruptive force within the individual, but also within the state, when inadequately governed. The Arcadia contains the most memorable and the most fully elaborated version of the bed-trick in English before Shakespeare. It occurs in book III of the Old Arcadia, the last two and a half books of which were grafted on to the uncompleted text of the New Arcadia in 1593, to provide some kind of narrative conclusion, albeit an inappropriate one. Here the public consequences of private actions are played out at a vast trial, and the bed-trick acquires those associations with the law, punishment and death that characterise Shakespeare's treatment of it. As in the Vienna of Measure for Measure, 'the Arcadian laws … without exception, did condemn all to death who were found in act of marriage without solemnity of marriage'.10

Although its outcome is to be so dark, the bed-trick in the Arcadia is set up in a series of light intrigues, reminiscent of the novella, or even French farce: Mucedorus tricks Dametas and Mopsa in order to elope with Pamela, while Pyrocles, disguised as an Amazon, sets up a meeting with Philoclea by packing off her parents, both of whom are in love with him, to an assignation in a dark cave, supposedly with himself but actually with each other. While the Duke Basileus fancies himself as the deceiving husband, his wife Gynecia is already one step ahead in the recognition game in so far as she has seen through Pyrocles's disguise as an Amazon and knows 'her' to be a man. Her next discovery is of an altogether different order: she is not after all committing adultery. They have unintentionally avoided sexual sin, though she must endure her knowledge alone:

In what case poor Gynecia was when she knew the voice and felt the body of her husband, fair ladies, it is better to know by imagination than experience. (p. 227)

The narrator of a romance can comment on his characters' reactions in a voice that has no dramatic equivalent. Gynecia's painful realisation of what had happened

made her frame herself, not truly with a sugared joy, but with a determinate patience, to let her husband think he had found a very gentle and supple-minded Zelmane; which he, good man, making full reckoning of, did melt in as much gladness as she was oppressed with divers ungrateful burdens. (p. 227)

Next morning, Basileus celebrates his night of love in a eulogy inspired by his misconceptions:

O, who would have thought there could have been such difference betwixt women? Be jealous no more, O Gynecia, but yield to the pre-eminence of more excellent gifts … (p. 275)

Gynecia, overhearing him, recognises only too clearly the deceptive power of the sexual imagination, 'how much fancy doth not only darken reason but beguile sense'. She gives him the royal equivalent of a piece of her mind, the lecture that every wife feels entitled to deliver at this point of discovery. Basileus takes up a cup of liquid which Gynecia had intended for Pyrocles, believing it to be an aphrodisaic. Draining it to the dregs, he falls to the ground, apparently dead. Meanwhile Pyrocles has awakened to find himself and Philoclea discovered in bed together, and remembering Arcadia's laws against fornication, attempts suicide; Mucedorus is interrupted in an attempt to rape Pamela and captured by rebels. After further complications, but still as a direct result of their night's escapades, Mucedorus, Pyrocles and Gynecia find themselves on trial for conspiring to overthrow the state.

The conduct of the trial and the resulting misreadings of the princes' motives emphasise the gap between their intentions (to make love to the princesses), and the highly suspicious circumstances of their discovery. The duke, it seems, has been murdered and the princes were caught violating or abducting his heirs, so that they appear to be actively engaged in bringing down the state, aided and abetted by Gynecia. This gap is further underlined by their grotesquely disproportionate punishments—to be buried alive or thrown from high places. As one critic has observed, 'Though all have erred in some degree, they certainly merit nothing like this'.11 At this point, Basileus miraculously recovers and all are reprieved in the manner appropriate to tragicomedy. Sidney's careful distinctions between the princes' intentions and their outcome in action, and his recognition that only the events themselves (as opposed to the intentions that prompted them) can be inspected in a court of law may well have suggested the legalistic interrogations of Bertram and Angelo, their threatened punishments and ultimate rescue as Helena and Claudio apparently return from the dead.

Ultimately the plot of the Arcadia resolves the princes' desires by marrying them to the princesses, as their father had originally planned. In adapting Boccaccio's tale of Giletta, Shakespeare made a series of additions that exaggerated the conflict exposed by the bed-trick between disruptive, even destructive desire, and the institution of marriage, with its strong social sanctions. The source is filled out by introducing characters who add to the sense of social relationship and establish the terms of the conflict between public responsibility and personal desire that Bertram acts out. The Countess and Lafeu encourage him to take up his responsibilities, which include marriage and childbearing, while Parolles incites him to rebel against them. Bertram's character is darkened by the increasingly forbidden nature of his desires. Yet desire is presented as potentially transgressive throughout, and in the first half of the play, Helena's desire and her pursuit of her own ends is experienced as even more disruptive.

In conversation with Parolles, Helena, half in jest and half in earnest, asks how a young woman may achieve her desires: 'How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?'12. This unanswerable problem is later taken up by the King of France, after he has promised to grant Helena her wish and found Bertram unwilling to accept her. Reluctant to pry into the absence of desire that lies behind Bertram's resistance, the King launches into an attack on pride of birth that recalls the Loathly Lady's defense of 'gentillesse', at the end of Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath's Tale':

                      Honours thrive
When rather from our acts we them derive
Than our foregoers.
                                (II. iii. 135-7)

The Loathly Lady's lecture had indirectly reproached the knight for his failure to perform the duties of the marriage bed. In both cases, pledges have been made to powerful, life-saving women. In both, virtuous action is praised above noble birth and any discussion of the asymmetry of biology is deflected into a more acceptable debate on social hierarchy. Behind the warning that human fate should not be determined by birth lies the unspoken fear that it may be determined by gender.

Helena explicitly resists another form of determinism at the outset of the play, rejecting the power of the 'fated sky', very much in the same terms as Cassius and Edmund were to do elsewhere.13 Her soliloquy at the end of I.i reverts to the themes of her jests with Parolles, in which images of women's resistance and even aggression had surfaced:

Unfold to us some warlike resistance.

Is there no military policy how virgins might blow up men?

(I. i. 115, 120)

Helena's desire for Bertram displays transgressive overtones, hinted at by Boccaccio who describes how she 'fervently fell in love with Beltramo, more than was meete for a maiden of her age'.14 In loving a man who is socially above her, in giving love unsolicited and in actively pursuing the fulfilment of her desires, she has broken at least three unspoken social rules. 'My intents are fix'd, and will not leave me' (I. i. 225), she declares, and even her name may convey a hint of her disruptive nature: the Greek Helen, of whom the clown sings at I. iii. 67, was synonymous with transgression in marriage and its longterm consequences. In the early stages of the play it looks as if her scandalous desire might parallel what Bertram later feels, but this comparison quickly breaks down. Helena's love is established as licit because it is sanctioned, first by the Countess of Rousillion and then by the King—by Bertram's surviving parent, that is, and by his guardian. When she gains further power and orchestrates the bed-trick, however, this is counterbalanced by a greater outward conformity to contemporary expectations of modesty and humility in women. Bertram, on the other hand, has become more 'laddish', perceived as 'a dangerous and lascivious boy, … a whale to virginity' (IV. iii. 212-3), not merely by the backbiting Parolles, but also by the Widow's neighbour Mariana, and the first and second lords at IV. iii.

Throughout, the force of desire is the impulse that drives the play's action forward. The clown discusses the problems it creates for him and their possible resolution within marriage on his first appearance. On being asked to bless his marriage, the Countess questions him further. 'My poor body, madam, requires it', he replies, 'I am driven on by the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives' (I. iii. 26-8). The rest of his arguments for marriage invert all the usual justifications. He hopes rather than fears to be cuckolded, for example, and when he next appears, desire has given place to disillusion: 'I have no mind to Isbel since I was at court … The brains of my Cupid's knock'd out, and I begin to love as an old man loves money, with no stomach' (III. ii. 12-16). Announcing Bertram's flight to Italy and the wars when faced with the threat of marriage, the clown makes a series of puns connecting courage and manhood with their loss through the sexual climax that is also a figure for death: 'The danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children' (II. ii. 40-1).

Bertram cannot understand the clown's comic and banal assumption that desire might be satisfied in marriage, that 'barnes are blessings' (I. iii. 23-4). If Helena's desire 'plagues itself, Bertram's is tragically drawn towards the unattainable, the significantly named Diana whose chastity acts as an unconscious challenge to him. Like Lucrece, Isabella, Imogen and Marina, Diana's virtue has unknowingly provoked a rage for conquest. The tainted sexual imagination, so much more vividly realised in Angelo, infects Bertram too, so that he urges Diana to surrender herself to him yet apparently wants no more to do with her once she has done so:

               Stand no more off,
But give thyself unto my sick desires,
Who then recovers.
                                    (IV. ii. 34-6)

While Helena can restore the King's lost health, she can only cure Bertram by using Diana as a surrogate, and making him the dupe of his own sexual excitement:

                      But, O strange men!
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,

When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night.
                                               (IV. iv. 21-4)

In the final scene, the King of France at first welcomes Bertram with words of forgiveness and reconciliation occasioned by Helena's supposed death, which frees Bertram to enter a new engagement to Lafeu's daughter Maudlin. However, his attempt to send her Helena's ring as a token draws down new suspicion on him since his possession of it and refusal to acknowledge it as hers implies that he has obtained it by foul means. The case against him deepens when Diana appears and insists that he is betrothed to her, had received the ring from her in bed and given her his in exchange.

Bertram thus finds his secret desires exposed in a manner comparable to those of the husbands in Bandello's tale of the two Gentlewomen of Venice, and he is offered the chance of reform that such exposure brings. The role of accuser, however, is displaced from the wife onto Diana, whose riddles remain incomprehensible until Bertram's private act is made visible in Helena's pregnancy. In the novella, the wife's anger with her erring husband after the bed-trick may find expression either in private or in public; in the latter case (as in the Bandello example) there is a further element of public humiliation that also characterises the testing and virtual trial of Bertram. This closely parallels the finale of the Arcadia, where the princes' sexually motivated deceptions result in more serious accusations of treason. Like the princes, Bertram cannot bring himself to admit what really happened, but unlike them, he slanders Diana to cover his own tracks. And just as in the Arcadia, Basileus's miraculous recovery saves them all from imminent execution, so Helena's miraculous reappearance saves Bertram, as she solves Diana's riddle, 'one that's dead is quick' (V. iii. 297). The public nature of the occasion serves not only to reintegrate Bertram into society and social responsibility, but to emphasise the extent to which private desire threatens to become a matter of public concern.

But while the ending reintegrates Bertram formally if not unreservedly into the community through marriage, it leaves unresolved the troubling question of his desire, never apparently aroused by Helena and only very temporarily by Diana. The play's neat and convenient solution recalls similar effects, though employed on a very different scale, in Shakespeare's Sonnets, where the extravagance of desire cannot comfortably be contained within the facile devices of art, or subordinated to the urgent requirements of closure. The troubling and unresolvable situations of, for example, Sonnets 42 and 138 are rounded off with 'flattering', that is, consciously self-deceiving couplets:

But here's the joy: my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she love but me alone.

Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

In the problem comedies, the effect of such declarative couplets is writ large, with the bed-trick closing a comparable gap between artistic resolution and uncontainable desire. Helena, in conversation with the Widow, tidies these proliferating implications, including their clash of intention ('meaning') and enactment, into a series of paradoxical couplets:

Let us assay our plot; which, if it speed,
Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.
                                   (III. vii. 44-7)

Her words unequivocally define Bertram's desire as 'wicked', but split its operation into a 'meaning' and an 'act', that are unconsciously opposed. In Measure for Measure this splitting of intention from action becomes a crucial modification, tying the bed-trick closely into the complex sequence of legal arguments that underpin the action.

One respect in which the story of Giletta and Shakespeare's All's Well differ from the other examples of the bed-trick cited here is that the trick is used not only to contain a possible infidelity, but to effect marriage by consummating it. In the other examples discussed, containment within or breaking out occurs in already well-established marriages so that the bed-trick marks a crisis in events and a new, perhaps a better, direction taken thereafter. In the examples from Shakespeare, however, an act of fornication both consummates and legitimizes a marriage. This was a logical development of the All's Well story since, according to the law in early modern England, marriages founded on mutual promises followed by sexual consummation were regarded as legal, if undesirable in that they lacked 'the denunciation … of out-ward order'.15 The formal process included the calling of the banns three times, a wedding with public pledges made at the church door and the celebration of mass. Contemporary moralists condemned couples who indulged in sexual intercourse before the formal church marriage, but it was a common enough practice, and it has been estimated that between ten per cent and thirty per cent of all brides were pregnant by the time they were married in church.16 The behaviour of courting couples has always been difficult to regulate, particularly when the authorities were as anxious to prevent misbehaviour before marriage as they were to uphold its legal status, once undertaken.

Contemporary marriage laws thus resembled Shakespeare's bed-tricks in that a potentially sinful act could retrospectively be converted into a legitimate act, though the means by which this was achieved were, of course, licit rather than illicit. In All's Well, the bed-trick can set everything to rights and fulfil the promise of the play's title, but in Measure for Measure its implications are further developed by invoking the law that had operated in Sidney's Arcadia and Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra, according to which sex before marriage is not merely a criminal act, but is punishable by death. This immediately throws the status of the bed-trick as a resolving device into doubt, since if all sex before marriage is sinful rather than marital, its function of diverting fornication into marriage would seem to have been preempted.

In social terms desire is much more threatening in Measure for Measure than it had been in All's Well, where Bertram's attempts at sexual conquest are roundly condemned by everyone, even Parolles. Vienna's suburbs seethe with pimps, prostitutes and sexually contracted disease. Even Claudio and Juliet, who have merely anticipated the marriage they desire, speak of their 'too much liberty' in terms of a deadly poison, and acknowledge the seriousness of their sin (I. ii. 117-122, II. iii. 35-6). On the other hand, a law that condemns a man for 'untrussing', and threatens to punish the life-force essential to the continued existence of society seems harsh and unreasonable.

In the event, the status of the law on fornication remains uncertain: it exists, but has been allowed by the Duke to fall into disuse. It is revived by Angelo and applied with rigour, though against the better judgement of Escalus and the Provost. It remains a threat against Angelo in the final act, although the Duke's main argument for punishing him is not that he has sinned in the same way that Claudio had done, but rather that, since he showed no mercy to Claudio, none should be shown to him. When Claudio finally reappears its seems that the law against fornication is still in operation since the Duke formally pardons him, and with him, Angelo, but by this time 'pardon's the word for all'. The bed-trick sets up parallels between Angelo's situation and Claudio's: both had been engaged to be married, but encountered delays over dowries (I. ii. 134-141, III. i. 213-23); both had consummated betrothals by sexual acts which could be regarded either as fornication or consummation of marriage; yet it also establishes the differences between them in terms of their intentions rather than their acts, in Angelo's 'wicked meaning', rather than their shared 'sinful fact'. Morally speaking, Angelo stands condemned whereas Claudio is exonerated.

Claudio is condemned to die but survives to marry. Angelo, as in most of the earlier versions of the 'monstrous ransom' story, is condemned to be married and then to die, but he is reprieved with Claudio, who is as desperate to live as Angelo is ready to die. The way in which marriage is imposed on Angelo and Lucio by ducal command and experienced by them as punishment reinforces unease about its adequacy as a 'solution', an effective system for the control of desire. Marriage may be viewed as the socially and divinely approved locus for the expression of desire, yet if desire is by its very nature fallen and transgressive, it is doomed to chafe continually against any such restraints. The reluctance of Angelo and Lucio in the play's final moments to accept their marital fate emphasises the equation of marriage with confinement and thus its ambiguous status within the play. The play's enclosed locations—walled city, prison, convent, moated grange, even Angelo's offstage garden 'circummur'd with brick' (IV. i. 28)—dramatise the desire for confinement in the safe places of the religious life or of marriage, and the equal and opposite fear that such enclosure brings, the fear of entrapment and the loss of what Othello termed his 'unhous'd free condition'.

The final scene of Measure for Measure recapitulates that of All's Well in several crucial respects—Angelo, like Bertram, initially meets the accusations brought against him with denial and lies, and both are saved from execution by the intercession of the women they have wronged, but the plot of Measure for Measure reflects the forensic concerns that dominate the last book of the Arcadia far more extensively. At the centre of its action is the law, its application and remission, and what can or cannot be legislated for in terms of acts and intentions. At the trial of Sidney's princes, questions of intention are never raised, but the nature of justice and the role of mercy are passionately debated, with Mucedorus arguing that justice should be remedial rather than punitive, that the judge should act like a wise father (which is precisely what he turns out to be). Euarchus deals out the impartial justice to which Angelo aspires. He will abate nothing of his sentence, even to save his own son. Angelo also claims for the law an absoluteness which ignores mitigating circumstance and which he refuses to modify, even when he is himself at risk.

Although the Duke upholds the need for 'bits and curbs' on sexual licence in the city (if applied by someone else), Escalus and the Provost want Claudio's punishment to be remitted; it is Angelo alone who revives and demands the full rigour of the law against fornication. In repudiating Escalus's plea for Claudio, he unconsciously pronounces sentence upon himself:

You may not so extenuate his offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I that censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.
                                  (II. i. 27-30)

According to a principle of Roman law, a judge was subject to the same judgement that he has passed on a litigant, if he committed the same act.17 Angelo can thus be seen to have passed sentence on himself, as the Duke points out to him:

An Angelo for Claudio; death for death.
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers
 leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for
 Measure …
We do condemn thee to the very block
Where Claudio stoop'd to death, and with like
 haste.
                                  (V. i. 407-9, 411-2)

Angelo's deceits, his 'measures', have been countered by the Duke's at every stage; Angelo's proposal to exchange Claudio's head for Isabella's maidenhead is countered by the Duke's substitution of Ragozine's head for Claudio's, and Mariana's maidenhead for Isabella's. Such a precise sequence of actions and counter-actions goes far beyond the rough justice of the novella, and recalls the strict exactions of the old Mosaic law. The use of the bed-trick to repay or counter-balance an equivalent deception also goes back to the Old Testament, where Jacob's theft of his elder brother's blessing from their blind father Isaac was answered by what was, perhaps, the first recorded bed-trick of all, when Laban substituted his elder daughter Leah for the promised younger one, Rachel, in Jacob's bed (Gen. 29. 20-5).

Angelo is not only strict in his demands for justice, but he draws a clear legal distinction between intentions and acts:

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall.
                                                (II. i. 17-8)

Yet it is strictly in terms of intention rather than action that he is so sharply distinguished from Claudio, since Claudio had intended to marry his Juliet, while Angelo had intended to rape Isabella. The status of intention in relation to action has always been a problematic area for the law. In the famous case of Hales versus Petit (1562), probably alluded to by the grave-digger in Hamlet, the law had ruled that while there were three parts to any act—imagination (Angelo's 'salt imagination' which 'yet hath wrong'd / Your well defended honour', V. i. 399-400), resolution and enactment—in effect, only the last could be taken into account. According to the legal commentator Edmund Plowden

For the Imagination of the mind to do Wrong, without an Act done, is not punishable in our Law, neither is the Resolution to do that Wrong, which he does not, punishable, but the doing of the Act is the only Point which the Law regards; for until the Act is done it cannot be an Offence to the World, and when the Act is done it is punishable.18

While Angelo as dispenser of absolute justice refused to take account either of mercy or pleas of good intent, the ultimate revenge is to grant him the mercy he does not wish for. Isabella is prevailed upon to plead for Angelo, as she had pleaded for Claudio. She argues that while Claudio had received strict justice, being punished for what he did, Angelo's intention to violate her had remained unfulfilled. She is on dangerous ground, however, since it is precisely on the basis of intention that Angelo's action appears far worse than Claudio's and thus more, rather than less, deserving of punishment:

             My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died:
For Angelo,
His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish'd by the way. Thoughts are no
  subjects;
Intents, but merely thoughts.
                                       (V. i. 446-52)

Angelo's evil intentions have, without his knowledge, been frustrated by the Duke and diverted into the fulfilment of a broken promise; his prospective crime has become the consummation of his former betrothal, and in the eyes of the law he is neither more nor less guilty than Claudio is.

Isabell's words have a further point that she cannot yet recognise, since that other 'bad intent' of Angelo's, to break his promise to her and have Claudio executed, has also, unknown to either of them, remained only an 'intent', not overtaken by enactment. And though Isabella does not yet know it, this will absolve Angelo, since he had sentenced himself to the same punishment as he inflicted on Claudio. When Claudio is finally unmuffled and the Duke pardons him for the crime of fornication, he adds the crucial rider, 'By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe' (V. i. 492).

Isabella characterises the freedom of thoughts or 'intents' in two different ways: thoughts are no subjects—that is to say, they are lawless, insubordinate, potentially transgressive; and they are no subjects in the further sense that, unlike individuals or bodies, they are not the subjects of the state nor subject to its laws. While bodies must obey, mere thoughts are exempt. The suggestion of a pun on the word 'subject' exposes precisely that conflict between the freedom of the mind and the subjection of the body to the state and its rules that the bed-trick had temporarily reconciled. Angelo's transgressive thoughts, no subjects, performed one action, while his dutiful body, the state's subject, performed another, unknown to him. Yet there is more than a suspicion that it is only Angelo's desiring thoughts, his delusion that he is raping Isabella, that enables him to act out the sexual consummation with Mariana at all. Like Bertram with Helena, Angelo has no desire for Mariana, nor indeed for anyone else: 'When men were fond, I smil'd and wonder'd how' (II. ii. 187). In both cases, their deferred (as they had hoped, permanently deferred) marriages are effected by means of a sexually arousing deception. Shakespeare's Duke and Helena both use the bed-trick to solve one of the fundamental problems of gender asymmetry, that absence of male desire that Venus confronted as she vainly clasped Adonis to her. These two plays solve it by exploiting a different desire in its stead.

In the Arcadia, sexual transgressions had brought the princes to public trial and condemnation, but the final plot reversal frees them to fulfil their desires and marry the princesses as they had wanted to, and as Euarchus had always intended. In the novella, the bed-trick can reassert the pleasures of transgression or redirect wandering desire back into marriage—in either case there is some hope of achieving change. In bringing transgression and marriage together within the bed-trick, the sexual dissidents, Bertram and Angelo, are brought back into the community, yet there remains the disturbing suspicion at the end that their marriages are founded on mistakings, on a transient desire for an unattainable woman. Both plays end by recalling earlier circumstances, as the King in All's Well promises Diana a husband of her choice, and the Duke asks Isabella to give herself to him in recompense for her brother's life. Such backward glances are reinforced by the stubborn reluctance of Bertram and Angelo to recognise themselves or the women who love them. It is hard to imagine their moments of sexual conquest transformed into the repetitive acts of marriage that only love—or sexual fantasising—can make bearable.

Notes

1 The play's adverse critics are discussed by David Lloyd Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), pp. 63-92, and Rosalind Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure. A Historical Investigation, (1976), pp. 31-48, 236-7.

2 In his edition of All's Well that Ends Well, (1959, re-printed 1977), where he also cites a contemporary example from real life, pp. xliv-xlv.

3 R. S. Forsythe, The Relations of Shirley's Plays to the Elizabethan Drama, (New York, 1914), pp. 330-1. Forsyte' s list does not include Fletcher's Monsieur Thomas, (1615) nor the variant on this device in Middleton's Hengist, King of Kent, (1618), and there are doubtless other omissions. Here and elsewhere plays other than Shakespeare's are dated according to the most recent edition of Alfred Harbage's Annals of English Drama, 975-1700, rev. S. S. Wagonheim, (1989).

4In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, (1953).

5 William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, ed. Joseph Jacobs, (1890), vol. iii, p. 126.

6 Ibid., p. 151.

7 Ibid., p. 148.

8 The extent of Marston's contribution to The Insatiate Countess is uncertain, as Giorgio Melchiori's edition for the Revels Plays (Manchester, 1984) makes clear. Melchiori nevertheless considers that the author's familiarity with Measure for Measure may account for the selection of a sub-plot in which a bed-trick 'not only figures but is actually doubled' (p. 26).

9Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest, (1992), p. 77.

10 Jean Robertson, ed., The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, (Oxford, 1973), p. 290. Subsequent page references are to this edition. Robertson's note on this passage points out that Ariosto in Orlando Furioso (iv. 59), attributes to Scotland the harsh law that condemns Ginevra to death for fornication.

11 Margaret Dana, 'The Providential Plot of the Old Arcadia', in Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. Dennis Kay, (Oxford, 1987), p. 97.

12All's Well That Ends Well, ed. G. K. Hunter, I.i.147. Subsequent references are to this edition.

13Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky
Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
                                   (I. i. 212-5)

Compare Cassius in Julius Caesar, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings' (I. ii. 140-1) or Edmund in King Lear, 'An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!' (I. ii. 126-8).

14 William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, ed. Joseph Jacobs, (1890), vol. i. p. 171 (for Boccaccio's 'la quale infinito amore oltre convenevole dela tenera eta fervente pose a questo Beltramo').

15Measure for Measure ed. J. W. Lever, (1965), I. ii. 137-8. Subsequent references are to this edition.

16 Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680, (1982), p. 85. He adds that 'In some areas this may have been the result of a formally recognized right to commence sexual intercourse after betrothal—for in canon law a public promise to marry constituted a valid, though irregular marriage … popular attitudes, though far from loose, were simply more flexible than those of society's professional moralists'.

17The Digest of Justinian, eds. T. Mommsen, P. Kreger and A. Watson, (Pennsylvania, 1985), vol. i, p. 42. The Praetor's edict,'Quod quisque iuris in alterum statuerit, ut ipse eodem iure utatur' provides the heading for section II.ii. (though this principle was never adopted into English law).

18The Commentaries … of Edmund Plowden, (1816), Part One, p. 25. Bernard Rudden considers the relation of the Hales v. Petit case to Hamlet in 'For the First Grave Digger', The Law Quarterly Review, vol. 100, October 1984, pp. 540-4.

Source: "Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, October, 1994, pp. 293-314.