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.