William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7,420 words.)