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Shakespeare’s Use of Trickery and Disguise In His Plays

Shakespeare uses similar comic elements to effect similar outcomes in his works. Many of his plays utilize trickery and disguise to accomplish similar endings. Trickery plays a major role in The Merchant of Venice and drives most of the action, while mistaken identity, specifically Portia’s disguise as the “learned attorney’s” representative, plays a major role in the resolution of the play. The first instance of trickery in the play is Bassanio’s plan to present himself as a financially sound suitor, when in truth, he is not.

Bassanio believes that he would stand a very good chance of being the uccessful suitor if he had the proper money backing him. Bassanio then goes to his friend Antonio to try to secure a loan to provide for his wooing. O my Antonio, had I but the means/To hold a rival place with one of them [other suitors]/I have a mind presages me such thrift/That I should questionless be fortunate! ” (Shakespeare, Merchant 1. 1 173-176)

However, Antonio has, “neither the money, nor commodity/to raise a present sum” but urges Bassanio to go through Venice to try to secure a loan using Antonio’s bond as credit (Shakespeare, Merchant 1. 178-179). One of the resident money-lenders of Venice is an individual called Shylock, a person of Jewish descent. The practice of usury was traditionally banned by the Christian church. This allowed many Jews, because their belief system contained no objection to profitable money-lending, to become the de facto loan officers. Bassanio approaches Shylock to ask for a loan, and Shylock seems as if he is going to agree, however, he first asks to speak with Antonio.

It is revealed in an aside that Shylock harbors a secret hatred of Antonio because of his religion and Shylock’s belief that Antonio’s practices rive down the interest rates that Shylock can charge in Venice. Here we see the second instance of trickery and deception within The Merchant of Venice. Shylock seems to have great knowledge of the positions of Antonio’s fleet and ominously notes that, “ships are but boards, sailors but men” (Shakespeare, Merchant 1. 3 20). Earlier in the scene Shylock seems hesitant, which, “we can construe as playing for time while he forms his plan (Barber 211).

Shylock agrees to accept the loan, using Antonio’s bond as credit, but refuses to charge interest on it. Instead, he chooses, in “merry sport,” to insert a clause that states he will have the right to one pound of Antonio’s flesh if the bond should be forfeited. Antonio, thinking that his ships will arrive before the date the loan falls due, agrees to the conditions that Shylock sets forth. Clearly, Shylock has calculated that the chances of Antonio’s fleet not making it back to port are rather good, and this bit of trickery sets up the main action of the play.

Trickery is also present in The Taming of the Shrew. In this work, Bianca, the “good” daughter has three suitors vying for her love. Gremio, an old, prosperous, and well-respected gentleman; Hortensio, another gentleman in the town; and Lucentio, a newly arrived wealthy traveler, all will fight for her affections. Gremio figures very little in the courting of Bianca, mostly due to his age and small chance of success, but the remaining suitors hatch a plot to win the love of Bianca. Hortensio and Lucentio decide to become schoolteachers, because Baptista, Bianca’s father, is planning to find tutors for her.

Hortensio decides to become a music teacher, and Lucentio a Latin teacher. They approach Baptista ho consents to let them both tutor his daughters. The initial session, held with Kate, the shrew, does not go well for either, but then they are allowed to tutor Bianca. Lucentio eventually discloses his true identity to Bianca and tells her their plot. Bianca reveals that she is interested in Lucentio but still leads them both on for quite some time. This is one of the examples of trickery and deception practiced in The Taming of the Shrew.

Trickery is also present in Much Ado About Nothing. In this work Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, hatches a plan to bring Beatrice and Benedick together. Benedick is a lord, and a well-known philanderer, who is adamantly against marriage. Beatrice, a relative of the Governor, is a witty resident of his manor. There have been suggestions by some critics that the Kate and Beatrice characters are closely related. “It is surprising how much Beatrice in Much Ado is modeled after Kate in the Taming of the Shrew, given that the two plays are separated by about five years” (Charney 58).

Beatrice and Benedick wage what Leonato calls a “merry war” where “they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit be-/tween them” (Shakespeare, Much 1. 1 60-61). Don Pedro’s plot, which includes Claudio, Hero, and Leonato, centers around informing both Beatrice and Benedick that the other one is madly in love with the other but does not want to reveal it. They believe, correctly, that faced with this knowledge the “merry war” between them will end, and the romance will start. Trickery, present in all the works, generally plays the same role in each.

Each instance of trickery has been the result, either directly or indirectly, of an attempt to bring together a man and a woman. In The Merchant of Venice it is Bassanio’s desire to woo Portia, in The Taming of the Shrew it is the uitors’ desire to win Bianca, in Much Ado About Nothing it is the group’s desire to bring Benedick and Beatrice together. Another device used in each of these three plays is the use of disguise and, as a result of the disguise, mistaken identity. According to A. P. Rossiter, [Much Ado About Nothing’s] date … invites one of two general approaches to interpretation.

Either this is all trivial, however clever: the author is totally disengaged throughout, and we are foolish to look for anything in any way deep, ourselves solemnly making ado about nothing; or it is a brilliantly superficial and deliberately imited ‘Italian’ love-fantasia on the theme of deception by appearances…. ” (163) The disguises seen in The Taming of the Shrew are used during the courting of Bianca and by Lucentio and Tranio. Lucentio decides that Tranio, his servant, and he should change places so that his courting of Bianca could be accomplished more easily.

Tranio, taken with the idea of being able to join the upper-class, even if it is only for a short while, readily agrees. Disguise is also seen in The Taming of the Shrew when Lucentio and Hortensio plot to win Bianca. The two disguise themselves as teachers to gain ccess to Bianca, without the trouble of the shrew or Bianca’s father. Disguise occurs in Much Ado About Nothing, but to a somewhat lesser extent. In this work, most of the cast is dressed up for a costume ball that is held early in the play.

In this instance, Beatrice is paired with a disguised Benedick for the evening. Beatrice, however, sees through the disguise rather easily and continues their verbal sparring, much to the dismay of Benedick. Mistaken identity plays a much greater role in the play, however. Don John, Don Pedro’s bastard brother, harbors a great hatred for Don Pedro and his followers. Don John’s initial plot to prevent the marriage of Claudio and Hero fails measurably, so he hatches another, more complex plot to destroy the couple.

Don John feigns reconciliation with Don Pedro on the day before Claudio and Hero’s wedding is to take place. After Don John wins back the trust of his brother, he reveals that he believes that Hero has not been true to Claudio. To prove this, he invites Don Pedro and Claudio to peep at Hero’s bedchamber window later that night. Beforehand, Don John has inserted his lackey, Borachio and his lover Margaret into Hero’s bedchamber. He instructs Borachio to make love to Margaret, at Hero’s windows, at the appointed hour.

Thus, when Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio come by, they witness the scene in the window, and decide to reveal what they have seen at the wedding tomorrow. During the wedding, Claudio refuses to marry Hero. Don Pedro’s party, save Benedick, walk out of the ceremony. However, Hero does in fact use disguise to clear herself of the false accusations. That fact that the heroine often brings about the comic resolution by disguising herself as a boy is familiary enough. In the Hero of Much Ado About Nothing … is theme of the withdrawal and return of the heroine comes as close to a death and revival as Elizabethan conventions will allow. (Frye 171) The Merchant of Venice also contains instances of disguise and mistaken identity. In this work, Portia and Nerissa, Portia’s lady-in-waiting, disguise themselves as a lawyer and law clerk, respectively. They arrive at the hearing between Shylock and Antonio, where Shylock is trying to force the collection of his pound of flesh. All looks lost when the two arrive, for Shylock does have the law on his side and is intent about the collection of the flesh from Antonio.

Here, however, both trickery and disguise play a role in Shylock’s undoing. Portia first gives a speech about mercy to Shylock, but Shylock refuses to be swayed by her or the Duke. Portia offers Shylock triple what is due to him, if he will relent on the collection of the pound of flesh, but still he will hear nothing of it. Portia appears to give up, but then states that Shylock can, and must, take his pound of flesh, however, she adds, This bond doth give thee here no jot of Blood;/The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh. /Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound flesh;/But in cutting it if thou dost shed/One rop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/Are by the laws of Venice confiscate/upto the state of Venice. (Shakespeare, Merchant 4. 1 304-309) Shylock immediately sees the inherent problem in the situation that he has locked himself into, and declares that he will accept triple the amount, and let Antonio go. Portia refuses to accept this, and Shylock is forced to pay half his worth to Antonio, convert to Christianity, and agree to bequeath the remainder of his worth to his daughter.

Shylock grudgingly accepts and leaves the court embittered. The use of disguise is somewhat similar to the common practice of doubling he use of the same person to play two charactersand probably had economic reasons behind it. The net effect of both practices is essentially another character added without the expense of another actor. “The economic motives for the use of doubling are obvious enough: the size of a regular company would [be limited in] human resources” (Oz 177).

Similarly to trickery, disguise and mistaken identities play an important role in each one of the plays. In The Taming of the Shrew, it provides for the coupling of Lucentio and Bianca. In Much Ado About Nothing it is again involved in marriage, but in this case almost destroys one. However, through trickery and disguise, the marriage is saved. In The Merchant of Venice it saves the marriage of Portia and Bassanio, because it seems likely that Bassanio would have committed suicide if Antonio were to die.

Another common occurrence in Shakespeare’s comedies is that of shipwrecks, and instances where the sea plays a major negative role. “Though there are no shipwrecks in The Merchant of Venice, experiencing the hell of high water and ships running aground are crucial in the play’s development,” according to David M. Bergeron (116). Bergeron furhter elaborates that, “experience at sea and its onseuqnces help delineate Shakespeare’s romantic world, a world that he inherited in which problems, expecially love problems, are solved” (112).

Besides shipwrecks and trickery, many of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays are similar. For example, “In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio is a fortune- hunter like Petruchio, who finances an extravagant expedition to Belmont to woo Portia properly” (Charney 26). In each of these plays, trickery, disguise, a combination of the two, or other effects are used to cause essentially the same ending that results in one, or more, happily married couples.

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