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Essay/Term paper: Shakespeare's use of trickery and disguise in his plays

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Shakespeare

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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
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
successful 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 1.1 178-179).
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
drive 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
who 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
suitors' 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.

[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
limited '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
access 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 ... this theme of the withdrawal and return of the heroine comes
as close to a death and revival as Elizabethan conventions will allow. (Frye
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
drop 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—
the use of the same person to play two characters—and 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
conseuqnces 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.

Works Cited

Barber, C.L. The Merchants and the Jew of Venice:
Wealth's Communion and an Intruder. Modern
Shakespearean Criticism: Essays on Style,
Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays. Ed. Alvin B.
Kernan. San Diego: HBJ, 1970. 204-227.

Bergeron, David M. Come Hell or High Water:
Shakespearean Romantic Comedy. Shakespearean
Comedy. Ed. Maurice Charney. New York: New York
Literary Forum, 1980. 111-120.

Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York:
Columbia UP, 1993.

Frye, Northrop. The Argument of Comedy. Modern
Shakespearean Criticism: Essays on Style,
Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays. Ed. Alvin B.
Kernan. San Diego: HBJ, 1970. 165-173.

Oz, Avraham. The Doubling of Parts In Shakespearean
Comedy: Some Questions of Theory and Practice.
Shakespearean Comedy. Ed. Maurice Charney. New
York: New York Literary Forum, 1980. 175-184.

Rossiter, A.P. Much Ado About Nothing. William
Shakespeare: Modern Critical Views: Comedies &
Romances. Ed. Harlod Bloom. New York: Chelsea
House Publishers, 1986. 163-176.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice.
Baltimore: Penguin, 1959.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. New
York: Washington Square Press, 1964.


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