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Essay: Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice

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  • Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice
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this essay will consider whether or not the dramatic effects of deception and disguise are significant in Shakespeare’s works. Deception and disguise show difference between appearance and reality in Shakespearian drama and often go hand in hand within Shakespeare’s plays. There are, for example, many instances of disguise leading to accidental deception, the use of disguise as a means to deceive in a form of self-preservation such as the tactics used within Twelfth Night and there are occasions when deception is used in a more malevolent fashion as shown in both Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. Other characters are known to even deceive themselves, ultimately believing they are something they are not.

Deception- disguise as a technique

“No plot device is more constantly recurrent in Shakespearian drama than is disguise.” (P.V.Kreider) Throughout many Shakespearian works among the most frequently visited plot devices is deception, which, more often than not is brought across to the audience by a character cross-dressing and/or donning a form of disguise, which is used heavily by Viola and as a smaller part, Feste in Twelfth Night.

In Twelfth Night ones outward identity is not the only thing that can be disguised and used to deceive, but also as letters and declarations of love to others have been used as a technique to deceive. In act 1 scene 2 Viola’s speech sets the tone for a play, “And though that nature with a beauteous wall, I will believe thou hast a mind that suits, With this thy fair and outward character.” Intent on thinking about whether or not what’s outside matches what’s on the inside, Viola describes the way some people can seem “fair” or beautiful in their outward appearance and demeanor while concealing what truly lies underneath, like a “beauteous wall,”
“I am not what I am.” (Act 3 scene 1) Cesario’s cryptic statement to Olivia, who has fallen in love with “him,” is both revealing and concealing. Olivia has no idea that “Cesario” is really Viola in disguise. The audience, however, knows that “Cesario” is not what “he” appears to be. “Cesario” suggests that “he” is neither a boy nor an appropriate object for Olivia to love.

“Utterances concerning oneself as disguised are indispensable in the process of keeping identity clear in some of Shakespeare’s most interesting masquerades” (P.V.Kreider)

The theme of deception is used throughout the play to mislead and confuse so things may not always be what they seem. Shakespeare uses deception to enhance the unfolding drama and involve his audience more fully in the play – the audience are party to deceptions which the characters themselves are unaware of.

“When the condition which necessitated the disguise is removed, Shakespeare explains the masquerade to those who have been deceived by it.” (P.V.Kreider)

Quotes and citations

1. KREIDER, P. V.. “The Mechanics of Disguise in Shakespeare’s Plays”. The Shakespeare Association Bulletin 9.4 (1934): 167–180. Web…

2. Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. United Kingdom: William Collins, 15 Sept. 2011.

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.

“By our period, it was an accepted convention that disguise… should be entirely successful in its intended deception until the character involved wished to reveal himself- or, frequently, herself… taking the roles of women disguising themselves as men, was a popular device…” (Trussler, pg 51)
Trussler, Simon, ed. Shakespearian Concepts: a Dictionary of Terms and Conventions Influences and Institutions Themes, Ideas and Genres in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. London: Methuen Publishing, 8 Feb. 1990.

The characters of the play The Merchant of Venice deceive, are deceived many times. Although the play The Merchant of Venice appears to emphasize reality, this play actually emphasizes appearances and how appearances are a crucial component of this play.
1) Bassanio used his appearances to impress not only the people of Venice but also Portia of Belmont. One reason this play accentuates appearances is because Bassanio emphasizes his appearance all through his life. He wants to appear rich to gain a good reputation around Venice. For instance, when Bassanio says, “‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, / How much I have disabled mine estate, / By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance” (Act I, Scene 1, lines 122-125) he confesses that he uses all his money in his fancy appearance for the obvious reason that he wants everyone to like him.
2) Throughout the play, Bassanio works to make himself appear different then what he actually is, placing appearance over reality.
3) Shylock appeared to be a kind and generous man. For instance when Shylock says, “I would be friends with you and have your love, / Forget the shames that you have stained me with, / Supply your present wants, and take no doit / Of usance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me: / This is kind I offer.” (Act I, Scene 3, lines 135-139) he appears to be friendly and kind by offering the money Bassanio needs, which deceives Antonio and Bassanio into thinking that Shylock really wants to let bygones be bygones even though Antonio obviously looks down on him.
4) Portia used her appearance to deceive all the men of Venice into thinking she was a male. For example, when Portia says, “Therefore, prepare thee to cut off the flesh. / Shed thou no blood, nor cut less nor more / But just a pound of flesh: if thou tak’st more or less than a just pound, be it but so much / As makes it light or heavy in the substance, / Or the division of the twentieth part / Of one poor scrumple, nay, if the scale do turn/ But in the estimation of a hair, / Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate.” (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 320-328) she acts skillfully like a real civil doctor. Her appearance makes the men of Venice think that she is a male and tricks everyone into treating her like a male. If she didn’t disguise herself like a male, the men of Venice would not take her seriously due to the fact that she was female, thus resulting in Antonio dying. In conclusion because Portia’s appearance was needed to not only choose a husband but to save Antonio’s life as well, the play emphasizes appearance over reality.

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