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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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.