Discuss the theme of deception and disguise in the play "Measure for Measure."

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Louise Rudd                                   Shakespeare – English Literature                                        Winter 2003

Discuss the theme of deception and disguise in the play Measure for Measure.

‘Measure for Measure’ by William Shakespeare has many important themes depicted throughout the play. These themes are presented through actions, decisions, character’s speech and personalities. Two of the key themes in the play are deception and disguise. This play is full of instances of trickery and deceit. Because of this we can see there is a severe lack of trust and honesty in ‘Measure for Measure’ between the characters. Theatricality is heavily emphasised during the play by all.

‘Measure for Measure’ is a problem play written by William Shakespeare in 1604. It is a problem play because it does not fall into any of the usual groups of Shakespeare’s plays. It is not a historical play nor singularly a tragedy or comedy. It, in fact, falls in both of the later two groups. The play is about a Duke who pretends to leave the city of Vienna and leaves a young man called Angelo to run the city. Angelo acknowledges that the crime in the city is getting out of control, particularly sexual crimes, and decides to enforce the laws. The Duke however never actually leaves Vienna but instead disguises himself as a holy friar and watches as Angelo tries to rule the city.

This is where the first instance of deception occurs in the play. The play opens with the Duke explaining to Escalus he is about to go away for a while and plans to leave Angelo in his place.

He asks Escalus, his loyal aide, what his personal opinion of Angelo is and what he thinks of this decision. The Duke implies that he wishes to know if Angelo behaves differently around different types of people. Here the Duke is questioning Angelo’s character. Is it possible that he is being deceitful by acting better around people like the Duke. The Duke leaving is, in fact, testing the facade that Angelo presents around him. It is possible that Angelo does put on a front or act around certain people in order to impress or feel better about himself. This play could be going to test Angelo’s character and his ability to do this. All human characters have flaws and many people try to disguise them. It is human nature for people to naturally act to impress.

Once the Duke announces to Angelo his departure, Angelo questions the Dukes choice and motives however, the Duke makes a quick exit and Angelo begins his duties.

We soon learn the Duke has, actually, not left as he said he would but is still in Vienna. The Duke visits Friar Thomas and explains his plan to stay in Vienna and watch the goings on, not as the Duke or an aide but as a normal inhabitant of his own city. He then asks the Friar to teach him the ways of “a true friar” and disguise him and give him “secret harbour”. From here on in the play, the Duke deceives the entire city of Vienna by playing another part. This acting, that the Duke decides to do, is quite surprising since he had said once that he didn’t enjoy speaking in public and ‘performing’ in front of the people of Vienna; “I love the people, But do not like to stage me to their eyes”. However this character disguise he has created, which he can hide behind, brings out a lot of confidence in him and also another side to his personality, which is quite devious.

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By choosing to disguise himself as a friar and not a normal citizen of Vienna the Duke opens doors for himself into many lives of the people of Vienna. As a friar he still does retain some status over other people. Also as a friar he can enter many places without question as well as the churches, for example, prisons, which is how he is able to see Claudio while he is being held. While disguised as the friar, he also has people who talk to him and reveal secrets to him in confidence. This is how he is able ...

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