The Theme of Deceit and Its Unveiling in Romeo and Juliet
As French writer Luc de Clapiers said, “The art of pleasing is the art of deception.” William Shakespeare, an artist of words, employed deceit and trickery in his stories to make them complex and engrossing. Deceit is a subject not often spoken of, because almost every person can be charged with deception of some kind or other, and people tend to equivocate when it comes to discussing deceit. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare weaves complex characters to add suspense to the story, mostly through deception, in three ways: providing satisfaction to the deluded, an advantage to the misleader, and the potential to harm many.
The purpose of telling mistruths is predominantly to appease somebody, especially if they would be upset with the truth. Shakespeare’s creations are masterful users of these little white lies. Juliet sends this message to her parents through her loyal nurse, meaning to mislead them.
JULIET. Go in and tell my lady I am gone,
Having displeased my father, to Lawrence’ cell
To make confession and to be absolved. (3.5.244-246)
Immediately after the nurse leaves, Juliet speaks to herself and expresses that she will go to Friar Lawrence, not for confession but for advice on what to do, and that if he cannot guide her back to Romeo she will kill herself. Friar Lawrence helps Juliet to trick Paris, making him think he will soon be married.
PARIS. Come you to make confession to this father?
JULIET. To answer that, I should confess to you.
PARIS. Do not deny to him that you love me.
JULIET. I will confess to you that I love him. (4.1.23-26)
Another simple lie, Juliet convinces Paris that she will mention her love for him in her confession to the Friar. This allows Paris to happily relax outside while Juliet and Friar Lawrence plot in the monastery’s confessional. Clever deceit is the means by which Romeo and Juliet try to be together, for not only does it delude those who would be obstacles, but it is advantageous to those who do the tricking, and adds to the depth of the overall story.
The main motivation to deceive is for the benefits it can provide and to open opportunities that would otherwise be impossible. Toward the beginning of the play, when Romeo is still infatuated with Rosaline, his friend advises him to go disguised to the Capulet party.
BENVOLIO. At this same ancient feast of Capulet’s
Sups the fair Rosaline whom thou so loves,
With all the admirèd beauties of Verona.
Go thither, and with unattainted eye
Compare her face with some that I shall show,
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow. (1.3.89-95)
Benvolio wants Romeo to see other beautiful women so that he can forget the face of Rosaline, but this can only be achieved if Romeo disguises himself, convincing all at the party that he is not a Montague, but a friend of the Capulets. This trickery is what leads to Romeo getting his prize of Juliet’s affection. When Lord Capulet wanted Count Paris to marry Juliet, he wove a web of deceit so that she would think it was love instead of an arranged marriage. By plotting with the husband-to-be, a plan was formed to bring Paris into the Capulet family.
CAPULET. Let two more summers wither in their pride
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.
But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart;
My will to her consent is but a part. (1.2.10-17)
So determined is the patriarch of the Capulets to wed his daughter that he lies to her, scheming to arrange her marriage with a husband of his choice without her knowledge. While it can provide an otherwise impossible opportunity or just an advantage, even deceptions with good intentions can fail or do harm. That tragedy is what Shakespeare is famous for.
Shakespeare filled his works with trickery, intentional misleadings easy to find in Hamlet, Othello, and of course Romeo and Juliet. However, it can be inferred that he did not at all approve of it. Romeo and Juliet went behind the backs of both of their families to get married by Friar Lawrence, doing what could be considered the ultimate deception. In the immediate scene following, tragedy strikes.
BENVOLIO. O Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio is dead.
That gallant spirit hath aspired the clouds,
Which too untimely here did scorn the earth. (3.1.121-123)
In a Shakespeare play no single sentence is without meaning, and it seems the author is expressing disapproval for such deceit by ending the life of Romeo’s close friend. Finally, the epitome of tragic duplicity, the scheme concocted by Juliet and Friar Lawrence produces great tribulation.
PRINCE. A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punishèd. (5.3.315-319)
The double suicide of the two lovers is blamed by the Prince on the Montague-Capulet enmity, but is more accurately evaluated as the result of a deception too extreme. Romeo is deceived by Juliet and believes her dead and kills himself. Juliet awakes from her drugged stupor and, finding Romeo dead, kills herself. The tragic ending of one of history’s most famous plays is a demonstration of the concept and result of deception, these elements adding to the Shakespearean art.
William Shakespeare is commonly considered one of the most insightful playwrights in the English canon, known for his ability to weave words so as to perfectly convey an emotion or portray an image. As well as depictions of love, loyalty, and friendship, Romeo and Juliet contains a darker theme: deceit. Shakespeare defines deception with three parts: the content of he who is mislead, the benefits for he who misleads, and the harm that mistruths can cause. If Shakespeare plays were primarily moral stories, the message of Romeo and Juliet would be that while honesty can hurt, dishonesty can kill.
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