The bed-trick

A dramatic problem

Shakespeare needed to solve a dramatic problem:

  • He needed to allow Isabella to preserve her chastity (a significant element in the spiritual dimension of the play)
  • At the same time the demands made by Angelo needed to be fulfilled if Claudio were to be saved
  • He needed to introduce a woman who could willingly give herself to Angelo.
More on Shakespeare's use of the bed trick: In his earlier play All's Well that Ends Well, Shakespeare had already used the idea of a substitute in bed:
  • Helena, who has been married by Bertram but then abandoned, takes the place of the virgin Diana with whom Bertram wishes to sleep.

The idea that the man would not notice the difference was a stage convention, whereby realism was done away with for the sake of the drama:

  • In Twelfth Night, none of the other characters is supposed to notice a difference between Sebastian and his female twin, Viola, when she dresses in men's clothing
  • In The Merchant of Venice Bassanio and Gratiano fail to recognise their wives who are disguised as lawyers.

Is the bed trick right?

It can be argued that Isabella shows extreme selfishness in putting her chastity before Mariana's, by allowing Mariana to fulfil the assignation with Angelo. However, the Duke points out that, in fact, the ‘bed-trick' will advantage Mariana, since, by sleeping with Angelo, she will effectively become his wife. This is because, in Shakespeare's time, betrothal vows could become binding marriage vows if followed by physical consummation of the relationship. (See alsoSocial/political context > The Stuart monarchy.)

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