The Role of Deception in Love as Portrayed in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night

By Emily Gray
2017, Vol. 9 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Although he is arguably best known for his tragedies exploring emotions associated with familial obligations, the need for revenge, and overwhelming ambition, English poet and playwright William Shakespeare penned numerous lines of verse and multiple manuscripts of dramatic works concerning the equally puzzling and dangerous human experience surrounding the feeling of love.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton, 1849.

Primarily concerned with love in the form of “the love of persons,” Shakespeare’s literature examines and scrutinizes several varying types of relationships stemming from different facets of a singular emotion (Nordlund 21). By focusing solely on this branch of love, Shakespeare is able to incorporate a plethora of illustrations throughout both his comedies and sonnets of parental love, sibling love, romantic love, and variations on the classical idea of phileo, or friendship love, while excluding such unrelated phenomena of affection as the love of material goods or the love of a particular season.

In Shakespeare’s many examinations of love, deception, in some form or other, serves as the overarching commonality. This assertion is exemplified in Shakespeare’s two comedies A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. With deception present in nearly every relationship addressed in its respective play, these two comedic works are able to serve as a sort of rubric for understanding love as it is presented by Shakespeare. When examined together, these plays undoubtedly depict deception as an integral factor in the formation of both platonic and romantic relationships capable of simultaneously manipulating reality and revealing hidden truth. The overwhelming presence of both deliberate and unintentional deceit combined in these two dramas can be easily viewed as evidencing the inherently deceptive nature of love.

The most efficient method of distinguishing the different forms of deception Shakespeare addresses in his comedies is on the basis of the deceptive agent. That is to say, the various acts of deceit in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night can all be divided into two principle categories: deception inflicted by an outside agent and self-deception. Categorizing the numerous instances of dishonesty in this manner makes it profoundly easier to identify similar occurrences across the two dramas based solely on the source of the trickery and the response of the victim.

Additionally, this stratification also facilitates a more productive examination of individual events based on the causative agent’s underlying intention for the deceptive act. In both of the primary categories there are moments of purposefully malicious deception with the intent to cause embarrassment or discomfort, as well as either inadvertent or well-intentioned acts of trickery designed to improve the fortunes of the deceived. Each documented moment of deception, regardless of how it would potentially be classified, serves to reinforce the assertion that the nature of love espoused in Shakespearean comedies is intrinsically misleading and illusory.

Looking first at deception brought on by others, one recurring reason for the employment of this brand of deceit is to create the appearance of equality between the lover and their intended beloved. In accordance with classical thoughts concerning friendship, love is capable of achieving true perfection only when it occurs “between virtuous social equals” and said persons of virtue “were more likely to be noble than common” (Cox 3). Rather it be ancient Athens or olden Illyria, in the worlds of Shakespeare’s plays the easiest and most immediate way for a lover of less social standing to bridge the gap between himself and his desired beloved is by assuming the persona of someone of means. In doing so, the pursuing lover actively deceives the unknowing beloved in order to make their relationship more plausible.

Deception of this variety is most prevalent in the relationship with Duke Orsino forged by Viola throughout the course of Twelfth Night. When she is first introduced into the action of this play, Viola has just been pulled ashore by a nameless captain in Illyria and believes her twin brother, Sebastian, to have drowned in the wreckage of their ship. As she questions her rescuer about her newfound country, he informs her that the bachelor ruler Duke Orsino is “a noble duke in nature, as in name,” thereby propelling him far out of the league of a poor, common woman with no remaining male family member to pay her bridal dowry (1.2.24).

In an attempt to hide her inadequate and unfavorable social class, Viola petitions the captain to aid her in concealing herself as a young eunuch, although this detail is later dropped and she is simply depicted as a “gentleman,” so that she might get close to the duke without revealing her true condition (2.1.261). She goes on to state that her assumed disguise “haply shall become/the form of [her] intent,” (1.2.53-54) further indicating that she intends to use her assumed position as a man whose “state is well” to build a friendly, open relationship with the duke in order to gain his confidence (2.1.260). Her deception for the sake of gaining trust is proven successful by Orsino’s claim that, under the guise of Cesario, he has taken the ultimate step of faith and “unclasped/to [her] the book even of [his] secret soul” (1.4.12-13). Although it is not until later in the play that Viola admits her romantic feelings for Orsino, it is this initial act of deception that affords her the ability to engage in the sort of unrestrained and honest relationship possible between men of near-equal standing that would have otherwise alluded her because she is, by virtue of being a woman, considered to be subordinate to her powerful, male beloved.

In addition to mediating the many potential disparities between each person’s class and virtue, the deception of the beloved by the would-be lover can also serve as another step in the courtship process. As essayist Anne Schotter points out, the anonymously authored medieval Latin poem Pamphilus opens with the protagonist detailing his love for Galathea to Venus, the goddess of love. Venus advises the love-struck champion “to court her with eloquence but to be ready to use force” if traditional methods of wooing prove insufficient in winning her over (72).

While the poem’s hero interprets this advice as advocating for physical strength in the form of rape, the “force” Venus describes could reasonably be referring to the act of deceiving one’s beloved in order to glean the desired amorous response that carefully composed love letters and well-spoken advances have so far been unable to achieve. While this form of force does not necessarily inflict direct physical harm to the deceived party, as Shakespeare demonstrates, it is nonetheless problematic and destructive.

Perhaps the poster couple for this use of deception in love, the tumultuous relationship between the jealous fairy king, Oberon, and the ethereal fairy queen, Titania, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides a clear illustration of the consequences associated with this seemingly nonviolent exertion of dishonest force. As Shakespeare initially introduces Oberon and Titania into the plot in the midst of a quarrel over an Indian page boy, readers are immediately confronted with a case in which words alone are failing miserably to sway the woman’s heart.

Although Oberon and Titania are already in a presumably long-term and marriage-like relationship, Oberon’s pleas for his queen to release the “little changeling boy to be [his] henchman” are analogous to the affectionate entreaties Venus addresses in that both statements are designed to cause the beloved to view the lover with fondness and surrender to him what he desires, whether it be her romantic affection or her young Indian child (2.1.120-121).

Like Galathea, Titania adamantly and repeatedly refuses to succumb to the allure of Oberon’s requests, thus forcing him to employ deceptive love in the form of a purple flower impregnated by one of Cupid’s rogue arrows capable of forcibly swaying the love of whomever comes into contact with its juice. Although Oberon’s plan to “drop the liquor” of this flower on his beloved’s eyes so that she “pursue(s) with the soul of love” whatever creature she next sees will not explicitly cause Titania to suffer physical harm, it will almost assuredly cause her great distress and emotional damage by robbing her of her autonomy in selecting the object of her affections and potentially causing her to go so far as to unwittingly commit acts of bestiality (2.1.178,182). Shakespeare’s depiction of Oberon’s use of deceptive love for selfish persuasion effectively illustrates the intrinsic dangers to the deceived beloved’s psyche and mental stability that stem from using deceptive force as a substitution for traditional methods of courting and expressing desires.

Another notable form of affection-driven deception present in each of these two comedies can be found in both the spoken words and written sentiments of the plays’ respective characters. As these words are only as reliable as the hearer’s perception of their creator, they themselves are neither inherently innocent and true nor inherently malevolent and false, but subject to the intentions of their speaker or writer. As Brayton Polka asserts in his book Shakespeare and Interpretation, “words are trustworthy…solely as the expression of what we will,” and must, therefore, be examined in conjunction with the motivations of their originator in order for their merit to be accurately judged (100).

Just as words and spoken bonds can be indicators of true, honest affection, they can also just as easily be used as “the fetters in which [their recipients] are falsely or deceptively imprisoned,” making them the ideal vehicle for conveying deceptive love (Polka 100) As Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes, the distinction between “the bonds of love and the bonds of deception” hinges on measly words whose potential to be manipulated for dishonesty and falsehood must always be accounted for when determining truth (Polka 100).

Shakespeare’s most obvious and in-depth example of deception achieved via written correspondence is the tale of the strict Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Serving as a steward to Lady Olivia, Malvolio is forced to constantly interact with and tolerate her rowdy and ever-intoxicated uncle, Sir Toby, his young but equally disruptive companion, Sir Andrew, and his vengeful, enabling fellow servant, Maria, all of whom constantly force Malvolio to reprimand their unsavory behavior on behalf of Olivia. Following a particularly serious episode in which Malvolio asserts that if Maria valued Lady Olivia’s favor “at anything more than contempt,” she would not provide alcohol to Toby and Andrew, the scheming trio devise to exploit Malvolio’s high opinion of himself to enact their revenge (2.3.113).

Maria’s proposal that they “drop in his way some obscure epistle of love” that shall be interpreted as Lady Olivia’s confession of her amorous feelings for Malvolio demonstrates her awareness, and by extension Shakespeare’s, of the deceptive power of vague wording to be used as a means of causing shame when combined with a predisposition for love (2.4.142). Based on Malvolio’s musings about becoming “Count Malvolio” after “having been three months married to [Olivia],” it is clear that he is susceptible to interpreting even the most insignificant and neutral statement as being indicative of Olivia’s love, thus making him a prime target for the drunkards’ malicious deception (2.5.30,39).

In fact, Malvolio is unwaveringly convinced this love letter refers to him as the nameless beloved by the mere fact that the letters “M.O.A.I.” from the line “M.O.A.I. doth sway my life” all appear, though out of sequence, in his own name (2.5.97). This simple coincidence, when combined with Malvolio’s preconceived fantasies about possessing Olivia, is understood by him as sufficient justification for altering his entire persona and haphazardly pursuing his mistress in the absence of more concrete evidence. This falsely based pursuit ultimately causes Olivia to abhor Malvolio’s company and worry about his mental stability, the furthest emotions from her supposed love. Shakespeare’s account of Malvolio’s spiral into torturous madness solely from his reading of these intentionally vague yet effectively deceptive words clearly illustrates the power that words and their interpretation wield over man’s impressionable heart and mind, as well as their ability to carry out the spiteful intent of their creators.

Like the many forms of deception brought about at the hands of outside agents showcased in these plays, Shakespeare also highlights for readers the several varying means of self-deception associated with the existence of love. In the vast majority of these cases found in Shakespeare’s comedies, it is the lover who actively deceives themselves about the worthiness of their beloved, the nature of their situation, or both, all in the hopes of either creating or prolonging his or her relationship with the desired object of their affection. Given the overwhelming presence of dishonesty and trickery befalling these characters at the hands of their contemporaries, it may seem odd and troublesome for lovers to willingly and knowingly deceive themselves; however, there is an unavoidable psychological basis for this puzzling phenomenon.

When a person falls in love, powerful and “uniquely human” psychological processes become activated, namely “vivid imagery” and “visualization” (Mellen 148). The activation of these highly imaginative modes of thinking make the lover both susceptible to and capable of misleading himself. As these processes are what allow “intense emotional states,” such as love, to be maintained indefinitely, they are an irreplaceable piece in the love equation, despite their potential for self-deception (Mellen 149).

One of the most prevalent forms of self-deception Shakespeare uses in his plays is the idealization of the beloved. In this occurrence, the lover is either so desperate to attain his elusive beloved or so overcome with emotion at having received confirmation that his feelings are reciprocated, that he is rendered unable to honestly and unbiasedly judge her value and merit. As a result, the lover is prone to “overvalu(ing) the love object” to the point that he perceives her as the unsullied epitome of desirable qualities rather than the everyday, flawed human she is (Nordlund 133).

Duke Orsino is certainly guilty of this sort of hyperbolic overestimation in Twelfth Night. As he recounts to Curio his first encounter with his beloved Olivia in the opening scene, the duke claims that when he first laid eyes on her he thought that “she purged the air of pestilence,” thus implying that she is so inherently virtuous that she has somehow magically eradicated the surrounding air of all impurities (1.1.19). His hindered ability to truthfully appraise Olivia is further evidenced by his later reference to her “sweet perfections” and the rich thoughts of love “canopied in bowers” that the sheer mention of her name produces in his mind (1.1.38,40).

Based on these utterances, Orsino has clearly allowed his perceptive abilities to be compromised by his affectionate view of Olivia, causing him to attribute to her characteristics that defy both scientific laws, as in the case of the air, and the principles of his Puritan faith concerning man’s innately sinful nature, as when he refers to possessing perfection. As Orsino’s deception is not overtly the byproduct of another’s actions against him, he alone, motivated by love, can be deemed responsible for the obvious clouding of his mind.

Self-deception can also be found in instances where the lover ignores the signs of the beloved’s deception. As this subcategory of self-deception involves deceit by both parties, it is only able to be determined by focusing on the lover’s response when presented with evidence that suggests the beloved is being dishonest. Contrary to the old adage “love is blind,” Shakespeare appears to be advocating through his comedies that a person in love is not, in fact, blind but is so engrossed in emotions that he willingly disregards potentially telling slips in the beloved’s trickery in order to focus on the object of affection, thereby deceiving himself.

Arguably the master of self-deception, Duke Orsino also falls into this grouping. His inability to effectively woo Lady Olivia causes him to employ Cesario to convey his affections and persuade the countess to concede to the duke’s advances. Unbeknownst to Orsino, his newfound intermediary is not the trustworthy Cesario, but Viola, a deceptive young woman who has developed her own amorous feelings for him. In their first onstage interaction, Orsino notes that all Cesario’s physical traits are “semblative of a woman’s part” (1.1.33). Although it appears that Orsino has recognized physical evidence of Viola’s masquerade, he immediately abandons this idea and returns to viewing Cesario as “right apt” for courting Olivia on his behalf before he can put any pressure on this curious observation (1.1.34).

During another exchange in which Orsino repeatedly questions Cesario about the nature of the youth’s confessed beloved, Viola attempts to convey her secret love for the duke by claiming that the woman Cesario desires is “a little by [Orsino’s] favor” and “about [the duke’s] years” (2.4.23,26). Here, Viola’s repeated comparison between her alter ego’s love interest and his master should have alerted the duke to Cesario’s other eccentricities, including his lack of expressed interest in women; however, the duke’s love has rendered him so “unstaid and skittish in all motions” that he cannot focus on anything other than “the image of the creature/that is beloved” (2.4.16,17). Although the love-struck duke is ignorant of Cesario’s true identity and Viola’s romantic interest in him initially, he is presented with an abundance of opportunities to detect her ruse but is unable to do so as a result of his preoccupation with Olivia and resulting self-deception.

The oversaturation of deceptive love found in Shakespeare’s plays raises the questions: how well can a lover truly know his beloved? How durable are these relationships conceived in or nurtured by deceit? With nearly every relationship containing some form of deception it would seem impossible for the characters to form intimate and long-lasting relationships, but this is not the case.

Rather than becoming a hindrance, the various acts of deception committed by Shakespeare’s players, whether they be deliberate and internal or inadvertent and external, actually aid in the development of strong, meaningful pairings. Under the protection of their created fiction, both the deceiver and the deceived have the freedom to be more honest and vulnerable since they do not have to worry about observing societal practices or keeping up appearances. Within this space, they are also afforded the freedom necessary for introspective meditation, allowing the deceptive participants to learn more about themselves thanks to their trickery. In this way, Shakespeare’s comedies support the idea that love’s reliance on “deception, madness, the rascally bonds of falsifying words, folly, dreaming, fancy, and enchantments” does not automatically discount its ability to convey truth (Polka 97). In fact, it is the combination of all these deceptive agents that allows for the most truth to be known.

Shakespeare’s depiction of Demetrius at the close of A Midsummer Night’s Dream typifies the ability of deceptive love to spark invaluable personal revelations. Originally claiming to be madly in love with Hermia, it is quickly revealed by his competing suitor, Lysander, that Demetrius previously “made love” to Helena so adamantly that he “won her soul” (1.1.107). However, it is evident that he has since deluded himself into abandoning this flirtation with Helena in favor of an unrestrained pursuit of Hermia’s attentions at the request of her father, Egeus. It is for this reason that Demetrius ventures into the woods to foil Lysander and Hermia’s plans to elope outside the walls of Athens, where he becomes inflicted with the potent “love-in-idleness” after Oberon overhears his harsh verbal insults and escalating threats of physical violence towards Helena (2.1.168).

Due to Puck’s mistaking the identities of the male Athenian youths, both Lysander and Demetrius’s fancies are altered by the mystical potion, but Lysander’s magic-induced deception is eventually lifted. Although Demetrius remains under the influence of the love-inducing flower, his speech to Duke Theseus upon being found sleeping in the forest contains a level of legitimacy and insight that cannot reasonably be solely the result of the fairy magic (4.1.168-169). His characterization of his reestablished relationship with Helena as having once again returned him to his “natural taste,” in conjunction with his description of his yearning for her rekindled love as “wish(ing)…lov(ing)…and long(ing),” far exceeds the level of affection and honesty capable of stemming exclusively from the deception of the potion (4.1.172,173). As Shakespeare demonstrates with Demetrius, it is only after being exposed to the life-altering deception of the mythical flower that the young lover is able to find truth by rediscovering long-repressed emotions and arriving at his epiphany of improved self-awareness.

Through Shakespeare’s extensive and repeated exploration of deception’s place in romantic relationships over the course of his comedies, the reader is presented with overwhelming evidence that supports the idea of deception being an inseparable aspect of the emotion of love. Although it is easy to discount the relationships tainted by deception by labeling them as false or temporary, such judgements are proven to be misguided after examining the various reasons for employing deception in romantic dealings.

Whether it be the deception brought on by an outside force or the deception man places upon himself, each form plays an invaluable role in creating the necessary and ideal conditions required for love to take root and flourish. In Shakespeare’s comedies, as in real life, the method, agent, intent, and purpose of the deception may differ, but one thing remains constant: deception, in some form, is fundamentally essential to the formation of romantic relationships, as well as to revealing both external and internal truths about love.


Cox, John D. “Shakespeare and the Ethics of Friendship.” Religion & Literature, vol. 40, no. 3, 2008, 1-29. Web.

Mellen, Sydeny L.W. The Evolution of Love. W.H. Freeman and Company, 1981. Print.

Nordlund, Marcus. Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution. Northwestern University Press, 2007. Print.

Polka, Bryan. Shakespeare and Interpretation, Or What You Will. University of Delaware Press, 2011. Print.

Schotter, Anne Howland. “The Transformation of Ovid in the Twelfth-Century Pamphilus.” Desiring Discourse: The Literature of Love, Ovid through Chaucer, edited by James J. Paxson and Cynthia A. Gravlee, Susquehanna University Press, 1998. Print.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Norton Shakespeare Anthology: Essential Plays and Sonnets, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, et all, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 209-268. Print.

---. Twelfth Night. The Norton Shakespeare Anthology: Essential Plays and Sonnets, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, et all, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, 487-541. Print.

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