Among the elements of comedy that ultimately are placed under uncomfortable strain in the eyes of the audience, the bed trick in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is an particularly palpable one. Although an element of romantic comedy, the bed trick has long represented a problem of both morality and realism in its usage.
The incorporation of the bed trick in comedies (and tragedies) of Shakespeare’s time reveals the fascination that the public had with sexuality and errant and comedic sexual situations. Perhaps the first usage of the bed trick lies in the old Greek myths of the Labors of Hercules. Zeus, taking the form of Amphitryon, the King of Thebes, disguises himself and sleeps with Amphitryon’s wife, Alcmene. Alcmene later becomes pregnant and the child born from this bed-trick is the great hero Hercules. Like the Greek myth of Hercules’ birth is that of King Arthur’s. In the Arthurian legend in the Historia Regum Brittaniae, Uther Pendragon, the legendary king of sub-Roman Britain, is enchanted and disguised by the magic of the magician Merlin to appear as the Duke of Cromwell and sleeps with the Duke’s wife. The child that is born from this sexual deception goes on to become the legendary King Arthur. Lastly, the last prominent example of this bed-trick is the biblical tale of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. According to Genesis 29, his father-in-law tricked Jacob on his wedding night. Believing he had married his love Rachel, he awoke to find that her older sister, Leah, had been substituted and was now his wife.
All of these examples find themselves in the required curriculum and texts for all educated students during Elizabethan England where Shakespeare would have definitely read and been fascinated with these stories. Yet, what is unique about this particular play’s bed trick is Shakespeare’s development of the romantic comedic concept into one of a power play: the bed-trick is a device organized by the Duke, acting on behalf of the state/government, to harness control of feminine sexuality and the body. With the bed trick, women in Measure for Measure become interchangeable, their bodies, their “maidenheads,” all become equivalent vassals for the state to use at their will.
Interestingly, noted Shakespearean scholar Janet Adelman relates the concept of marriage to the phenomenon of the bed trick in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In her psychoanalytic study of the bed trick in her book Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare, Hamlet to The Tempest, Adelman stresses the incompatibility between sexuality, marriage, and the state’s role in controlling and correcting the body. In this play about governance and
sexuality, sexuality resists governance. Adelman explains that in Measure for Measure, “women are split apart and then violently yoked together through the device of the bed trick, thereby simultaneously illustrating the fundamental incompatibility between marriage and male desire, and providing a magical solution to it” (Adelman 77). To her, the marriages at the resolution of the play appear in a bad light. The depersonalization of desire, with the focus on the woman’s body and therefore not her human person, lays emphasis on the interchangeability of the women’s bodies (Adelman 78).
Through the state and the ploy of the bed trick, all of the women involved – the nun, the lover, the wife, and the prostitute – become a single figure of carnal pleasure for the object of male desire in the play. Although seemingly the bed trick gives the women power over their bodies and their sexuality in this patriarchal situation, it in fact only gives the illusion that is beneficial for the women.
Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 77.