Monday, August 10, 2015

Virtuous Deceit in Shakespeare and *Mr. Holmes*

If you are familiar with Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, you know that the play reaches its climax in Act IV when Claudio, deceived by Don John into thinking Hero has betrayed him -- that is, cheated on him --, humiliates her at the wedding by accusing her of infidelity and refusing to marry her.

In the immediate aftermath of this chaotic scene, Friar Francis, who doesn't believe for a second that Hero was unfaithful, devises a deceitful plan. He instructs Hero's father and others to spread a lie that Hero is dead. He answers Don John's deceit that Claudio and Don Pedro fell for regarding Hero's fidelity with a deceit of his own, trusting that Claudio's true love for Hero will be reawakened when he learns she is dead. 

It's a virtuous deceit.

It's a trope Shakespeare puts into play in other of his comedies (and in some of his histories) as a means of breaking through to a character's true, and better nature, when because of jealousy or love-sickness the character cannot hear the simple truth. (I just thought of a tragedy where a wonderful virtuous deceit occurs -- Edgar, disguised at Mad Tom, leads his blinded father Gloucester to belive his survived a fall from a cliff. Oh..there must be others, as well!)

Rosalind deceives Orlando in As You Like It, by presenting herself as a man to him and from behind her disguise is able to successfully test Orlando's love for her. In The Winter's Tale, furious jealousy blinds Leontes, violently removing him from his true feelings of love for his wife Hermione.  As in the Hero story of Much Ado About Nothing, a report goes out that Hermione is dead, but she is actually in exile with Paulina. Over fifteen years pass, and at the end of the play, Leontes is presented with a statue of his deceased wife Hermione -- except it only appears to be a statue and, right before Leontes' eyes, the "statue" Hermione comes alive and Leontes' love for her is resurrected and their long separation is reconciled.

To me, the philosophical concepts that are shot throughout Shakespeare's plays are, first, the volatile, mutable nature of reality and, second, the inherent double (at least) nature of reality. In his plays, things are in a constant state of flux and this includes a concept like deceit.

Does Shakespeare explore the traditional view of deceit, that it is destructive, erosive, corrosive, and abhorrent? Definitely. He explores the destructive nature of deceit in his tragedies and history plays (as well as how Prince Hal/Henry V uses deceit to redemptive purposes). The horror of deceit dominates Macbeth and Othello. Claudius' deceit (and Gertrude's, too?How complicit is she?) gives rise to the entire story of Hamlet.

As noted, however, Shakespeare also explores how deceit can be put to virtuous use. It's as if over his career he wanted to see how far he could go with what Friar Lawrence says in his garden as he reflects upon his herbs. He muses:
Virtue itself turn vice being misapplied
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
Friar Lawrence observes this doubleness not only in human actions, but in the very herbs he grows in his garden:

Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.

Friar Lawrence's actions in this play demonstrate that not all deceit performed for virtuous reasons is successful. He attempts to help Romeo and Juliet by staging Juliet's death with the help of a potion that makes it appear she is dead. Romeo finds her in the crypt before the potion wears off and his too early discovery of her leads to their double suicide.

Friar Lawrence's deceit fails. Friar Francis' deceit works. So does Paulina's. So does Rosalind's. Just for the record, so, eventually, does Puck's.

Shakespeare's exploration of virtuous deceit occupied my thoughts after I saw the movie, Mr. Holmes.

Because it's a new movie and I don't want to give away details, I'll just say that as the story came to its conclusion, the nonagenarian Holmes learns that had he not been quite so rigorously honest at a critical juncture of his life, the life of another might have been spared. I think he also learns that the fictions Dr. Watson wrote about him, the embellishments of his career, resulted in some good in the world for those who enjoyed the stories, learned from them, and, possibly, found hope in them.

What Holmes learns about fiction and deceit inspires him to a deed late in his life that is deceitful and life giving, even redemptive.

If you want to know what it is, you'll have to see the movie.

I'll just say that Mr. Holmes' edges toward death with many of his mental and physical powers eroding, but what he learns about the power of fiction, of virtuous deceit, revitalizes his last days and opens the way for him to die at peace with himself.

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