April Fool’s Day, the one day of the year when people are encouraged to utterly mess with everyone. I’ve never been very good at pranking people, so I never try — but why not admire a few brilliant schemes? And who better to look to than the most brutal literary jokester of them all: William Shakespeare. If you think about it, many of his tales rely on tricks. Characters are constantly misleading each other, with lives saved and lost in the mix. Below are five of the wildest ruses from Shakespeare’s plays; don’t play too many on your little brother.
1. Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet
We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet, a tragic tale of two youngins who lose themselves in forbidden love, heedless of their feuding families, yada, yada. In comes Friar Lawrence with the solution: Juliet should fake her own death so she and Romeo can run away and live happy ever after. Hence begins one of the most tragic hoaxes of all time. The Friar flubs the entire thing, failing to inform Romeo, who believes that Juliet has died and actually kills himself, inspiring his lover to do the same. Thus, what began as a scheme ends as an epic fail. Way to go, Lawrence.
2. Viola from Twelfth Night
When Viola survives a shipwreck and finds herself alone in the kingdom of Illyria, she decides to crossdress as a man in order to find work, which isn’t a problem considering her twin brother died in the wreck … right? Well, not exactly. Viola is very popular as a man named Cesario, but it confuses the living hell out of her romantic prospects — and her twin brother, who happened to survive the shipwreck as well. Slapstick ensues as Viola attempts to juggle her lie and her life.
3. Edgar in King Lear
Edgar, the son of an elderly nobleman named Gloucester, goes into hiding after his illegitimate sibling, Edmund, accuses him of wanting to kill his father. Edgar disguises himself as a crazy old beggar named “Poor Tom,” which comes in handy during Act IV, when he runs into his father, who has been blinded and cast off to wander the countryside. The reunion is a strange one: Gloucester can’t recognize his son and wants Poor Tom to lead him to the highest cliff so that he can kill himself. The well disguised Edgar instead brings him to a relatively flat area and encourages him to jump. “Hark, do you hear the sea?” Edgar asks, pretending they are near a seaside bluff. Gloucester kneels and falls to the ground, knocking himself unconscious. Then, when his father comes to, Edgar pretends to be amazed he survived. “Thy life’s a miracle,” he says. And Gloucester adorably buys it.
4. The Witches from MacBeth
Shakespeare had a dark, dark sense of humor. When the three witches tell a Scottish general named Macbeth that he’ll one day be king, he’s a bit skeptical — that is, until some of their prophecy begins to come true. MacBeth is promoted and starts to believe the “midnight hags,” eventually taking matters into his own hands by killing his way to the throne.
But were the witches just screwing with Macbeth? Definitely. They use their spells and prophecies to toy with him throughout the play, delighting in every body that drops, each fate that’s taken into their hands in what might be the bloodiest practical joke in literature.
5. Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Puck is one of Shakespeare’s most infamous pranksters. Nothing illustrates this better than the scene in which he turns Nick Bottom’s head into that of an ass and sets him up with the beautiful fairy queen, Titania, who wouldn’t be caught dead hooking up with a weaver like Bottom, much less a donkey. And the whole thing is hilarious without any murder or suicide! It proves that Shakespeare didn’t always have to draw blood to get a few laughs out of an audience.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
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