What is a bed trick?

Have you ever found yourself engaged in conversation at a dimly lit event, only to realize that the person you’re speaking to isn’t who you thought they were? Or perhaps you’ve experienced the childhood embarrassment of mistaking a stranger for your mother in a grocery store? It’s possible, even, that you’ve been “catfished” on the Internet, falling in love with a gorgeous underwear model and later finding out they’re actually a smelly fisherman in Minnesota. We’ve all been deceived in one way or another. A bed trick embodies this deception, taken to an extreme and somewhat violating degree.

A bed trick is a dramatic device where one character substitutes for another character in bed, and tricking another into sleeping with them under false pretenses.

The bed trick isn’t a revolutionary plot device. In fact, it’s downright biblical. It can be found in the book of Genesis where Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel on Jacob’s wedding night, only for Jacob to discover the deceit the following morning. You’ll also find it in Greek mythology, where Zeus, disguised as Amphitryon, sleeps with Amphitryon’s wife, Alcmene, resulting in the birth of Hercules. However, it is thanks to Shakespeare, our favorite plot “adapter,” that the bed trick became popularized in English Renaissance drama, notably in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.

In All’s Well That Ends Well, the main character, Helena, is in love with Bertram, a nobleman who is decidedly not interested in her due to their differing social statuses. However, Helena uses her skills as a physician to cure the king of France of illness, who then grants her permission to marry anyone in his court. Helena (as a surprise to absolutely nobody) chooses Bertram, but he rejects her and leaves for war. Helena learns that Bertram has vowed that he will only be wed to a woman who has his family ring and is pregnant with his child. Armed with this knowledge and determined to win him over, Helena follows him. She seizes the happy coincidence that while he’s been away Bertram has fallen for a woman named Diana who, in the right light could very well be mistaken for Helena. Helena solicits the help of Diana and, disguised, she takes Diana’s place in bed. During the night, Bertram gives Helen his ring (thinking that she is Diana), and they conceive a child. Through this deception, Helena manages to fulfill the conditions of Bertram’s promise and eventually wins his love and respect, leading to a resolution of the play’s conflicts. Romantic? Not quite. 

Shakespeare likely borrowed (ahem, plagiarized) All’s Well That Ends Well from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, where a girl named Gilette is in an unrequited love affair with Bertrand and cures the king in order to marry him, but then must pretend to be Count Bertrand’s lover, sleeping with him and consequently getting pregnant. Sound familiar? 

Shakespeare’s other famous instance of the bed trick is found in Measure for Measure. Angelo expects to have sex with the chaste Isabella– who has renounced a sexual life in order to become a nun of the religious order of St. Clare– in exchange for her brother’s pardon from execution. However, the [disguised] Duke substitutes Mariana, the woman Angelo had engaged to marry but abandoned, in order to preserve Isabella’s virginity (however, after everything, the Duke still proposes to Isabella, so I think the point was missed).

Measure for Measure is unique in that the bed trick substitutes its traditional role as a comedic device to be power play orchestrated by the Duke. Many scholars will argue that the bed trick here actually symbolizes the state’s control over feminine sexuality, citing that scheme reduces all the women involved into a singular object of male desire, offering an illusion of female empowerment instead of allowing the women to actually be empowered.

Despite its centuries-old origins, the bed trick persists in modern literature and media. Even Roald Dahl uses the bed trick in The Great Switcheroo, and the character Frank-N-Furter does it twice in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

Deception is a universal experience, and at its core, that’s precisely what a bed trick is. It’s deception taken to an extreme, blurring the lines of morality. Take Angelo, for example, blackmailing Isabella into sex by threatening her brother’s life. Are Isabella’s actions justified by Angelo’s abuse of power? Conversely, the scheme to substitute Mariana in bed raises questions about consent. Was it immoral to put Angelo in a position when his sexual autonomy was stripped from him? And what about Helena, who deceives Bertram into sex, albeit with a seemingly happy outcome? The moral compass spins wildly in these scenarios. 

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but perhaps exploring these ethical dilemmas within the safety of the theatre will help you come to some of your own.