It’s taken a while, but it’s finally time to grapple with one of the most interesting (or frustrating) plot elements of All’s Well That Ends Well: the Bed Trick. Diana the virgin agrees to go to bed with the married Bertram, but substitutes the cad’s true wife Helena in her place, thus allowing their marriage to be consummated (and for Helena to become pregnant).
So what to make of this?
Shakespeare didn’t invent the concept. We know Boccaccio’s Decameron, probably the root source for Shakespeare’s play, included the trick in its plot.
A version of the Bed Trick, albeit without the female plotting, appears in the Old Testament, in the 29th book of Genesis, in the story of Jacob and Laban, and his two daughters Rachel and Leah:
19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”
22 So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. 23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her. 24 And Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter as her attendant.
25 When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
26 Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. 27 Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”
28 And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.
- New International Version (NIV)
Of course, in this version, Jacob, that ol’ dog, gets both daughters in the end… you gotta love the Old Testament’s view of women (if you’re a man).
There’s also a folk tale from India that also falls under the concept of the Bed Trick. Called the “Deserted Wife” tale, it centers on a woman abandoned by her husband who tasks her with bringing him a child whom she has birthed and he has fathered. In most versions, she follows him on his trip, and disguised as a courtesan receives love tokens and–ahem–more from him. She later reveals the child and the love tokens as proof; in some versions, she does this multiple times to show him multiple children.
A mutated variation called the “cradle trick” was used by Chaucer in “The Reeve’s Tale,” from The Canterbury Tales, in which the miller’s wife gets into the wrong bed because another man has moved her baby’s cradle to the foot of his own bed, tricking the wife. This, like the source of Shakespeare’s Bed Trick in All’s Well That Ends Well, comes from Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Poor Boccaccio. You kind of get the feeling he fell victim to the ol’ switcheroo.
The Bed Trick was widely used in Renaissance and Restoration drama, with as many as forty instances cited by Shakespearean scholar William Bowden. Over time, however, the trope fell out of fashion.
You’ve got to figure that as a dramatic convention (as opposed to Biblical study), the concept was meant to poke fun at the hapless husband, a clueless man who couldn’t tell which woman he was sleeping with. Humor through ridiculousness. One can only assume that the concept’s humor through humiliation could entertain audiences for just so long. Maybe realism in entertainment became more important than fun though ludicrous plot developments.
Regardless, we just don’t see this plotline much anymore…