The traditional form of an arras was a wall hanging or tapestry hiding an individual from the other characters. This barrier would permit a person to hide from another, allowing the person hiding to listen, concealed, to what the other person was saying or doing. Shakespeare uses this method in Cymbeline, when Iachimo is unwittingly taken into Imogen’s chamber “To the trunk again, and shut the spring of it.” Iachimo hides in the trunk, because he wants his presence to be secret, he knows the trunk will be taken to Imogen’s room so manages to pass by her guards and maids unseen. When Imogen’s maid enters her rooms she immediately asks “Who’s there? my woman Helen?” This method is repeatedly applied in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Falstaff hides from mistress Page and when he is carried out of Mistress Fords’ house in a laundry basket covered in dirty washing, unknown by Mr Ford, who is angrily searching for him. Once again this character hides in a moving arras, and passes right under the person they are hiding from’s nose.
Shakespeare can use this form of the physical arras to display and enhance humour and tragedy and in all of the plays I have studied this technique has occurred. However, the play that is the most dependent on the arras shaping the genre is The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the comedy solely relies on the humour being formed when Falstaff tries unsuccessfully to use the arras device. Falstaff believes he is tricking the two mistresses Ford and Page playing them both, this is shown when he is trying to woo Mistress Ford ‘I love thee; none but thee’, but suddenly Mistress Page appears and he is forced to hide. Hidden behind a wall hanging he believes that Mistress Page has no idea of his presence, when ironically the whole situation has been previously planned by the two women “Mistress Page, remember your cue.” This means that when Falstaff’s confidence shines through it is comical for the audience who, through dramatic irony know what he does not; that in fact he is the one being played. To add further humour to his arrogance the director could have made him poorly hidden with his round stomach giving him away. Shakespeare continues this theme of comedy when Falstaff has to be hidden once again, but this time from Ford who knows not of the trickery devised by the two wives. Falstaff has to allow himself to be buried underneath a dirty pile of washing in a laundry and later dumped into a muddy brook, when trying to escape Ford’s resentful search. Humour is displayed when Falstaff tries to use the two different arrases but finds difficulty with his large size; “He’s too big to go in there.”
A physical arras, who’s purpose is to achieve trickery, is also used four times in ‘Much to do about nothing’. The first two arrases are of the same style and are intended to have the same effect; to be overheard. It first occurs when Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio manage to trick Benedict into believing that Beatrice loves him. This trap is carefully schemed and rehearsed by the two characters. The scene begins in the orchard with Benedick’s monologue where the audience is told of his complaints of love. He wonders if he will ever marry “May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not” and how “till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace”. However, the audience has been previously been informed of his friends’ plan and here dramatic irony occurs. The trickery starts with Don Pedro asking “See you where Benedick hath hid himself?” talking of the arras Benedick thinks he is well hidden behind, a box hedge, and this is obviously not intended to be over heard. However, he goes on to say “you told me of
to-day, that your niece Beatrice was in love with Signior Benedick?” which is intentionally said for Benedick’s ears and easily catches his attention “Is’t possible? Sits the wind in that corner?” After a long conversation about her supposed love for him, Benedick entirely believes of Beatrice’s love and the excuse for her rudeness towards him. This trick is enhanced when Beatrice calls on Benedick to come to dinner and he realises his love towards her say that “if I do not love her, I am a Jew”. The style of deceit is repeated for Beatrice by Hero and her maid, who in turn talk of Benedick’s love for Beatrice and Beatrice’s character. The plan is also prepared prior to the advent and is run over before Beatrice appears on stage. This is shown when Hero reminds Ursula of the arrangement; when “Beatrice doth come, As we do trace this alley up and down, Our talk must only be of Benedick.” In this scene the arras Beatrice tries to hide behind, are different garden features, which change as she follows Hero and Ursula into her trap. This use of the arras devise allows a character to think he or she is hidden with no-one else having knowledge of their location. However, the audience knows this is not the case and the other characters can use their awareness of the arras in whichever way they like and as shown in this play; as a form of trickery,
The third form of the arras used is in the form of deception of an object and in this case a person; Hero. The trickery is devised by Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John, in an attempt to ruin Claudio and Hero’s wedding plans and he accomplishes this by casting aspersions on Hero’s character. The arras used here is in the form of mistaken identity, when Claudio believes that Margaret is Hero and he is convinced by what he thinks is evidence of Hero’s infidelity and so rufuses to marry “an approved wanton”. As planned by Don John the wedding fails, and Hero, affronted by these charges faints. This events leads to the third arras devise which once again is intended to result in a mistaken identity with Beatrice pretending to be Hero, but this time Hero is involved with the plan. The arras device applied here is in the form of a wedding veil worn by Hero, hiding her identity portraying her as Beatrice. However, her true persona is revealed when she is unmasked, shocking the majority of the other characters and Claudio who exclaims “Another Hero!” This remark proves the ability of the arras device in achieving a deceit.
In Hamlet the knowledge of the arras occurs, when Hamlet knows of the concealment of the person wishing to be hidden. The first incidence of this in Act 3 Scene 1 is when King Claudius and Lord Polonius use Ophelia in an attempt to prove Hamlet’s love for her and find information about his devious plans. However, this was ineffective as Hamlet reacted in a completely opposite manner to what was predicted, being both unloving and somewhat brutally towards Ophelia. He says to her ‘I loved you not’ when truly the audience knows this is not true, Hamlet and Ophelia where lovers for some time previously and Hamlet grieves deeply after her death. Hamlet seems to know of Ophelia’s role in the trickery by questioning her, ‘Ha, ha! are you honest?’ she is confused by this sudden question, yet Hamlet repeatedly mentions her honesty after.
This seems to the audience that Hamlet has knowledge of the arras and Ophelia’s part behind her father and the king’s plot. Later in ‘Hamlet’ this fault in the arras device occurs again when Lord Polonius hides from Hamlet in his mother’s chamber. Hamlet, who is angrily searching for King Claudius with his mind set on revenge, enters the Queen’s room and is immediately aware of some ones presence behind the arras. Without thinking he stabs Polonius perceiving him to be the king. This example is just one of many showing the arras device being used to exaggerate or cause a tragic event and the play of Hamlet is shown to be greatly exaggerated the genre; tragedy.
A style of the arras devise that is used a lot less frequently in Shakespeare plays, but still causes great dramatic effect is a metaphoric arras, shown in Hamlet Much to do about nothing and in Cymbeline. A metaphorical arras devise arises into the plot of Hamlet helping to further sculpture the genre and end result. The arras that Hamlet seems to shelter behind in some parts of the play is madness that causes confusion amongst the other characters and amongst the audience. At the beginning of the play the audience is made to assume that madness is an act covering Hamlet’s real intentions, but as the play continues the madness seems to merge into the character of Hamlet, leaving the audience puzzled about if his actions are actually intended. The bewilderment cause by the arras shows the layering and entwining of different tales that makes this play even more complex.
Another metaphorical arras devised to create tragedy is shown near the end of Much To Do About Nothing, when a small number of characters, including Hero, fake Hero’s own death. However, this devise is shown clearly to be intentional and this was succeed by Hero’s disappearance from public. This arras allowed Hero’s innocence to be proven without any further embarrassment for her and for Claudio’s love guilt to be revealed “For this I owe you: here comes other reckonings” here it seems as though Claudio takes full blame for the death of Hero causing his actions to be filled with guilt.
The arras devise can also be the foundation of the audience’s feelings towards certain characters, the audience’s feelings about a certain character can be shaped by the use of the arras and this is shown in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline. Spectators’ views towards Iachimo are affected by his unwanted, unknown presence and how venerable Imogen is lying completely oblivious in her bed. He seems to take advantage of her defencelessness by using the arras of sleep to be somewhat controlling and creepy which could easily unnerve the audience. Although this form of arras is not literal and is not an object which conceals him, it is in some ways even more affective in portraying the true characteristics of Iachimo. Viewers of the play, I believe, would feel uneasy about Iachimo’s next actions after his comment ‘Our Tarquin thus did softly press the rushes, ere he waken’d the chastity he wounded.’ This would be because Iachimo seems to take pride in comparing himself to Tarquin a well known story in Elizabethan times.
From the tiny glimpse of Shakespearean plays I have studied I have seen continuous occurrences of the arras devise, where it has been used in many different ways to cause many different effects. In all the arrases’ that occurred the purpose accomplished, while highlighting and exaggerating dramatic effect. The devise plays a very important part in all the plays, and I do truly believe that the arras devise greatly affects the outcome of the play.