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Deception and hypocrisy remained a challenge to social morality since ages and every great writer has taken into consideration this socio-ethical dilemma in his works and has depicted its various manifestations at various levels. Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde depict various manifestations of deceptions and hypocrisy i.e. self-deception by denial of realities, trickery to others, and self-consideration through various thematic expressions. Main characters in both plays suffer from moral illusions at one level and their unique characteristics make it easier for them to hide behind the mask of trickery and hypocrisy at another level.
The most subtle form of deception is self-deception and protagonists of both plays suffer from acute self-deception by denying realities around or within them. Faustus seems to be obsessed with his own intelligence and this tragic flaw laps over with his pride and leads him toward self-deception. Dr. Faustus' unlimited passion for absolute knowledge set an impetus toward hypocrisy and self-deception that ends with his tragic downfall. As a perfect epitome of "renaissance man", he hankers after excessive power and considers knowledge as the only instrument available to him to get absolute power. His overambitious quest for knowledge forces him to make a deal with Satan. This deal refers to an intellectual myopic illusion, a form of acute self-deception, as he believes that a devilish character, who himself does not have absolute knowledge, will capacitate him with absolute knowledge. In Wilde's play, despite the fact that both Jack and Algernon are "Bunburyists," but at certain points in the play, Wilde shows denial of this reality by these protagonists regarding the issue of homosexuality. They deny the fact and feel for heterosexuality. Algernon is entirely pleased to be a homosexual whereas Jack feels disgusting about it. Algernon says in this regard; "Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it." (Wilde, 1990, p. 7) Jack oppositely says; "That is nonsense. If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly won't want to know Bunbury". (Wilde, 1990, p.7) But his transformation is not known completely in the play. So he essentially remains a Banbury but denies this fact apparently. Furthermore, Jack creates an imaginary figure to escape from social liabilities and moral obligation. So Faustus in Dr. Faustus and Jack and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest are unable to recognize and accept realities around and within them in the right perspective.
Hypocrisy is another form of deception that these two plays incorporate in the plot as a thematic expression and manifest through misleading practices and fraudulencies of certain characters. Algernon, the major character in "The Importance of Being Earnest" elaborates this terminology of Bunburying as a sophisticated deception exercise that permit to conceal one's original personality and indulge in activities which society does not allow. Wilde has beautifully shown the subtle fraudulencies and trickeries of Ernest. Cecily Cardew assumes about Ernest that "Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honor. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception". (Wilde, 1990, p. 36) So she negates any blemish of foul play about him. Jack not only lies about his name being Earnest but when inquired by Algernon about an inscription on his cigarette case from Cecily, he falsely claims she is his aunt before finally admitting that he is guardian to his adopted father's granddaughter. This leaves the reader to wonder if anything about Jack's or Earnest's life is real at all, perhaps he has been lying for so long that he doesn't even know what the real truth is. That's the reason that Cecily says in the end, "A gross deception has been practiced on both of us."(Wilde, 1990, p. 39) Marlowe points out the religious hypocrisy by the deceitful practices of church members. When Faustus visits Pope for guidance and advice but finds his men raucous and hypocrite, he satirizes them for on their petty rituals and hypocritical practices. He says; "How! Bell, book, and candle; candle book and bell, / Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell" (Marlowe, 1990, p.44). But Marlowe also reveals that though Faustus castigates church men for their double standards, he himself is indulged in hypocrisy. His underlying objective to get more knowledge is different from what he propagates to others. He does not want to be a petty magician and his designs are grand and dangerous. So he acquires his knowledge by mere hypocrisy. Mephistopheles and Lucifer also deceive Faustus through their hypocritical practices. In Scene 5, Mephistopheles informs Faustus that after signing the pact with Lucifer he will be "as great as Lucifer" (Marlowe, 1990, p. 19) and his every desire will be fulfilled. But after signing the contract with his own blood, none of these promises come true. So Faustus is trapped to sign the contract by false promises that are a manifestation of hypocrisy on part of Mephistopheles and Lucifer.
Third level of deception that Marlowe and Wilde take into account is self-love and self-consideration. Narcissm is considered a chief deception that hampers one attitude to look around and search for the best. Jack in Importance of Being Ernest', only has himself in mind when he claims to be Earnest, and goes to call on Cecily, "In fact, now you mention the subject, I have been very bad in my own small way." (Wilde, 1990, p. 24). The tragedy of Faustus solely arises out of his self-centeredness and self-consideration. It was his love for his own self that compels him to acquire absolute knowledge in order to become eternal and the most powerful man on earth. This self-love is further augmented by his pride and arrogance. Diluted by this self-love, a great man as Faustus challenges the natural orders of things and this self-love finally brings his tragic downfall.
Above-mentioned arguments and textual evidence from the plays clearly demonstrate that deception works through various means in these plays. These various forms and levels deception are illustrated effectively through characterisation and development of plot. Both Marlowe and Wilde have effectively used various thematic expressions of deceptions to bring out the moral illusions of characters and their weaknesses.