Appearance vs. Reality
Critics have long noted a dichotomy between appearance and reality in Shakespeare's plays. Many of these works depend on the power of language and rhetoric to corrupt the truth, or on the fallibility of human perception: Iago deceives Othello, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hallucinate, and the real and mythical worlds of A Midsummer Night's Dream intersect in a self-aware theatrical performance. Such dichotomies have been important touchstones in critical discussions of Shakespeare's oeuvre. Modern critics contend that Shakespeare delved deeply into the reflexive effect of language on the shaping of reality.
Commentators have also explored the ramifications of Shakespeare's plays as originally performed, considering the Elizabethan period and theatrical conventions. For example, the fact of male actors playing female characters, sometimes disguised as males, renders problematic issues of sexual identity and the nature of gender. Such role-playing also brings into question the nature of power and social status—whether power and status are dictated by a natural order or are discursively constructed. Shakespeare's plays thus manipulate appearance and reality to advance plot and character, and also to comment on broader issues of gender and power.
M. C. Bradbrook (essay date 1952)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Use of Disguise in Elizabethan Drama," in Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, The Harvester Press, 1984, pp. 20-7.
[In the following essay, Bradbrook discusses the dramatic conventions that may have influenced Shakespeare's frequent use of disguise.]
Today disguise is a living part of the drama. Sir Francis Crewe of The Dog beneath The Skin, the mysterious stranger at The Cocktail Party, the intrusive little girls of Giraudoux's Electra do not bear the limited significance which naturalism and the set characters of the nineteenth century imposed. Disguise was then reduced to a subterfuge, restricted to the Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero of The Only Way or the heroine of East Lynne ('Dead! and he never called me mother!'). Ibsen and Chekhov transformed it. Those implications of self-deception and fantasy which are the stuff of A Doll's House and The Cherry Orchard lurk in a masquerade dress, or a few conjuring tricks at a ball. Yet even in its revival, disguise has not attained the manifold significance which it enjoyed in the Elizabethan theatre and which Shakespeare alone fully revealed.
A study of the subject was provided by V. O. Freeburg as long ago as 1915 and has not been superseded (Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama, Columbia University Press, New York). Dr Freeburg's conception of disguise belongs, however, to the nineteenth century: 'Dramatic disguise … means a change of personal appearance which leads to mistaken identity. There is a double test, change and confusion.' He eliminates the mere confusion of The Comedy of Errors and the substitution of Mariana for Isabella in Measure for Measure, where, as in the similar situation of All's Well, Shakespeare himself actually uses the word:
So disguise shall, by the disguised,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.
Only in this disguise I think't no sin
To cosen him that would unjustly win.
I should prefer to define disguise as the substitution, overlaying or metamorphosis of dramatic identity, whereby one character sustains two roles. This may involve deliberate or involuntary masquerade, mistaken or concealed identity, madness or possession. Disguise ranges from the simple fun of the quick-change artist (The Blind Beggar of Alexandria) to the antic disposition of Edgar or Hamlet: it may need a cloak and false beard, or it may be better translated for the modern age by such terms as 'alternating personality'.
Dr Freeburg distinguishes five main types of disguise, all of which Shakespeare employs. These are the girl-page (Julia, Rosalind, Viola, Imogen), the boy-bride (Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives), the rogue in a variety of disguises (Autolycus) the spy in disguise (Vincentio) and the lover in disguise (Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew). All go back to classical comedy, and except for the girl-pages they do not represent important aspects for Shakespeare. The boy-bride and the rogue are bound to lead to farce, and are handled better by Johnson in Epicoene, Every Man In His Humour and The Alchemist.
For the Elizabethans, 'disguise' still retained its primary sense of strange apparel, and 'disguising' was still the name for amateur plays. In Jonson's Masque of Augurs one player uses 'disguised' in the slang sense (to be drunk, as in Antony and Cleopatra, II vii 131) and is told 'Disguise was the old English word for a masque'. But it also carried the senses of 'concealment', and of 'deformity' ('Here in this bush disguised will I stand'; 'Her cheeks with chaps and wrinkles were disguised') from which the transition was easy to 'dissembling' ('disguise not with me in words'). The word thus retained a strong literal meaning yet also carried moral implications.
Disguise, I see thou art an wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much
says Viola, in the accents of Malvolio. New Guise and Nowadays, the tempters of Mankind, had been named from a dislike both of innovations and of that elaboration of dress which was so feelingly denounced by moralists from Chaucer to Tourneur.
The two archetypes were the disguise of the serpent and the disguise of the Incarnation. The devil's power of deceit furnished plots for many moralities. In Medwall's Nature, in Republica and in Skelton's Magnifycence, the vices take the virtues' names: in the last, Counterfeit Countenance becomes Good Demeanance, Crafty Conveyance becomes Sure Surveyance, Courtly Abusion becomes Lusty Pleasure and Cloaked Collusion becomes Sober Sadness. The two fools, Fancy and Folly, become Largesse and Conceit. The very names of such vices as Ambidexter and Hardy-dardy signify their power to juggle with appearance as they juggle with words. Slippery speech belongs with disguise:
Thus like the formal Vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.
Both are combined in the great figure of the Marlovian Mephistopheles, disguised as a Franciscan friar. It is this tradition which lends such strength to Shakespeare's concept of the false appearance or seeming. There is no direct disguise in Angelo, Claudius, Iago, Iachimo or Wolsey, but an assumed personality. Miss Spurgeon has shown the force of the image of borrowed robes in Macbeth. The witches' invocation, recalling an important passage from Spenser on the fall of man, first states the theme: 'Fair is foul and foul is fair.' Lady Macbeth counsels her husband to look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it. Macbeth himself speaks of 'making our faces vizards to our hearts, / Disguising what they are.' The clearest dramatic presentation of the theme occurs when the porter of Hell gate assumes a role which is no more than the mere truth. Here direct and planned concealment stirs pity and terror less than the disguise which is rooted in poetry and action, and perhaps not outwardly signified at all.
The diabolical villains, Richard III, Iago and the rest were, of course, not derived from any single original. Conscienceless Machievels such as Barabas, and Lorenzo of The Spanish Tragedy were behind them, as well as the Father of Lies; yet Donne's Ignatius his Conclave may serve as evidence that the old diabolism and new Machievellianism were linked in the popular mind.
Opposing infernal deceit was the heavenly humility of the Incarnation. The ruler of the world, concealed in humble garb, ministering to the needy, and secretly controlling every event is reflected in the disguised rulers (God's vicegerants), who wander among their subjects, living with them, and in the end distributing rewards and punishments in a judgement scene. Heavenly disguise enables Vincentio to test the virtue of his subjects, Henry to learn the secrets of his soldiers' feelings before Agincourt. Each of these roles has a long stage ancestry, but Shakespeare has strengthened the force of the disguise, which is in each case his own addition to the play. Measure for Measure contains a number of pronouncements upon disguising, and a wide variety of instances. The bride and the condemned prisoner have each their substitutes, 'Death's great disguiser', as the supposed Franciscan says to the Provost. Lucio, a direct descendant of the old Vice is 'uncased' in his own act of 'uncasing' the Duke. This is Shakespeare's fullest study of disguise.
Disguises generally mean a drop in social status (except in farce) and in comical histories came a whole series of rulers who wooed milkmaids, learnt home-truths from honest countrymen, stood a buffet with their subjects and finally revealed themselves with all graciousness. The exploits of King Edward in Georgea-Greene, King Edward IV in Heywood's play, and King Henry VIII in When You See Me You Know Me foreshadow Henry V's jest with Williams. These jovial revellers seem related to the stories of Robin Hood and the King: Robin himself appears in some of the plays. Noble wooers in disguise often played a rustic part (as in Friar Bacon, Mucidorus, The Shoemakers ' Holiday and Fair Em), and in his wooing, King Henry V again slips back into a rustic role, which, though it is not a disguise, is certainly an assumed part, and recalls such popular songs as:
To marry I would have thy consent,
But faith I never could compliment;
I can say nought but 'Hoy, gee ho!'
Words that belong to the cart and the plough.
Oh, say, my Joan, will not that do?
I cannot come every day to woo.
In the old chronicle play of King Leir, France wooed Cordella in such disguise. In his adaptation of this story, Shakespeare used another old tradition, that of the disguised protector. The tenderness and devotion of Kent to Lear, and Edgar to Gloucester are however but faintly suggested by Flowerdale of The London Prodigal or Friscobaldo of The Honest Whore, who in the guise of servants tend their erring children. In these plays, the disguise is comic as well as pathetic; yet the father who pities his children, like the husband who pities and succours his erring wife, must have had a biblical origin, and Shakespeare recalled this old tradition to its first significance.
Different aspects of the same disguise could be played upon (even Kent has his moments of comedy) because there was an 'open' or unresolved view of individuality behind Elizabethan character-drawing, which corresponded to the open use of words in Elizabethan poetry. Fixed denotation, which is encouraged by a standardised spelling and pronunciation, a dictionary definition, and controlling prose usage was still unknown. The great keywords had a radiant nimbus of association; they were charged with life, so that a writer could allow their significance to reverberate through a whole play. The meaning of poetry is not to be extracted but to be explored; and the creative uses of the pun, as illustrated in recent articles in this journal, are analogous to the use of multiple personality or disguise. Characters are fluid, and the role may vary from a specific or strictly individual one to something nearer the function of the Greek chorus. The antic disposition of Hamlet, or Edgar as Poor Tom, create an extra dimension for these plays as well as giving depth and fullness to the parts. Hamlet's coarseness and Edgar's wildness are parts of themselves, but they are more than merely that. Madness is a protective ruse, deriving in part at least from the disguise of Hieronimo, and of Antonio's disguise as a fool in Marston's Antonio's Revenge. Through this mask Hamlet penetrates the disguises of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Claudius. Edgar as madman has something of the insight of
the eternal eye
That sees through flesh and all.
The revengers, Hamlet and Vindice, have x-ray eyesight; their double roles of revenger and commentator correspond to the antinomy of their characters. Here again there is an easy gradation from the chronic to the individual. The Revenger was also both good and evil; for revenge was deadly sin, yet also the inevitable result of the greater sins which the hero so pitilessly anatomised. Such double roles had not only a verbal correspondence in the pun but a structural parallel in the 'shadowing' of mainplot by subplot, most fully developed in King Lear. As Poor Tom, Edgar describes as his own the sins of Oswald and Edmund: his sinister disguise helps finally to turn the wits of the old king: he talks of the devils that inhabit him, till at Dover Cliff they are exorcised; finally he appears vizarded, the unknown challenger who executes a just vengeance, and forgives his dying enemy.
The Elizabethan theatre included a wide range of representation. Ghosts, spirits and visions appeared, or could even be used as disguise (as in The Atheist's Tragedy, where the hero dresses as a ghost). The appearance of Caesar's or Banquo's ghost also adds an extra dimension to the dramatist's world. Unearthly and almost unbearably poignant is Paulina's revival of the ghostly Hermione from dead marble to flesh and blood:
I'll fill your grave up: stir, nay come away,
To death bequeath your numbness, for from
Dear life redeems you.
Leontes has but three words 'Oh, she's warm', and Hermione, save to Perdita, has none. It is the dream of all bereaved, handled with a sureness and delicacy that could come only from long mastery. In his last plays, Shakespeare makes disguise an essentially poetic conception, and varies the level of it more subtly than ever before. It is necessary only to think of Imogen, her brothers and Belarius, Posthumus as the poor soldier, Cloten in Posthumus' garments, the false seeming of the Queen and the vision of the ghosts and the gods; or of Perdita's contrast with Florizel, both of them with the more conventional muffling of his father and Camillo, and the many disguises of Autolycus. Perdita is seemingly a shepherdess, pranked up as a goddess for the May sports: Florizel is obscured as a swain. As they dance together, the disguised Camillo says:
He tells her something
That makes her blood look out: good sooth,
The queen of curds and cream.
Truly it is royal blood that rises, even as Florizel's youth shows 'the true blood which fairly peeps through it.' Here the threefold meaning of 'blood'—passion, descent, blushing—corresponds with the complex function of the disguises. Like those of Imogen and her brothers, they isolate the innocence and truth of the young, they are vestures of humility which disclose true worth; and yet they give the action a masque- or pageant-like quality which sets it apart from the rest of the play. In The Tempest, the varying of shapes belongs principally to Ariel, to Prospero, who can go invisible, and to the spirits of the masques. Yet Ferdinand and Miranda are in some sense obscured, and the anti-masque of Trinculo and Stephano with their frippery adds at least a further visual pattern.
The physical basis of disguise remained indeed of great importance. When the actors were so well known to the audience, it must have been easy for the spectators, like the playwright, to translate 'Enter Dogberry and Verges' into 'Enter Kempe and Cowley'. Costumes had to produce the stage atmosphere now given by scenery, lighting and make-up, and changes of costume must therefore have been valuable. Apparel was not thought of as concealing but as revealing the personality of the wearer. 'The apparel oft proclaims the man', and some of the most bitter and prolonged religious quarrelling of the age centred in the Vestarian controversy. Sumptuous clothing was a subject for satirists both off and on the stage; the Puritans attacked the theatre with the plea, based on the Mosaic injunction that for a man to put on the garments of a woman was an abomination. Hence there could be no such thing as a mere physical transformation. As the body revealed the soul, so appearance should reveal the truth of identity. A character could be really changed by the assumption of a disguise. The modern woman who restores her self-confidence with an expensive hat, the soldier who salutes the Queen's Commission and not the drunkard who happens to be wearing its insignia act in a manner familiar to Elizabethans. Hence Prospero's discarding of his magic robe symbolised most adequately his transformation from Magician back to Duke of Milan.
Such deepened power of guise and disguise did not prevent Shakespeare from using it in a practical and even thoroughly stagey fashion upon other occasions. His earliest plays are full of disguisings of a superficial kind: the complexities emerge in The Merchant of Venice, where he builds up a scale of contrast between Jessica's purely formal disguise, Nerissa's imitative one, and the significant robing of Portia. Viola's disguise, complicated by her likeness to her twin, is also contrasted with the literal disguise of Malvolio in yellow stockings and cross garters, and with the clown's assumption of Sir Thopas's part. Shakespeare on occasion used all the conventional tricks, as in The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives, or Margaret's disguise as Hero, which leads to Claudio's pretended unmasking of the false semblant in the church scene, and to the final comedy of the masks.
The girl-pages, who would perhaps occur most readily to the mind as Shakespeare's favourite line in disguise, were already familiar from earlier narrative and drama. In comedy, there is less open characterisation than in tragedy: instead, the roles become stereotyped, based on sets of 'characteristics'. When the heroine is disguised as a boy, her two roles may be sharply contrasted, giving an effect as of shot silk, as the boyish wit or the feminine sensibility predominates. Shakespeare allows some very stagey jests, such as the broad farce of Viola's duel with Sir Andrew: yet such parts as hers, with their obvious advantages for the boy-actors, also allowed Shakespeare to depict the relationship of men and women with a new ease and frankness. Rosalind enjoys her disguise and frankly exploits its possibilities, but even the most demure of the heroines is given a chance by indirection to find directions out. In spite of the clear contrast between appearance and reality, the disguised heroines owe the peculiar delicacy and felicity of their depiction largely to masquerade.
This particular convention remained popular, long after Shakespeare's day; Fletcher, in Bellario and Aspatia, drew a new and sophisticated version. Bellario's true sex is not revealed till the end, though by this time any theatrical page might be assumed to be a woman in disguise. In the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 'breeches parts' were as popular with the actresses as they had been with the boys, and from the stage they re-entered the Romantic poem. Sir Walter Scott has two such characters, one the heroine of The Lord of the Isles, the other in Harold the Dauntless, where an utterly incredible Viking is attended for years by a devoted page, whose sex is finally revealed to the imperceptive warrior by no less a personage then Odin himself.
The deeper implications of disguise, however, did not long survive Shakespeare's day. Writers of today have rediscovered its possibilities for tragedy as well as comedy, and are no longer limited to the presuppositions governing Charley's Aunt, Vice Versa, or even The Happy Hypocrite. Yet the triple flexibility of language, characters and plotting which give the Elizabethans so strong and delicate a weapon belongs to them alone. Only occasionally in lyric verse, as in Yeats's sequence of The Three Bushes—where the old trick of Measure for Measure, the false bride, is put to new uses—disguise provides a statement of philosophic themes. The antithesis of Body and Soul, even of the One and the Many is symbolised in this folk story, written in ballad style and set to a popular tune. (Yeats's source, however, is actually a Provençal tenzon, which he may have learnt of from Ezra Pound; hence the mixture of courtly love convention with reminiscences of Fair Margaret and Sweet William.)
It may be that Shakespeare too drew some of his inspiration from popular literature, especially from ballads, where disguises of all kinds are of primary importance, both for comedy and for tragedy. Whilst disguise has been used in the drama, the pathos and depth of feeling in the ballads, dramatic in form as many of them are, far exceeds that of the pre-Shakespearean stage in general. Tom a Bedlam, Hind Horn, Fair Annie may have been the seed-plots for Edgar, Hamlet and Imogen, as the Robin Hood ballads were for the comical history plays. Shakespeare turned to the popular ballad in moments of deepest pathos for Ophelia and Desdemona, he turned to old wives' tales and riddles for the visionary horror of Macbeth and the visionary beauty of The Winter's Tale, as many times he drew his purest poetry from the diction of common life.
Nancy K. Hayles (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "Sexual Disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 32, 1979, pp. 63-72.
[In the following essay, Hayles compares Shakespeare's use of sexual disguise in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, concluding that his use of the device progressed from investigating the ramifications of role-playing to questioning the very nature of sex and gender.]
In dealing with the female page disguise in Renaissance drama, one is invariably struck by the complexity of the double sex reversal implied by the presence of the boy actor. Lamb's remarks are typical: 'What an odd double confusion it must have made, to see a boy play a woman playing a man: one cannot disentangle the perplexity without some violence to the imagination.'1 Perhaps because most of us share Lamb's perplexity, not much work has been done on the subject2 other than a general acknowledgement that the device is both interesting and complex. Recently, however, sexual disguise has begun to attract attention from feminist critics because it seems to offer a way to combine Shakespearian criticism with contemporary social concerns.3 Although more work is needed, and welcome, on this complex dramatic device, the tendency to regard it solely in terms of social and sexual roles seems to me misguided. While some aspects of the disguise are common to all the plays in which it appears, its dramatic function is shaped by the particular design of each play; and the differences are fully as important as the similarities in understanding the complexity of the device in Shakespeare's hands. In fact, Shakespeare's use of sexual disguise shows a definite progression: whereas in the early plays he uses it to explore the implications of sexual role-playing, in the later plays he seems increasingly interested in the metaphysical implications of the disguise, using it as a means to investigate, and eventually resolve, the disparity between appearance and essence. Although a study of all five plays that use sexual disguise is outside the scope of this essay, I hope to demonstrate the nature of the progression by comparing the use of the sexual disguise in As You Like It with its use in Twelfth Night.4 The purpose of this essay is therefore not only to draw general conclusions about the nature of Shakespearian sexual...
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Alex Aronson (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Ocular Proof," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1970, pp. 411-29.
[In the following essay, Aronson surveys Shakespeare's plays and concludes that "the choice between the eye and the mind, between the ocular proof and spiritual awareness which Shakespeare's characters are compelled to make, is of the very essence of his tragic vision."]
If there is any psychological validity in Blake's dictum—"As a man is, so he sees"—and if it is true not only of the ordinary man, for instance the reader of Shakespeare's plays and the spectator in the...
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Susan Baker (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Personating Persons: Rethinking Shakespearean Disguises," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 303-16.
[In the following essay, Baker discusses Shakespeare's treatment of rank and power in terms of his characters ' changing personages, concluding that the grounds of power remain fixed within a natural hierarchy.]
I want to borrow an old word and its inflections. Shakespeare's contemporaries used the verb personate for the theatrical activity we designate as acting a part or creating a role, and this obsolete word has at least two advantages over those in current...
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Ewbank, Inga-Stina. "Shakespeare's Liars." In British Academy Shakespeare Lectures 1980-89, pp. 85-116. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Examines Shakespeare's commentary on the simultaneous power of language to communicate and disguise intentions, to mislead, and to betray.
Howard, Jean E. "Cross-Dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England." Shakespeare Quarterly XXXIX, No. 4 (Winter 1988): 418-40.
Explores attempts in Renaissance England to bolster a disintegrating hierarchy of gender and a "normative social order," considering Shakespeare's comedies to be conservative approaches to gender and class issues....
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