Appearance vs. Reality
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...
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Seeing / (Dis)Believing
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 theater, but also of the characters he created, then it suggests a criterion by which to judge the thoughts, speeches, and actions of men and women on the stage. For "as a man sees, so he is" seems the natural corollary to Blake's dictum. A man's sense-perceptions, his responsive contact with the outside world through his eyes, will determine his "outlook" on the world and its inhabitants, which in turn, will give rise to forms of behavior open to moral judgment. This dependence of being on seeing will color man's knowledge, not only of others, but of himself as well. Man "is" not merely how he sees, but what he sees, as well as when he sees, and, not least of all, because he sees what he thinks he...
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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 use: first, it suggests "character" as activity; second, its invention in early modern England hints at a changing view of subjectivity. The first recorded appearance of personation occurs in the Induction to John Marston's Antonio and Mellida (probably 1599-1600), and, as Andrew Gurr argues,
It is not stretching plausibility too far to suggest that the term was called into being by the same developments—in the kinds of part given the actors to play and their own skill in their parts—that made two great tragedians succeed the extemporising clowns on the pinnacle of theatrical fame. By 1600 characterisation was the chief requisite of the successful player.1
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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.
Weimann, Robert. "Representation and Performance: The Uses of Authority in Shakespeare's Theater." PMLA CVII, No. 3 (May 1992): 497-510.
Discusses Shakespeare's simultaneous troubling of unitary power structures and of the authority of discourse within the context of Renaissance theatrics.
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