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    ENGL350B: Shakespeare

    On disguise in Shakespeare

    Posted By: M. L. Donnelly
    Date: Thursday, 14 October 2004, at 9:28 a.m.

    On disguise in Shakespeare’s plays—in response to a student question:

    Disguise serves several purposes in Shakespearian drama.

    First off, practically, since women's parts were played by boys, anytime you can get a female character into a male disguise, you presumably make it easier for the boy playing the role to play it plausibly (unless you conceive that he would have to be sure he played a girl playing a boy and not just a boy, tout court, and so complicated the task for him).

    Second, the theatre is about disguise--all the actors are playing roles that are not really theirs in "real life", and their clothes and accoutrements play a major role in creating the illusion that they are who they're playing--so plots employing disguise are theatrically self-reflexive and "metatheatrical"--they call attention to the processes of imitation and masking that are at the heart of the very enterprise the audience is patronizing, and Shakespeare always gets a kick out of 'in-house' jokes and theatrical self-referentiality--one more layer of wit, double meaning, and visual punning available thus, one more way of exploring that old canard concerning the difference between appearance and reality (for those who believe in a separate discernible reality; some relativists and skeptics might assert that it simply illustrates the fact that appearances create our "reality"--but I don't think Shakespeare, however much he plays with that idea, wants to rest there).

    Third, since in daily life we all play roles every day, presenting ourselves in different guises or relationships to different people, different audiences, in different situations, the objectification of that role-playing and adoption of disguise or protective coloration or performed relationship makes a trenchant comment on our lives, roles, negotiations and relationships.

    Finally (in my answer here--if you think hard about it, you may come up with other reasons), the larger culture of Shakespeare's day set a lot of stock by self-presentation, dress, gesture, performance as establishing status, rank, identity, who one really is in society--so the issue of those usual markers of identity and status being tricks, disguises, misleading instead of informing the audience or witnesses amounts in fact to a testing or criticizing of a dominant social convention, opening up interrogations of the order of things often (rashly) accepted as "normal."

    Of course, you're quite right also in observing [in the original e-mail] that the trying out of an unfamiliar role in disguise, seeing the world through a different perspective, is indeed an excellent way to have a character grow in flexibility and range of response, wisdom and understanding, to mature, to be chastened, edified and "improved," or, like Rosalind [in *As You Like It*], to explore her native capacities and insights in a new and different and (in the case of a woman in man's clothes in a traditional culture like Shakespeare's) broader scope.

    In *Twelfth Night*, in contrast to Rosalind in *AYLI*, Viola gains insight through the vantage given by her disguise, but does she gain in agency? We'll talk in class (again) about Maurice Evans' concept of "discrepant awareness" in Shakespeare's plays, a concept particularly useful in thinking about Viola and Feste in *12thN*--but reflect again on whether in this play, the advantage given by knowing more than others without being known produces any practical empowerment.



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