The aim of this paper is to talk about the way Shakespeare uses the disguise in his plays. I will focus on: As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. I will talk about how characters disguise themselves physically (changing of sex, putting masks on, etc) and I will try to explain the reasons why Shakespeare make some characters (mainly women) hide themselves behind a false identity. I will also talk about the way characters disguise their emotions and their true selves and pretend to be something that they aren’t.


Disguise is one of Shakespeare’s favourite ploys. He alters the identity of a character and uses this disguise to reinforce the irony, develop theme, enhance subtle comic innuendo or make the plot advance. There are also times, when characters are not disguised in the sense that they change their appearance but in the sense that they hide their true feelings or ideas behind a façade. Like in the case of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado about Nothing, etc. In those cases Shakespeare explores the differences between outer appearance and inner reality.


The ploy of mistaken identity as a plot device in writing comedies dates back at least to the times of the Greeks and Romans in the writings of Menander and Plautus. Shakespeare borrowed the device they introduced and developed it into a fine art as a means of expressing theme as well as furthering comic relief in his works. As he matured in his grasp of the dramatic medium, Shakespeare took the complexities of this device that he had developed and evolved characters in the history plays with quirks of character that sometimes puzzle and, in the tragedies, he created characters so psychologically complex that they still have appeal for modern audiences hundreds of years later.



I would like to start with As You Like It. In this play we have two women, Rosalind and Celia, who disguise themselves. Rosalind changes her genre and dresses like a man; Celia on the contrary, remains a woman:



The most obvious issue raised by the cross dressing is the relationship between gender roles and clothes. For Rosalind passes herself off easily enough as a man and, in the process, acquires a certain freedom to move around, give advice, and associate as an equal among other men (this freedom gives her the power to initiate the courtship). Her disguise is, in that sense, much more significant than Celia's, for Celia remains female in her role as Aliena and is thus largely passive (her pseudonym meaning "Stranger" or "outsider" is an interesting one). The fact that Celia is largely passive in the Forest of Ardenne (especially in contrast to Rosalind) and has to wait for life to deliver a man to her rather than seeking one out, as Rosalind does, is an interesting and important difference between the two friends. These points raise some interesting issues. If becoming accepted as a man and getting the freedom to act that comes with that acceptance is simply a matter of presenting oneself as a man, then what do we say about all the enshrined natural differences we claim as the basis for our different treatment of men and women? Given that Rosalind is clearly the most intelligent, active, and interesting character in the play and that these qualities would not be likely to manifest themselves so fully if she were not passing herself off as a man, the play raises some interesting questions about just what we mean by any insistence on gender differences as more than mere conventions.

(Johnston, Ian)

Having to do with Much Ado About Nothing, the play focus on social expectations and performance, which is itself a form of disguise. In order to be popular and well-liked, Benedick presents the persona of the perfect courtier, but it is not infrequently apparent that he suffers from insecurities about his romantic and physical prowess. Benedick and the other characters hide their true, vulnerable selves under a veneer of nonchalance which is stripped away in rare moments, but returns without fail. Only Don John refuses to wear a social disguise, instead opting to practice outright deceit.

 The masquerade ball in Act II: Scene 1 has characters in masks pretending to be other than themselves. Don Pedro impersonates Claudio, while Beatrice pretends not to recognize Benedick. Even Antonio claims that he is not Antonio when directly asked by Ursula. During offstage time in Act III, Margaret unwittingly masquerades as Hero,


deceiving Don Pedro and Claudio into believing Hero habitually has strange men in her room at night. In Act IV: Scene 1, Friar Francis himself recommends and applies a ruse

to repair Hero’s damaged reputation. Additionally, in the most complex case of concealment and trickery in the play, Benedick and Beatrice, in Act II: Scene 3 and Act III: Scene 1 respectively, hide in the garden while their closest friends, who are fully aware of the eavesdropping, lie about the two having confessed loving each other.


What seems interesting to me both in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing is the role of women when they are in disguise. On one hand we have Rosalind, the most interesting character of As You Like It by far. She knows that her society makes different demands of men and women. Dressed like a man she has much more freedom and can do things she couldn’t if she wasn’t disguised. On the other hand we find Beatrice: she is above everyone around her, her sense of humour shows how intelligent she is. For Elizabethan audiences she must have been a shrew. The way she gives her opinions about her cousin and Claudio’s marriage was a form of breaking the natural order so the only way to say those things without being punished is say them as a joke. (Forés, Vicente)

In Twelfth Night, we find some characters disguised physically: Viola who dresses herself as a man, Feste as a Priest and Malvolio who puts on crossed garters and yellow stockings to win Olivia. However, the disguise that interests me is Malvolio’s psychological one. Shakespeare portrays Malvolio as a character who is completely obsessed about himself, so much that eventually this excessive self pride and arrogance proves to be his undoing as a character. In the first two acts of the play it is clear that Malvolio views characters such as Feste and Sir Toby as being `inferior' to himself although Shakespeare questions these thoughts. Malvolio pretends to be a puritan although in reality merely uses this form as a disguise that allows him to criticise others and point out their flaws without considering his own. He adopts the personality of a puritan because he believes this is the accepted and expected way to act: “Through this affected attitude he loses sight of the truth hidden behind his mask.” (Geocites). Shakespeare uses Malvolio’s double standard as a way to criticise puritans.

In the Merchant of Venice, we find that the central characters are guilty of mistaking their own identities, not just the identity of others, because they pretend to believe on a way while acting another. For example, Bassanio hides his true identity pretending he has money. The reality is that he doesn’t and he fools those around him. We find also Portia, who reveals herself at the end of the play as the most intelligent character, turning upside down the trial and saving Antonio from Shylock. Of course, she has to dress herself as a man, otherwise, she won’t be listened. Shakespeare specifically explores the differences between outer appearance and inner reality in The Merchant of Venice. The importance of appearances is here, as in many other of his plays, very important.

 With Portia’s question at the beginning of the trial (who’s the jew and who’s the merchant?) the identities of Shylock and Antonio compare in such a way that there can be a response from the reader probing the appearance vs. reality idea (Tronch, Jesús).  Shylock is, from my point of view, the victim of the play. Of course he isn’t a saint either, he is a very flawed man indeed, but that ambiguity, those grey parts are what make him such a fascinating character and many readers see him as a tragic hero. On the other hand, Shakespeare doesn’t hesitate showing Shylock’s enemies as opportunistic, arrogant and hypocrites. Bassanio wants to marry Portia out of money but accuses Shylock of avarice. Also, in the trial Christians ask Shylock for mercy but then they keep all his properties and make him become a Christian. This, for Shylock is worse than death. Here their cruelty is disguised as “Christian mercy”. The play exposes the fact that Christians aren’t as merciful and good hearted as they appear to be. Shylock is motivated by a way to expose the critical façade of Christians.


In conclusion, we have seen different disguises in this paper. On one hand, Shakespeare makes her heroines disguise in order to express something they couldn’t have expressed being women: Rosalind dressed like a man could in some way woo Orlando and be more shameless with him; Beatrice had to disguise her words and opinions as jokes; Portia, although she is really intelligent, has to disguise herself as a young lawyer in order to defend Antonio: she wouldn’t be allowed to defend him being a woman. The reason why Viola disguises could be that it makes her “feel safer in the strange land into which she has wandered” (sparknotes). Shakespeare couldn’t make her heroines behave the way he shows us in his plays without a disguise because Elizabethan audiences would had rejected them as being simples “shrews”. The disguise makes them strong and intelligent without being rejected by the audience. Other disguises we have found are those which hide certain attitudes and the true selves of some characters. This way, Shakespeare criticise some things that he doesn’t like (like puritans attitude in the case of Malvolio or Chritian hypocrisy in The Merchant of Venice) and highlights the importance of reality versus appearances.










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Academic year 2006/2007

© a.r.e.a. / Dr.Vicente Forés López

© Patricia Sebastián Hernández
Universitat de València Press