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Theme Of Disguise In Twelfth Night, Or What You Will And Measure For Measure

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Disguise has played a major role in society and England during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The role of disguise was an extremely important concept in Shakespearean theatre, as it is used in to conceal the identity of one or more characters from other person in the play (Kreider 168). Often disguise within Shakespearean plays either exceeded the “boundary of any unitary image of subjectivity or resists what verisimilar role construction, emplotment of desire, and passion in relationships” (Weimann 798). An actor would take on the concealed identity of the character for the benefits of the production. The Plays Twelfth Night, or What you Will, written in 1601, and Measure for Measure, first performed in 1604, by William Shakespeare utilise disguise as an extension of the character, comedy, and identity. In this essay I will discuss how Shakespeare utilises disguise as a mode of protection, and how this deceives other characters within the plays. The characters Viola from Twelfth Night and the Duke Vincentio from Measure for Measure, both use disguise as a method of security and share the theme of as protection. I will discuss how the audience is made aware of the characters misunderstanding, and how these misunderstandings provide comedic elements to the plays plot lines. Despite the vast differences between both these plays, they both follow a similar structural pattern. The audience is made aware that the characters are in disguise from the beginning with dialogue from the characters in disguise explaining that they are going to dress in masquerade. Once the climax is reached, the reveal of true identity and the method of disguises is unveiled. Shakespeare utilises this structural pattern to allow for audience awareness, familiarity and suspense.

Shakespeare uses themes of disguise in the play Measure for Measure as a method of deceit. Many of the characters in the play seem to hold a dishonest nature, where their lies lead to the irony of the disguises. Shakespeare explores these concepts of disguise through the characters Isabella, who uses disguise for her own benefit and protection from a foreign land, and Duke Vincentio, who disguises himself as a friar to secretly watch over the order of the city in his absence. The Duke becomes an ironic character due his purpose of catching the untrustworthy Lord Angelo. Duke Vincentio adopts the masquerade scheme as “a sophisticated and effective mode of surveillance” (Kamps 248, 249). Through the character Duke Vincentio, Shakespeare spares the audiences ignorant knowledge of what may happen in the play. Instead, it is set up form the beginning for the audience that Vincentio will disguise himself as a friar to watch over the city while Angelo is in charge.

“Supply me with the habit, and instruct me

How I may formally in person bear me

Like a true friar.” (Shakeseare1.3.46-48)

Duke Vincentio expresses his motives to Friar Thomas, making the audience fully aware of his protective intentions. Vincentio indicates his fears of Angelo leading the city, which Ivo Kamps states is a representation of the city’s anxiety (249). Vincentio’s schemes replicate “the techniques of arousing and manipulating anxiety ” in the early modern era. These techniques are practices by the state and its representatives out of a fear of disorder and rebellion (Kamps 249). The rulers become a scheming, controlling, secretive character who spy on his subjects for the purpose of regulating their thoughts and behaviour. (Kamps 248). Although Vincentio can be viewed as a protector of the anxious city, whose hope is to instill once again a measure of respect for Vienna’s “strict statues and most biting laws” (Shakespeare 1.3.19) (Kamps 252). The fact that disguise is set up for the audience from the beginning means that other characters misundstandings provided comedic humour for the audience. The audiences awareness of this enables them to follow along with each characters journey and confusion upon approaching the reveal. Shakespeare does this through the interaction and dialogue between Duke Vincentio, disguise as a friar, and other characters in the play.

“Come your way, sir. Bless you, good father friar.” (Shakespeare 3.2.12)

Not only does this restate the masquerade to the audience but it also highlights the characters misunderstandings of the convincing disguise. Robert Weimann describs the gard of disguise as a meaningful extention of a charcter, where the performed act of disguise gains the upper hand of the image of the character (801). Thus, causing confusion and/or misunderstanding among the other characters; providing comedy for the playgoers; and concealing the true identity of the one in disguise. Another way in which this is done is through Isabella’s disguise. This mode of disguise is used as a mode of protecting Isabella’s innocents and virginity. After Lord Angelo insists that Isabella must sleep with him in order to save her brother from death, Duke Vincentio, disguised as the friar, convinces Isabella to save her purity through tricking Lord Angelo.

“I desire his company at Mariana’s house to-night. Her cause and yours” (4.3.149)

Angelo is tricked into thinking that the person he sleeps with is Isablla when in fact it is Mariana masquerade as Isabella. Angelo’s mix-up drives the comedy within the scene and the following reveal. Isabella’s disguise not only acts as a mode of protecting her purity but, like Duke Vincentio’s disguise, it acts as a trap for Angelo. Both their traps are identical as each want to catch Angelo in the same crime that Claudio committed. (Planinc 154). This is something the Duke is willing to do in public, but Isabella only in private. Shakespeare uses both Duke Vincentio and Isabella’s disguises as a mode of self protection which provides the comedic element of the plot line. The protective mode of survelliance the Duke undertacks protects not only himself but his city and Isabella. Which end in the propsal of Duke Vincentio and Isabella. Through each character disguise they are able to both protect themselves from forces much stronger than themselves, and shield the cities anxiety through the manipulation of masquerade.

In a similar way, disguise is used as a mode of protection through the similarities and contrast of characters Viola and Olivia from Twelfth Night. Both Viola and Olivia share common traits when it comes to their masquerade. The female protagonist use disguise as a mode of self protection. Douglas H. Parker claims that the two character are seamingly “non-generic twins” (24) in themselves. Although Viola is the twin of Sebastian, Olivia seams to hold common traits of disguise with Viola. Viola appear in male attair representing that of her brother whom she thinks has drowned at sea. This is just as purposeful as Olivia’s veil, where both types of disguise protect them from unknown dangers of one sort or another and permit them to legitimately keep their brothers’ memories alive (Parker 26).

“A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh

And lasting in her sad remembrance” (1.1.31-32).

Both Viola an Olivia have experienced the death of fathers and both mourn over the death of their brothers, despit Viola brother unknowingly still alive, this is is seen to be the characters non-generic twinning (parker 24) by Shakespeare. Viola disguises herself as Cesario to protect hersef from the foreign land and dangers of the city being a female in these times. The male attire and the strong physical resemblance to her brother makes Viola very much like Sebastian.

“I my brother know

Yet living in my glass; even such so

In favour was my brother; and he went

Still in fashion, colour, ornament

For him I imitate. “ (Shakespeare 3.4.416-420)

Masked as Cesario, Viola mourns over her brother suspected death by copying her brother. The disguise becomes much more than just a mode of protecting herself from unknown dangers. Another way in which Shakespeare explors disguise in Twelfth Night is without the garbs but rather hidden disguises. Twelfth Night explores ideas of crossing the line between men and women (Carter 2). While Viola uses her garb to protect herself from the dangers of a new city so is also seen as a mascline character. She is a female sailor, which was predominately seen as a dangerous act for women during this time. In contrast, Orsinio is widey seen as feminine. The disguise in gender plays an important role in this play in shielding each of the characters identity. The opening monologue from Orsino expresses

“If music be the fod of love, play on…

O! it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breaths upon a bank of violets

Stealing and giving odour…

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

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O spirit of love!” (Shakespeare 1.1.1-9)

Orsino’s mind focuses on elements that are conventionally associated with femininity (Carter 3). Viola is set up as a strong-willed character from the beginning, whereas Orsino is seen as a soft character. Shakespeare uses these hidden disguises within the play to contrast the characters. This also provides alternate protection for that of Viola where she gains not only the grabs of man but also the masculinity. Both hidden disguises and costume disguise are representations of the characters shield from themselves and the unknown dangers. Shakespeare explores the idea of male and female bodies being in disguise through Orsino and Viola’s contrasting masculine and feminine qualities.

Similar to Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night uses disguise to benfit the audiences knowledge, however through this, Shakespeare decieves the characters in order to provided acquired knowledge for the audience. He allows the characters to express their actions of intention, where the audience end up gaining more knowledge than the other characters onstage. The character Viola uses disguise as a mode of protection from the unknown dangers of a foreign country (Parker 26). Although by taking on the outer garbs of man, specifically her brother whom she suspects has drowned, she falls into the possibility of going native (Moore 164) and naïve. Shakespeare steers his audience away from this possibility through the characters expression of thought.

“Conceal me what I am, and be my aid

For such disguise as haply shall become

The form of my intent.” (Shakespeare 1.2.51-53)

Throughout the play, many characters express their thought aloud for the audience to hear, causing the audience to obtain and piece together the miscommunications that the characters believe. For example, the audience is made aware that Violas brother Sebastian is alive, and that both twins believe the other has drowned. But for Viola, there is still a chance her brother lives. “The hopefulness of chance here also evokes the comedy of errors Viola instigates with her disguise.” (Moore 166). Shakespeare allows the audience to gain knowledge of each characters misunderstanding to allow for the comedy of errors that follow when the characters come to realisation. Similarly, to the way Measure for Measure reveals the disguises of Duke Vincentio, Isabella and Mariana, Twelfth Night reveals the confusion of disguise through the realisation on stage. The suspense is built up through the audience acquired knowledge. Upon the realisation Sebastian has, the comedy of errors unfolds.

“Do I stand there? I never had a brother…” (Shakespeare 5.1.236)

The audience are held in suspension for Sebastian and Viola do not recognise each other right away, providing a sense that Viola’s disguise has done more than just protect her from the foreign land, but also made her unrecognisable to her sibling and other character who think as her of a man. In contrast to this, Measure for Measure tackles the reveal in a much different way. Twelfth Night suggests that the identity mistakes are merely that and will go forgiven. However, the comedic element of disguise in Measure for Measure changes mode when Duke Vincentio is revealed. The Duke’s disguise becomes more than just the clothes he gathers, he speaks in a manner of a friar, concealing and protecting his identity further.

“Where is the Duke? ‘tis he should hear me speak.” (Shakespeare 5.1.291).

Other characters come to believe that Duke Vincentio is that of a friar due to his constant reminded that he is in fact a friar and not the Duke. The character believe this deception and speak disrespectfully of the Duke, unknowing that they are speaking directly to the Duke himself.

“And was the Duke a flesh-monger, a fool, and a coward…” (Shakespeare 5.1.333).

The misunderstandings for many of the characters delivers the entertainment of the plot line, providing apprehension and a comedic element for the audience. With this continuing until the revelation that the friar is not whom he said he was, but in fact Duke Vincentio.

“O my dread lord!

I should be guiltier than my guiltiness,

To think I can be undiscernible” (Shakespeare 5.1.367-369)

Duke Vincentio’s disguise becomes an act of authority above his surveillance. The characters cop the consequences from speaking behind the Duke’s back and the city regains its order. Through the audiences acquired knowledge throughout the play, Shakespeare allows each character’s journeys to hold innocence and suspension. The miscommunications and confusion in the disguises allow the audience to become conscious of the characters hardships and allows the humour of each scene to advance. The reveal of the deceits of each play follows with unexpected circumstances and enables the disguises to hold much more value than just the deceit itself.

Another similarity between both of Shakespeare’s plays, is the structural mechanism which is used to reveal to hidden identities and disguises of the characters. When time and circumstances decree that Shakespeare shall go no further with the story, he invokes the technique of the ancient anagnorisis (Kreider 178) to allow for the reunion and consequences between all the character who were in tricked. This structural pattern follows Shakespeare leading his audience to expect masquerade, then, the masked person reveals themselves to the audience, and finally when the climax is reached, the mummer is given an opportunity to disclose their identity and disguise to the other personage in the play. (Kreider 167). In Twelfth Night, the revelation of all characters is shown through the reunion of Viola and Sebastian.

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons…” (Shakespeare 5.1.226)

The other characters confusion of seeing the twins together contributes to the significance of the disguise on early modern Shakespearian stage, but also releases the audience’s suspense to when the characters find out. Shakespeare takes the theme of disguise a step further, when neither Viola nor Sebastian initially recognises the other. Shakespeare allows the characters to provide proof as if the disguises were protecting their identity and preventing the siblings to recognise each other.

“My father had a mole upon his brow.”

“And so had mine.” (Shakespeare 5.1.252-253)

The expression of childhood memories that both sibling share does not seem enough proof (Moore 173) to reveal their identities. Viola’s masculine garbs and disguise has seemingly impacted Sebastian’s ability to recognise her feminine quality suggesting that Viola may have taken on the native of a masculine body. Shakespeare takes the concept of disguise further by expressing that once Viola obtains her “maiden weeds” (Shakespeare 5.1.265) she will be able to confirm her identity as Viola and not Cesario. Thus, Shakespeare highlights how important one’s garments are in order for one’s identity to be known. This also represents how a character’s garments become an extension of their character (Weimann 801). Upon the threshold of discovery characters may have “heightened romantic excitement inherent in the masquerade, as when Duke Orsino enumerates the qualifications of Cesario, he lists only strictly feminine traits” (Kreider 177). In a similar way, Measure for Measure utilises the anagnorisis to allow for reunion and putting society life back to ‘normal’. However, unlike Twelfth Night, the Duke’s reveal happens through the stage directions and not the dialogue.

Pulls off the friar’s hood and discovers the DUKE. (Shakespeare 5.1.356)

Subsequently, the Duke Vincentio is the only personage who, after a protracted disguise, adopts this naïve method of recovering his former positions in society (Kreider 178). Although, after characters have abandoned their disguises and have returned to normal relationships, the Elizabethan love of narrative synopsis sometimes asserts itself (Kreider 179). Shakespeare utilises the structural pattern throughout both these plays to highlight the significants of disguise and the importance of the reveal. The structural pattern allows the audience to follow along with each of the characters misunderstandings and their journey to the reveal.

Disguise within the Shakespearian Theatre has acted as a mode of concealing a character’s true identity, providing them with a shield against foreign lands and people, surveillance for an anxious ridden city, and hiding true intentions and disclosing information. Disguise also acts as an important method of protection for several characters within Shakespearian plays. Measure for Measure, and Twelfth night or what you will, are two of Shakespeare’s plays that highlight masquerade as being protective in many different ways. The use of the structural pattern allows the audience to follow along with each of the character journeys to the reveal. It also permits comedy to be a through line in both the plays, where the character misunderstandings allow for comedy and suspension. Disguise is used as security, surveillance and protection in both these plays.

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Theme Of Disguise In Twelfth Night, Or What You Will And Measure For Measure. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from
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