The Power of Disguise in Shakespearian Comedy Part 2: Further Androgyny

“Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s more chaotic plays, with the events and themes tossing and turning like the boat Viola took to Illyria. Viola’s decision to dress as a eunuch is not inspired by love but by logic: “For such a disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke. Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him; It may be worth thy pains. For I can sing, And speak to him in many sorts of music That will allow me very worth his service” (I.iii.54-59). She figures that a male disguise would offer more work to her than her present female garments. She also can’t serve Olivia because it is said she refuses to speak with strangers. As the fictional Cesario, she goes to work for Duke Orsino and quickly becomes his favorite page. She also falls in love with the duke, who is convinced she is a man and has no mutual feelings. Under his command, she goes to deliver Orsino’s love messages to Olivia, but the noblewomen almost immediately falls in love with the disguise of Cesario, even after refusing to see any suitors. This causes some concern for Viola, who of course does not reciprocate and now finds herself in the strangest love triangle: she loves Orsino, who loves Olivio, who loves Cesario. The other two believe her to be a man, so she’s in the most uncomfortable position of power. This love triangle shows how Shakespeare has perfected how to structural use disguise for a good comedic plot, and beyond that, more truths are exposed in Viola’s deceit. Her situation is similar to Rosalind’s, when Phebe falls in love with Ganymede because of how well Rosalind chides.

The purpose of the event goes beyond the comedy of a women falling in love with a false man; Phebe reveals this when expressing her feelings for Ganymede: “Think not I love him, though I ask for him; ‘Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well. But what care I for words? Yet words do well When he that speaks them please those that hear. It is a pretty youth. Not very pretty. But sure he’s proud. And yet his pride becomes him” (III.v.109-114). She is not as attracted to the face she sees as she is the voice that speaks and the mind behind it, meaning her infatuation is very much real even though it is for a woman. If she knew the truth she would be less inclined to those feelings, but that would impede the honesty of her being. Phebe truly loves the kind of person Ganymede, not knowing that his true person is female. But that reveals people’s capacity for love unrestricted by gender. Olivia further shows this through her genuine infatuation with Cesario. Kimbrough has much to say on the topic concerning the relationship between men and women in the plays: “Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s ‘furthest venture into androgyny.’ Viola, who is far more troubled by the ‘sex of her sex’ than is Rosalind, must learn that androgyny is ‘not a physical state, but a state of mind.’ Assisted in this because she is a twin, Viola through her disguise makes Orsino more ‘confessional,’ freeing her as a ‘prisoner of gender,’ and teaching us that ‘many apparent differences between men and women are dissolvable” (Kimbrough 30).

Viola “dissolves” the differences between men and women by showing that women are capable of doing tasks that men are known for, including woo women. Rosalind does this as well, but Kimbrough claims Viola to be a stronger model because of her male twin. She shared a womb with a brother and because of their similar features is able to pass as a male page and cause trouble, until Sebastian shows up to rescue her from the love triangle and marry Olivia in place of the fictional Cesario. Sebastian concludes the message that Viola proposes: men and women are equal. Olivia falls in love with the visage and persona of Cesario, who in truth is a women, but she is still satisfied when a real man who matches her face (and arguably personality) appears to consummate the marriage. The twins represent the same person, the opposing genders symbolically canceling each other out in Cesario, who is (not accidently) a eunuch. This concept fits into the nature of “Twelfth Night,” as the Lord of Misrule flips gender on its head. Shakespeare has achieved the truth about gender that all his cross-dressing antics were attempting to find. By covering up their gender, the characters revealed that all of our true selves are without gender. This fits into the paradigm of Shakespeare using deceit to reveal truth.

Deceit is also used in “The Winter’s Tale” to influence events, but in a way unique from the disguises of the previous plays. King Leontes goes mad and has his pregnant wife locked up in prison after she gives birth to a daughter that he suspects is the product of infidelity. Paulina enters to announce that Hermione has died in prison, and Leontes grieves. Sixteen years later, after all the events of the play, the ensemble collects around a finished statue of Hermione. Before the unveiling, Paulina comments on how lifelike it is: “As she lived peerless So her dead likeness I do well believe Excels whatever yet you looked upon, Or hand of man hath done; therefore I keep it Lonely, apart. But here it is; prepare To see the life as lively mocked, as ever Still sleep mocked death: behold, and say ‘tis well” (V.iii.14-20). The language here foreshadows the reveal that comes soon after: Hermione is alive, and we assume she’s been hidden away by Paulina for the sixteen years of the play. The statue is “life as lively mocked, as ever still sleep mocked death,” which compares how identical sleep is to death and how identical the statue is to the dead Hermione. It isn’t a real statue; the true mockery is that she feigned death and was spirited away. Death is the disguise Hermione uses in The Winter’s Tale to avoid her husband’s wrath, and she only returns when Perdita is reunited with her family. Paulina’s last words are “Our Perdita is found” (V.iii.121) before her first words are spoken, which includes “Where hast thou been preserved? Where lived? How found Thy father’s court? For thou shalt heat that I, Knowing by Paulina that the oracle Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved Myself to see the issue” (V.iii.123-128). Hermione says that she preserved her own life in the hopes that she would see her living daughter again as the oracle predicted. The queen doesn’t do anything to influence the return of her lost daughter, but her disappearance does punish for her husband, whose is responsible for the entire conflict. Her charade of faking death is similar to Falstaff’s feigning death at the end of Henry IV, Part 1. He employs the trick to avoid actual death at the hands of his enemies, and Hermione also saves her life by mocking its end. The disguise of death is used to preserve life in both cases, but with entirely different purposes. Falstaff is a coward and an egoist who claims that to truly die would be make one a mockery of a man because his perfect state is living. “Counterfeit? I lie; I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed” (V.iv.114-119). His use of counterfeit reveals his personal truth about life and how best to live it. He fakes dying because he believes the man who preserves his own life at all costs, even going so far as you fake death, is living his life perfectly. This contrasts to Hermione, who saved her own life and lifted the disguise once she could complete her family. They are contrasting examples of how counterfeiting death can save one’s life for selfish and selfless reasons.

Hermione brings the happy ending of the play, while Falstaff is exposed as a fraud when he tries to take credit for killing Hotspur. Each gets their just deserts for their use of death, which speaks to the gravity of their actions. Death is not to be mocked, except for the most righteous of reasons, and Hermione’s was far more holy than Falstaff’s. Shakespeare used this kind of deceit very early in Henry IV, Part 1 and developed it to become a major positive catharsis later in his career with The Winter’s Tale. The truth of living brings joy to a grieving family, rather than to a fat old man trying to save his own skin.

Trickery is an essential device in a comedy, where misunderstanding fuels humor. A prolonged disguise provides a terrific fulcrum for a comedic play, and when that disguise crosses barriers between class and gender, it reveals something about how society views those concepts. People are still people, regardless of financial standing or assigned gender, but those biases create expectations that audiences hold when viewing them on a stage. Shakespeare has utilized those expectations in his work, when he introduces a character that plays upon these assumptions for his/her personal gain, he is exposing how people can be manipulated by their own biases. We are victims of a society that enforces those beliefs, and these characters are rebelling against that by merely jumping the line. Rather than Portia, Rosalind and Viola fooling the audience, we have already fooled ourselves into believing the fallacy of the gender binary. Hal remains the same person, but by consorting in a tavern with drunks, we immediately form assumptions about him. Theatre itself is a deceit, and all the characters are disguises that actors put on to fool the audience into learning some great truth. Young boys playing women speaks volumes about societal gender roles, but Shakespeare takes it further with his characters. The metaphysical layers of truth delve deep as disguised are mixed and deceit reveals truth. Shakespeare puts the world on a stage and reveals that androgyny and classless judgment are the greatest version humanity can reach for. Death gives way to life, and love (true, genderless love) can heal all.

Derose, David J., and Philip C. Kolin. “Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism: An
Annotated Bibliography and Commentary.” Tdr (1988-) 37.2 (1993): 32-35. Print.

Kimbrough, Robert. “Androgyny Seen through Shakespeare’s Disguise.” Shakespeare
Quarterly 33 (1982): 17-33.

Park, Clara C. “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular.” The
American Scholar 42.262-78 (1973): 100-16. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Albert Gilman. As You like It. New York: New American
Library, 1963. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Frank Kermode. The Winter’s Tale. New York: New
American Library, 1963. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV Part 1. New York: New American Library, 1965. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Herschel Clay Baker. Twelfth Night; or What You Will. New
York: New American Library, 1965. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Kenneth Myrick. The Merchant of Venice. New York: New
American Library, 1965. Print.


The Power of Disguise in Shakespearian Comedy Part 1: Falstaff and Cross-Dressing

Many characters take on disguises or employ deceit to influence events in Shakespeare’s comedies; this common device exposes an overarching theme in Shakespeare’s works of how these disguises subvert societal expectations of gender and class in Elizabethan society. While most scholars believe this rebellion is simply social, I believe Shakespeare was trying to reveal a deeper truth in his characters through their use of masks. By attempting to cover up their public identities, the characters access a truer self only fully realized in the safety of anonymity and androgyny. The subversion of gender plays a particularly part in the plays “The Merchant of Venice,” “As You Like It,” and “Twelfth Night,” and the trappings of class and status is central to “Henry IV, Part 1.” Deceit is also used in “The Winter’s Tale”, but our main focus will be how disguises specifically are used to reveal a deeper truth in the identities of the characters and in society.

“Henry IV, Part 1” is a play with deceit at its thematic center. It usually takes the form of counterfeit and the two largest practitioners are Hal and Falstaff. The characters incorporate concepts like social status and honor into their falsified personalities that act as masks allowing them to carry out their respective agendas. Falstaff’s deceit is his knighthood, which demands honor and integrity: traits Falstaff spectacularly lacks but even more spectacularly pretends to have. He puts on the mask of an honest and decent knight to have the power that comes with such a status. His deceit allows him the freedom to slip through class limitations and acquire happiness regularly limited to his kind. As with the other plays, the mask he wears reveals his true self, which is licentious and shameless. At the end of the action, Falstaff’s last lies are his feigning death to avoid getting killed and his lying about killing Hotspur to achieve glory. The latter fails to convince anyone, and he is punished as the story progresses. Falstaff’s deceit is meant to grant him power, like the other characters who assume disguises. And whenever the consequences of his actions get closer to affecting him, he prolongs the inevitable with the disguise of honesty. It catches up to him against his will, and the truth of his lowliness is revealed to everyone through his punishment. Rising from the shed identity, he will be the first example of the true self becoming more apparent after the mask is taken off.

On the other end, status can also be constricting, even when it’s the highest place in society. Hal has a lot of expectation piled onto him as the crown prince during a time of war. He cleverly lowers that expectation by putting on the charade of a lowly scapegrace consorting with drunkards and prostitutes. When the time comes, he subverts those low expectations by rising to the call of leadership and striking down the rebellion in the end. Hal does not take on a different gender, but he dances the line between social classes. This allows him the freedom to overthrow not only a dangerous revolution but also the heavy pressure that the crown can force on a person. In contrast to the other characters in disguise, Hal takes on a new name at the end when he accepts who he truly is, which is a responsible king. He is able to achieve this title by taking on the mask of an unscrupulous friend of Falstaff and turning on him in the next play, banishing him for his crimes of deceit. His true self is only accessible after he concedes the counterfeit self. This theme can be found to an even greater extent in the other plays employing false identities, when new names, occupations, and even genders are assumed.

Probably the most famous form of disguise that Shakespearian characters employ is cross-dressing, with Portia from “The Merchant of Venice” being one of the earliest practitioners. Throughout the play, the young girl had not been given the praise she deserved, while the conflict erupted around her. In Act 5, Portia takes matters into her own hands and assumes the disguise of a male lawyer in order to infiltrate the courtroom and provide legal information that saves Antonio’s life and transfers Shylock’s wealth and estate to his daughter and her husband. Nerissa assists her in the guise of a clerk, and with one swift act of deceit, the two women are able to turn the tide of the entire plot, while making a statement about her role in society. Portia’s disguise is not only a male, but also a lawyer, who holds essential power in the courtroom scene. She holds Antonio’s life in her hands and also acquires the freedom to overhear her husband voice his priorities concerning marital love and male friendship: “Antonio, I am married to a wife Which is as dear to me as life itself; But life itself, my wife, and all the world Are not with me esteemed above thy life. I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you” (IV.i.281-286). She responses appropriately rifled: “Your wife would give you little thanks for that If she were by to hear you make the offer” (IV.i.287-288). After using legal acumen to finagle Antonio out of his bond and defeat Shylock, Portia asks for Bassanio’s ring as payment for her services. It’s the same ring she gave to him to represent their bond of love, and he adamantly gives it to the judge and calls it a “trifle,” even offering to give more. Antonio too gives up his ring, not knowing Nerissa was also disguised as a clerk. They return at the end to expose their husband’s actions and challenge their intentions. The men are made into fools and are the better for it. Cross-dressing gave Portia and Nerissa the power to not only drive the plot to a happy conclusion using knowledge no man in the story possessed, but they also were able to test their husbands’ loyalty and find them wanting. Portia is endlessly clever and forceful, not letting Bassanio off the hook when he clearly did the wrong thing. She embodies the figure of the judge when punishing Shylock with the law and bringing judgment on Bassanio as well. Her truer inner self is revealed through her disguise, and it allows her to practice her abilities more freely. This kind of freedom exists in the social realm of Venice’s gender hierarchy and in the spiritual realm of Portia’s own identity.

Portia and Nerissa acquire personal and structural power to benevolently influence events and bring the play to a happy conclusion. Many writers comment on the power that cross-dressing bestows on Shakespearian women; Clara Claiborne Park focuses her essay, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular,” on that exact topic. “Male garments immensely broaden the sphere in which the female energy can manifest itself. Dressed as a man, a nubile woman can go places and do things she couldn’t do otherwise, thus getting the play out of the court and the closet and into interesting places like forests or Welsh mountains” (Park 108). For her, it’s about overcoming oppression that is directly linked to gender. The men surrounding Portia expect very little from her, so she is forced to take up male garments to have any power in the plot (as far as Park is convinced). She is intelligent and resourceful and uses these natural talents to shape the outcome of the play, but only once she assumes the role of a man in a male-dominated world. She is able to share in the power that men have, and Park is convinced that this is what exposes the biased nature of the patriarchy. Phillip Kolin seems to agree with her, writing that this is an acquisition of power for Portia that normally would not be granted to her because of the assumptions society makes about her gender and personality. “Catherin Wildermuth (1982, item 209) emphasizes that Portia is in complete control in Act 5. By giving Bassanio his ring, she removes the threat of cuckoldry and returns to an ‘unthreatening femininity’ for Anne Parten (1982, item 199). Portia’s double self (the Fair Maid of Belmont/Balthasar) is kept quite separate according to most feminist readers, though for Anne Parten again she is a ‘two-sexed figure’ (1982, item 199)” (Kolin 33). He references Portia’s double self and her being two-sex, which is the center of another theory about Shakespearian transvestitism.

This influential theory has philosophical roots asserts that Shakespeare’s female characters are not simply stripping the limitations of the female gender, but the limitations of gender itself as a concept in society. Robert Kimbrough writes extensively on this theory, stating that, “It is misleading to see only literal comedy behind the girl-as-boy disguises in Shakespeare. Renaissance Humanism saw androgyny as an ‘ideal goal, a secular dream’ because it allowed the individual to express ‘the wholeness and unity’ of ‘personhood’ and thereby escape ‘gender stereotyping’” (Kimbrough 25). According to him, the disguised women are not only acquiring power that women would not normally have in society, but they are also acquiring power any cis-gendered man or woman that isn’t connected to his/her androgynous self. When the women remove their disguises in the plays, they are more complete persons because of their journey across the artificial gender gap that society has constructed. Under the safety of their disguises Rosalind and Viola are able to pursue their suitors and test them in ways impossible while dressed as themselves. They also both face the threat of women falling in love with their disguised selves. As Ganymede scolds Phebe about love, she inadvertently incites the shepherdess to fall in love with the fictional male persona. These developments reveal things about humanity only possible when the limitations of gender is lifted.

Rosalind is lauded as one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters. Hailing from “As You Like It,” the determined and witty young woman drives the plot with her decision to accept her banishment and flee into the forest of Ardenne under the false male identity of Ganymede. She is able to use this persona to bestow her wisdom on her future-lover, Orlando, and others in the forest that she deems in need of help. Clara Claiborne Park admires her freedom as Ganymede, claiming it to be the proper subversion of societal pressures on femininity. “Once Rosalind is disguised as a man, she can be as saucy and self-assertive as she likes. The characters, male and female, will accept her behavior because it does not offend their senses of propriety… Male dress transforms what otherwise could be experienced as aggression into simple high spirits” (Park 108). Rosalind doesn’t show this kind of behavior to Orlando as herself, and for a woman to openly spar with a man would be unbecoming in that age. But her principles demand that she pare this would-be suitor down to a man worthy of her attention. By taking this initiative and practicing agency, Kimbrough claims this makes Rosalind more complete: “Rosalind ‘grows into a fuller human self’ because of her disguise; her wit is ‘indivisibly both masculine and feminine.’ She is a giddy girl, a saucy lackey, and a magician, roles which allow Orlando to be more open and honest and Rosalind to challenge, through her anti-feminine barbs, ‘attributes created for women by society’” (Kimbrough 25). He touches upon the theory of androgyny as ideal personhood and uses Rosalind as the prime example of a woman transcending gender altogether. As the audience, we aren’t to be fooled too so we can tap into the ideal androgynous energy emanating from the characters.

Robert Kimbrough argues that the message of “As You Like It” is supposed to convey the universal lesson that Rosalind is freeing herself by making her gender arbitrary, a lesson we are supposed to take to heart. “The boy actor who speaks the Epilogue emphasizes our need to accept our sex -and our common humanity- ‘instead of hiding behind the disguise of gender’” (Kimbrough 27). It’s no accident that he calls gender a disguise, when the characters take on the opposite one to achieve an end outside the reach of their own. Kimbrough exposes the impotence of gender categories, his example being the women who become men to exercise power they aren’t supposed to naturally have (based on Elizabethan standards). Society has constructed gender as a disguise to assert power over a particular one, when there is no validity to the claims society makes about the weakness of women. We limit our own potential, when our spiritual energy is filtered through an identity that acknowledges only half of our true nature.

There are feminine and masculine qualities in every person, and Rosalind (along with her Shakespearian sisters) exercises her full potential by displaying masculine traits while retaining her feminine qualities and becoming stronger by glorifying both. The women expose the falsity of all gender stereotypes by falsifying their own. Rosalind symbolically spreads this enlightenment to other characters in the play: “Catherine Belsey (1985, item 275) similarly concludes that Rosalind/Ganymede is sometimes feminine/sometimes masculine, a character who asks us to ‘celebrate the plurality’ of roles. For Barbara Bono (1986, item 323), Rosalind’s disguise softens the masculine views found in Petrarchianism and allows her to be a good companion to Orlando. Because of the disguise, she is able to test his love and help him revise his wrongheaded and idealistic views of love and women” (Kolin 34). Orlando is set in his views of women, and it takes the enlightened and perfected Rosalind/Ganymede figure to educate him and bring out of him the understanding that we are also expected to garner from the experience. Shakespeare has struck upon a noble truth to pursue using the dramatic device of disguise. He wades deeper into this outlook with the next play that utilizes cross-dressing to even more complicated effect.