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.


Betrayal in Dante’s Inferno

Just as a disclosure: I am not personally a follower of the religion espoused in Dante’s Divine Comedy; I am simply a lover of literature and am doing my best to gleam the author’s message, so please excuse any simulated religious fervor on my part.

The hierarchical structure of Hell in Dante’s Inferno is built on a system of increased separation from God based on worsening betrayal. The damned souls suffer eternal torment because they separated themselves from God through failed human reason and a lack of divine love.  Satan sits in the center as the greatest traitor in Biblical history; the ascending circles of Hell represent the varying levels of sin and their due punishments. Many theologians define sin as the deliberate act of defying God’s law and therefore turning one’s back on Him. Using this definition, Hell is structured to mirror the various levels of defiance that keep a sinner further from God based on the severity of the transgression. The crimes themselves stem from erring reason and abandoned love, which fertilize the roots of sin. Dante is able to traverse this infernal plain because he is guided by the light of Reason and is driven by the hope of Divine Love.

Beginning at the edge of Hell, Dante pilgrim starts The Divine Comedy not yet worthy of God’s rewards. Beasts block his path up a mountain, so Dante invokes the help of the Roman poet Virgil to lead him to St. Peter’s Gate. But like anyone about to dive into the inferno, Dante feels fear and self-doubt and questions whether he is the proper fit for such an odyssey:

But I, why should I go there? By whose permission?

I am not Aeneas, neither am I Paul;

Neither I nor others think that I deserve it.

Therefore, if I resign myself to going,

I fear my journey may be a foolish one;

You are wise, and understand more than I say.’

And just like somebody who shilly-shallies,

And thinks again about what he has decided,

So that he gives up everything he has started, (Inferno Canto I, lines 31-39)

After jumping into the decision to go to Hell in order to go to Heaven, Dante’s reason betrays him, and he doubts his own ability. Virgil represents Human Reason, the gift that God gives us to guide us through live and avoid sin. But as Dante shows, reason isn’t enough to take us on the full path to God, so Virgil calls down the angelic figure of Beatrice who represents Divine Love. She believes in Dante and commands him to join her in Paradise; this gives Dante the courage to continue his journey and he obeys her desire. With Virgil as his guide and Beatrice as his patron, the pilgrim is ready to trek down into Hell and then rise into Purgatory and then Paradise. His arsenal includes Reason as a guide and Love as his drive; these are essential qualities to travel towards God because they require devotion. If Dante were to break his devotion to God by failing to express his Love or sullying his Reason, it would be turning his back on God, which is how the sinners got sent to Hell in the first place.


Outside Limbo, the Gates of Hell contain the Opportunists, who never took sides and therefore are punished for being indecisive and are pursued by the angry wasps of their consciences. For insulting God they invite the torture of eternity without Him, but don’t reside in Hell or Purgatory as a result of their indecision. Their betrayal is of apathy and inaction, rather than malice, so their proximity from God is in an undefined place that still causes unending pain. They lack the Love and elected to forego Reason and therefore deserve the punishment bestowed. From the Gates, the circles within Hell contain sinners of worse crimes that warrant a place in the Inferno where Lucifer himself resides for his own insolence. But like the Opportunists, the crimes determine how far from God and thus how close to Satan the sinners are.

In Limbo, the first circle holds the virtuous pagans and unbaptized children. The souls here, although good in life, never knew the word of God when they died and so must live suspended limbo. Virgil numbers among them, saying “For these deficiencies, and no other fault, We are lost; there is no other penalty Than to live here without hope, but with desire” (Canto IV, lines 40-42). Dante encounters famous poets and intellectual of ancient non-Christian cultures and walks with them, speaking of philosophical things:

So we went on in the direction of the light,

Talking of things of which it is well to say nothing,

Although it was well to talk of them at the time.

We came then to the foot of a great castle,

Encircled seven times by lofty walls,

And around which there flowed a pleasant stream; (Canto IV, lines 103-108)

They walk toward a castle illuminated by a light that signifies Human Reason, which protects the castle they approach. Dante describes the topics they discuss as unnecessary in general but nice to talk about in the moment; the philosophy and art of Greek poets mean little in the grand scheme of God’s creation especially when they don’t promote faith in the true God that Dante is travelling toward. While he downplays the importance of their talks, the Christian poet still expresses his respect for the ancient masters by giving limited Human Reason an executive power in Limbo. Within the seven-walled citadel of virtuous pagans, he sees the likes of Aeneas, Plato, and Hippocrates among many others whom deserve to be venerated for their place in human history. Dante gives them credit by granting them shelter in Limbo in form of the castle illuminated by Human Reason. These people are as close to God as possible without the Love for Him that drives Dante through Hell; Reason moves and protects Dante, and Love sanctions his success in the end. That Love is missing from the afterlives of the pagans in the citadel, so all they have is the power of Human Reason to keep them safe in Limbo to discuss empty philosophies for all eternity. That is all the solace they can find without God.

Virtuous Pagans

Virtuous Pagans

Lust reveals the punishments for the carnal criminals who gave in to the sins of the flesh and suffer physical torments for the physical pleasures they indulged in life. Being the first real section of Hell containing the damnation that Hell is so well known for, it’s a surprisingly lenient placement for such a circle, but certain reasons can be attributed to this artistic choice. For one, the real poet Dante committed adultery in his own life, and this could have skewed his focus on the punishment for the crime. They were driven to sin by false love and forwent reason in favor of passion. Dante could be alleviating the guilt he felt for his own crime, as the retribution itself is simply a high wind whipping the adulterers and lusty about because passion had dragged them in life, “And just as doves called home to their desire, With wings stretched and steady wings, back to the nest, Come through the air because instinct carries them;” (Canto V, lines 82-84). Dante even pities Dido when he hears her sorrow, and the poet could be injected his own self-pity and fear at being punished in this fashion. Another reason for Lust’s placement in Hell relates to its proximity to Gluttony and where it stands in the hierarchy of sin.

Things begin to get worse in Gluttony and Greed, as flesh is truly exploited as a punishment for the indulgers. We begin to notice more and more of the structure of Upper Hell, which is based on sins of a physical nature. Ending with Wrath and the City of Dis, Upper Hell features the sinners who betrayed God in an ignorant manner. Sex, food, money, and rage all serve as distractions from the true path to God, and the damned souls in the first five circles fell to those temptations. They loved themselves more than God and indulged in earthly pleasures selfishly despite reason. They arrogantly defied God’s meaning in their lives and so are punished:

So I said to him: ‘Master, will these torments

Grow greater still after the great sentece,

Will they be less, or burn as they burn now?’

His answer to me was: ‘Go back to your science,

Which teaches that the more perfect a thing is,

The more it feels pleasure, and pain as well.

Although these people, because they are accursed,

Will never reach the point of true perfection,

They expect to approach it more nearly afterwards.’ (Canto VI, lines 103-111)

As it says over the doorway, hope has been abandoned in Hell, so the souls who will suffer eternal damnation do not see an end to their torment. They sit far from God’s light, having pulled their bodies away from Him, which in turn pulls their souls away and into Hell. Even if they didn’t spitefully defy the word of God in their actions, the inhabitants of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Wrath were driven away from Him and toward themselves. This breaks the love and sullies reason in their lives.


In Heresy and Suicide we see willing betrayals; bodies and faith are forsaken for false beliefs. The sins here are more deliberate, so their separation from God is more severe. The cultists and heretics burn forever, and the suicides become trees that grow painfully to feel the pain that they avoided in their cowardice. These crimes defy God more directly than the wrathful and gluttonous and so get positioned further from His grace in Lower Hell. “That is the lowest place, it is the darkest, And the furthest from that heaven on which all turns” (Canto IX, lines 28-29). The two poets are descending further from God with each circle, and at the edge of Lower Hell, Dante pilgrim begins to feel the chill that such separation causes. The true darkness of Hell is apparent, and the deepest parts of the pit become icy; we see the effects of the ultimate removal of Love and Reason. God’s gift of Reason illuminates our world. For Dante it serves as guide through Hell as it should guide us through life, revealing our path to God with intelligent and rational decisions. Without that gift, the world is a dark and ignorant place. Hell. It’s also freezing without His light and Love that gives us purpose on Earth. The rest of Lower Hell holds various degrees of Treachery; fraudulence against friends, family, and faith, the sinners in the coldest and darkest parts of Hell suffer the loneliness of turning their backs on everything they loved and subsequently God in the process. Not only did they turn their backs on Love, they tarnished the love that they had for others. They committed crimes against those they truly felt affection for, and so offended God more strongly than the simply adulterers and hoarders. Even if they rationalized their actions with human reason, they made a choice that perverted the love in their heart and so they poisoned their relationship to God.


Now we come upon the symbol of the deepest treachery in the Universe: Lucifer himself sits in the center of the bottom, trapped in ice that he himself keeps frozen by beating his titanic wings. He is the furthest away from God that is possible in the Universe and is the paradigm of distorted beauty: “If he was beautiful as he now is ugly, And yet dared to rebel against his maker, Well may he be the source of all mourning” (Canto XXXIV, lines 34-36). Satan has betrayed God in the worst way and so suffers his own eternal punishment in Hell along with all of sinful humanity. God has so much love for his creation, and Satan dedicated his own existence to destroying and corrupting it, using evil reason and false love to tempt and coax mankind into Hell with him. The greatest traitors in human history are being chewed in Satan’s three mouths, the only punishment suiting their crimes:

That soul there, which has the worst punishment,

Is Judas Iscariot,’ my master said,

‘With his head inside, and kicking his legs.’

Of the two other, who hang from the black face is Brutus;

See how he twists and says not a word;

And the other is Cassius, whose body looks so heavy. (Canto XXXIV, lines 61-67)

Suffering the devil’s teeth for all eternity are the men who betrayed Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar, the figures of royal and religious authority who were killed, not by enemies, but by close friends. They serve as human parallels to Satan’s betrayal of God. A beloved friend defies the power of his master, and he is punished for the ultimate perpetration of love and reason. Satan and the three men all represent the deepest wounds in love, and so their placement furthest from God, who represents unending love for the world, is apt.


Dante makes it to the end of Hell and into Purgatory because Virgil was there the whole time to give him advice and warnings. God grants Human Reason so that we can find our ways through temptations easily. Our desire to do so comes from Divine Love, just as Beatrice represents Dante’s desire to reach Paradise to show her his devotion to God. Devotion becomes a central idea in the formation of Hell because the lack of dedication on the path to God causes the failings that place so many sinners in each circle. The descent is structured on the varying sins that drive the souls further from God into despair. We have control over the two forces that keep us tethered to God, and a failure to temper them is a failure to reach God. Dante shows how to properly traverse the lake of fire using his reason and love, and the sinners he passes show us how to pave our own way to Hell using faulty reason and insufficient love.

The pictures of course come from the amazing Gustave Doré. Make sure to look him up. Thank you.