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.