William Shakespeare was a jack of all trades. He could do it all histories, tragedies, comedies, romances. While some people may say that Shakespeare s tragedies are the most popular, his comedies are as popular as the tragedies, if not more. However, comedies of Shakespeare s time are not what people of the twentieth century perceive to be comedy. Some of the elements of Shakespearean comedy are similar to today s comedy, such as physical comedy. People of Shakespeare s time found the fall Kate took from her horse in Taming of the Shrew, and surely people of our time would find that amusing as well. A large part of Shakespeare s comedy was disguises. The use of disguise was a key part of Shakespearean comedy; his plays Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night all use the element of disguise as part of their plot, some more than others. Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare s festive comedies, centers around two couples. One, Claudio and Hero, fall in love at first sight. The other, Benedick and Beatrice, have a verbal war almost every time they meet. Disguise is not an integral part of this play, but they are used during the masque that takes place. During the masque, Beatrice talks with a masked Benedick; she also talks degradingly about him. A question that always comes up in discussion of this play is whether or not Beatrice knows that she is actually speaking to Benedick, and that is why she calls him the Prince s jester, among other disparaging remarks. Whether she knows it or not, it still provides the audience with some laughs at Benedick s expense. A second play that uses disguises as part of its plot is The Merchant of Venice, a confusion comedy. This play s climax involves the use of disguises, making the scene crucial to the outcome of the play. The mentioned scene involves the fulfillment of the bond between Shylock and Antonio. The judge and his clerk who arrive to stop Shylock from killing Antonio are Portia and Nerissa in disguise, respectively. They play might have turned out the same if the two women had not disguised themselves as men, and it had actually been a real judge and his clerk. There could be many reasons why Portia and Nerissa disguised themselves as men. It is possible that they thought a male judge would not have mentioned the laws pertaining to aliens. Another possibility is that they just wanted to see their husbands and wanted to help them free Antonio from his bond. Even though this court scene was not comedic, this aspect of disguise heightens the comedy of the end of the play. It lets the play end on a happy note, with all the couples married, living happily ever after and Antonio regaining his wealth from the ships that arrived home safely.
Of all the plays viewed in class, Twelfth Night was the one that was completely centered around the use of disguise. In fact, disguise is crucial to the plot of this play. Another festive comedy, Twelfth Night deals with not only disguise, but with the aspect of twins as well. A young girl, Viola, and her identical twin brother Sebastian are separated when their ship is destroyed during a storm. Viola disguises herself as a eunuch so she can join Duke Orsino s court. Orsino sends Cesario, who is Viola in disguise, to court the Lady Olivia. However, Olivia falls in love with Cesario, and the chaos and confusion ensue. Another place in this play where disguise is used is when Feste goes to visit Malvolio in the prison. Feste dons the disguise of Sir Topas the curate, in order to further confuse Malvolio. In a way, Malvolio even puts on a disguise himself when he goes to Olivia, smiling, wearing yellow stockings, and cross-gartered. Disguise is crucial to this play, and if disguises had not been used in this play, it simply would not have been the same. There are many things that are common aspects of Shakespearean comedy, such as physical comedy, women of wit and intelligence, and happy endings. Disguise is one of the most important of these aspects. This aspect of Shakespeare s comedies is used in Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, and Twelfth Night, as well as in other comedies as well. Out of the three comedies seen in class, each uses disguise in a different way, with Twelfth Night using this aspect of Shakespearean comedy to the maximum. Whether the comedy is a festive one, a comedy of confusion, or a black comedy, Shakespeare uses some of the same techniques throughout all of them, and they continue to delight audiences around the world time and time again.