The Truth About Disguise


The Truth About Disguise Essay, Research Paper

The Truth About Disguise

Shakespeare cleverly uses the art of disguise, in both his tragedies and his comedies, in order to employ a literary device known as dramatic irony, where the

audience members are aware of something (in this case the true identity of characters) that characters in the play are not. This, of course, creates tension in a play

and excites the audience; actions take place on the stage, of which the audience knows the import, but characters on the stage do not. It also creates a setting for a

great deal of irony where characters make comments that take on a double meaning.

Two examples of characters who utilize such disguise are Iago, from Othello, and Viola, from Twelfth Night. The purposes for which Iago chooses to disguise his

motives are to gain an office which he feels he deserves and to get revenge on Othello for allegedly committing adultery with his wife.

Most of the irony in Othello stems not from what Iago says, but rather from what the other characters say about him, such as the references to him as “honest Iago,”

“the bold Iago,” and “a very valiant fellow.” Iago’s disguise makes the audience fearful for the other characters, and causes them to pity those who suffer his wrath.

He destroys Othello’s friendship with Cassio, Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, and influences him to kill Desdemona by convincing him that his wife had been

unfaithful to him with Cassio. He himself, in attempts to protect his disguise, stabs Cassio, Roderigo, and his wife.

The reasons Viola chooses to disguise herself, however, are to protect herself from danger, and to win the love of the Duke. In a few days’ time while masked in this

disguise, through her wit, charm, loyalty and musical ability she wins the trust of the Duke, who employs her to woo Olivia. In her loyalty to the Duke, though she is

deeply in love with him, she makes an honest attempt to win Olivia’s love.

Viola’s speech throughout the scenes where she attempts to woo Olivia for the Duke provide a great deal of irony such as when she tells Olivia, “I swear I am not

that I play (I, v, 180).” The entire dialogue between Viola and the Duke about the love of a man versus that of a woman is also quite humorous, especially when she,

through cryptic language, tells him she’s in love with him, saying, “My father had a daughter loved a man as it might perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship

(II, iv, 107-109).” Later, her punning almost commands sympathy when while jesting with Viola, Feste makes a quip about her lack of a beard, and she responds,

“By my troth, I’ll tell thee, I’m almost sick for one [aside] though I would not have it grow on my chin (III, i, 46-48).” It is, of course, also quite humorous when Viola

unwittingly earns Olivia’s affection–for herself, and denies her, saying, “By innocence I swear, and by my youth, I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, and that

no woman has, nor never none shall mistress of it be save I alone (III, i, 157-160).”

Viola’s disguise affects several characters in different ways. With this disguise, she is able to penetrate the Duke’s love for Olivia, becoming his confidante and

earning his love, to later become his wife. Viola also manages through a strange turn of events to woo Olivia for Sebastian.

Though the characters in Shakespeare’s plays use disguises for different purposes, disguise always imparts a theme of “appearance versus reality.” When things are

not as they seem to be, the party unaware of the disguise is put in the quest of reality–whether they know it or not. When the audience is unaware of a disguise, they

are presented with a mystery which they must attempt to solve; when the characters of a play are unaware of a disguise, their quest for the truth becomes a lesson in

truth-seeking for the audience. In both of these plays, the failure of characters to realize the truth are lessons to the audience. In Othello, Othello’s belief in Iago’s

story of the corruption of his honest wife and Roderigo’s belief in this same self-serving officer are both lessons in trust. In Twelfth Night, Olivia’s readiness to fall in

love with appearances is a lesson about love. Sometimes it seems disguise tells more than candor.

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