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Impersonation, substitution and disguise | Shakespeare and comedy | Birmingham City Council

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Impersonation, substitution and disguise

Shakespeare is a master of character reinvention and uses various comic devices to move the plot and create comic situations. Impersonation, substitution of one character with another, disguise and cross-dressing are just a few to mention. Disguise is one of the most frequently used tools and allows character and plot to develop with bigger freedom, to hear and learn things they are usually not able to do, to invent new identities, create mood, adventure and laughter. Rosalind (As You Like It), disguised as a boy with her friend Celia is able to find out Orlando’s true feelings for her without revealing herself. The plot gets very complicated as she is not only dressed as a boy, but a boy pretending to be a girl:

He was to imagine me his love, his mistress;
And I set him every day to woo me.

It was a usual practice in Shakespeare’s times that women were played on stage by young boys, but in As You Like It this is taken to an extreme – a girl dressed as a boy pretends to be a girl. Similarly Viola (Twelfth Night) is dressed as a page boy. This creates a different set of problem as Olivia falls in love with her. Disguise is the device that allows Shakespeare to complicate and multilayer his comedies, making them deeper and more interesting before delivering the surprising solutions of the endings.

Using the full spectrum of comic dramatic devices allows Shakespeare to create many memorable scenes of confusion, discovery, laughter, social satire, merriment, festivity, hilarity, but above all entertainment. The comic effect if often achieved by different levels of knowledge of the characters about what is happening. But the advantage is always on the audience’s side who know more than any of the characters. At the end of each play and after all the complications, Shakespeare’s writing talent manages to deliver satisfactory closures and well rounded solutions to the difficulties, provoking thoughtfulness in the process and unquestionable enjoyment all the way.