In both plays by Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Twelfth Night, it is often difficult for the characters as well as the reader to determine what is simply outward appearance and what constitutes reality. Shakespeare achieves this confusing effect by constructing characters that employ disguises and hide their true motivations from each other and to a lesser degree, the reader. While both plays are similar in this respect, their main difference is the nature and purpose of the deception.
In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the disguises and much of the tension between appearances and reality is the result of magical influence whereas in “Twelfth Night” it is the result of human decisions to take on a disguise or hide intent rather than something that is out of their control. Despite the confusing circumstances of each play, the most significant similarity is that the paradox of reality versus appearances is resolved in the end and allows characters a happy ending in which all of the loose ends, especially as they pertain to identity and love, are cleared up.
Unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each of the cross-dressing characters does so as the result of conscious decision (as opposed to magical influence) and in order to attain a goal. While there are certainly a number of disguises in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” there are different motivations for characters wearing them. For Viola, her reasons for dressing as a young man are clear since she wants to be able to make a living in the new land she has found herself inhabiting. Although it may be a bit farcical because she may have just as easily found employment without resorting to such extreme measures, she nonetheless is resolute in her decision to seek out Orsino. At the moment of her decision she boldly states, Viola fresh off the ship: “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / the form of my intent" (I.ii.49-51). It is important to note that she directly refers to her disguise as being related to intent and this intentional disguise is a theme that continues throughout “Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare.
Viola’s choice of dressing as a young man, however, obviously complicates her pursuit of Orsino and although this is finally resolved at the end of “Twelfth Night", her appearance actually dictates the reality of her love life. There is a sense of hopelessness in the battle between what one sees and what is truth and it is best summed at the climax of this identity conflict when Viola, realizing that Olivia loves her/him, says, “Poor lady, she were better love a dream" (II.ii.24). In some senses, this play is, much like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream", a dreamscape where nothing is what it seems to be, the only difference being the use or exclusion of magical influence. “Twelfth Night” is a play in which reality does not often correspond to appearances and thus it is easy for the reader to begin to accept character’s decisions to take on disguises and for Malvolio to become enamored with the idea (the appearance) of the love’s existence rather than its reality.
Disguise and deceit are also prevalent in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” , and although the methods and actors are different, these elements yield the same final result as seen in Twelfth Night.In each case the mix-up of appearances versus reality is resolved a there is happiness and a wedding at the end. In this case, there are no direct choices of disguises, but one is chosen (different because the characters do not choose to be disguised with a certain set of expected outcomes). Puck magically transforms the head of Bottom into the likeness of an ass, which is a disguise (and a frightening one) to everyone who meets him in his transformed state except for the one woman in love with him. While magic is involved with this disguise rather than a conscious decision on the behalf of a character, this is one of the more illustrative examples to demonstrate how Shakespeare uses the device of the disguise to reveal a higher truth (outside of the less complex and more short-term aims driving the disguise in the first place).
Although the scenes involving Bottom disguised as an ass are most revealing about the nature of deceit, disguise, and the final truth, before beginning a conversation about that, it is best to consider a few preliminary lines that constitute one of the important quotes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to gauge the message Shakespeare was attempting to convey. Helena, is commenting on the arbitrary nature of love says, “Love can transpose to form and dignity. / Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind" (I.i.232–235) This sets the stage for Titania’s bizarre and magic-induced affair with Bottom, the ass. The line essentially means that love has no knowledge and is susceptible to disguise since it does not allow for clarity of sight. No matter what shape the object of affection takes, it is still the object, thus love really is blind. The fact that Titania, although under the influence of potent magic, is blinded to the disguise while the rest of the world sees it is an enormously complex insight into the nature of love and how we fool one another in our quest for it.