This essay attempt to consider the ways two of Shakespeare’s comedies, “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, employ the use of disguises for the initial purpose of deceit. While the trickery involved with identity bending in both cases is used for temporary gain, in the end of each of these comedies, the final outcome of such deceit leads to revelations of a higher truth. Thus, while there is obvious deceit, the result leads to the exact opposite. The characters most intimately involved with these instances of deceit generally learn something about themselves by the end of each comedy and perhaps more importantly, the reader can interpret these two comedies as Shakespeare’s comment on the mutability of personality and character—especially as it involves gender and love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Arguably, Rosalind is one of the most powerful of all the women characters encountered in any of the Shakespearian comedies. In terms of her personality and wit, she seems to be unmatched. One of the reasons she is able to express herself so fully is that she remains disguised as a male for a long portion of “As You Like It“. This allows her to experience her emotions and thoughts outside of the more constrained world of the female and even she remarks in one of the important quotes from “As You Like It”, “Now go we in content, / To liberty, and not to banishment" (I.iii.131–132). The use of the term “banishment" here implying that her view of femininity is that of having been expelled from everyday life, exiled somehow from the world by nature of her gender. This realization, as she clearly expresses, allows her to offer her advice and instruction to the males without fear of ridicule or persecution and by the end, when she delivers the epilogue, the reader feels as though she has gained her confidence by living as Ganymede. Her epilogue is delivered with confidence and the reader should keep in mind that during Shakespeare’s time, the only actors (thus epilogue-reciters) were men. Therefore, the gender-bending result of the disguises in this play are two fold since in actuality, the actor playing Rosalind would be a man dressed up as a woman, but then dressed up as a man with womanly characteristics. The result is certainly confusing, but it sheds light on the argument that Shakespeare is using gendered disguises to present higher truths—in this case, the malleability of gender through the use of role-playing and disguise.
In the case of Rosalind’s disguise as a male, she at once engages in deceit for the purposes of short-term gain, but in the end, this becomes a long-term benefit for her as a character. In her male role she is able to criticize poetry and engage in long debates about the meaning of life with other men—a role that she would have been “banished" from had she appeared without the disguise. By the end of the play, Shakespeare has craftily made the reader forget about the deceit that began Rosalind’s transformation from mere female to the main character and we are pushed to focus more fully on her accomplishments as playing the role of both genders. When Jacques states the famous lines in “As You Like It”, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players" (II.vii.138–139) this is more keenly perceived when thought about in terms of Rosalind. She is able to play both roles, to match both of her disguises; the male and of course the female disguise. If Jaques is correct, that would mean that even the conventions of gender of merely roles that are being played out. Thus, in many respects, the subversion of these roles through disguise becomes more honest than deceitful.
Furthering the idea of deceit and disguise leading to ultimate truth and realization, looking at the way gender and disguise are related in “As You Like It” through the disguise choices made by both main female characters is revealing. One gets the sense that Rosalind is by far the more “masculine" character when contrasted to her cousin, Celia. Rosalind, who has more manly tendencies, chooses to dress as the male shepherd while Celia, the less dominant female takes on a disguised, yet still female form, which highlights Jaques’ view of the roles people play. While Rosalind seemed able to break free from the constraints of her gender, her cousin, even though disguised, could not enter onto “the world’s stage". Ultimately, these decisions about gender and disguise could lead to a lot of debate about sexuality (or the subversions and perversions of it) but for the sake of the argument about the role of disguise, deceit, and truth, it will suffice to say that the very choices made by these characters of their deceitful disguise demonstrates a higher truth—that gender roles are able to be manipulated and understanding gained through their use.
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 As You Like It. In this case, there are no direct choices of disguises, but one is chosen. 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 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 in one of the important quotes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “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.
Even Bottom seems to have an ultimate understanding of the higher truths of love and human emotion after coming out of disguise. Although he doesn’t remember a thing, the disguise itself has allowed him to experience new feelings and express them in his bumbling way as, “Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream" (IV.i.201). He realizes fully how easily we fool ourselves by our own disguises and those of others and seems to uncharacteristically lament this, as though his “dream" could never be more, perhaps due to the fact that he realizes that his disguise is now gone and he is left to less grandiose visions of love.
Despite his feeling that this love what just a dream, Bottom took the cues from his new lover’s attentions on him, which became more of a disguise than the ass’ head that had been magically placed upon his shoulders. Even his language changes as he shifts into the role (much as Rosalind easily shifted into her role as a man). The usually uneducated speech of Bottom shifts into, “But pray you, don’t let any of your people stir me: I have an exposition of sleep come upon me" (IV.i.122). He misuses the meaning of words as usual, but the point is that he has grown more self-satisfied and comfortable in the disguise placed upon him physically (but unknowingly) as well as by the cues of others. Just as Rosalind could easily “find herself" within another self, Bottom too is able to develop more fully when taken out of the context that he is generally viewed in by the status of his class.
On first glance it would seem that the role of deceit and disguise wouldn’t be related within these two texts, but in fact, it is clear that both employ the use of disguise to first deceive, but as an unforeseen result the higher truths behind the inner workings of human beings are revealed. The main difference in terms of these disguises is clearly the matter of choice in the disguise (since Bottom was transformed without concentor even knowledge). In As You Like It, the universal theme of gender portrayal and perception were explored through the use of disguise—the disguise being the main driver in the ultimate realizations. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite the difference of the magic-induced disguise and the toppling of realityand of the arbitrary nature of love was exposed. Shakespeare is always artful in comedies to balance the heavy messages with the light, thus making both of these plays, when taken at more than face value, among some of his most resonant works.