Mistaken Identity in Shakespeare's Comedies

The ploy of mistaken identity as a plot device in writing comedies dates back at least to the times of the Greeks and Romans in the writings of Menander and Plautus. Shakespeare borrowed the device they introduced and developed it into a fine art as a means of expressing theme as well as furthering comic relief in his works. Shakespeare's artistic development is clearly shown in the four comedies The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure where he manages to take the germinal idea of mistaken identity and expand it to peaks its originators never fathomed.

In Shakespeare's first comedy, The Comedy of Errors, mistaken identity is the sole impetus behind the action, as it had been with its original sources. The germinal idea of asking how one really knows who one is is introduced, but the conflicts that occur between appearance and reality are not totally realized. This will be accomplished by Shakespeare's maturing comic style as he begins to recognize all the varying aspects presented by the ploy of mistaken identity.

In its simplest form, mistaken identity is shown in Twelfth Night where twins are mistaken for each other enhancing the comic confusion of the plot. This basic concept is taken deeper, however, when it is recognized that one twin is actually a girl who would not normally be mistaken for her brother. This only happens because she has resorted to disguise. Viola masquerading as Cessario opens the doors for many double meanings in dialogue through a great deal of playing with words. When her twin brother Sebastian arrives, the comic elements reign as her meek nature is mistakenly though to be his and he is married to Olivia who thinks he is his disguised sister. A more subtle means of developing this direct form of mistaken identity is found in As You Like It where pastoral, romantic shepherds are mistaken for shepherds of the real world.

Disguise is one of Shakespeare's favorite ploys found in varying degrees in each of the mentioned works. Through it he alters the identity of an individual (frequently female character, though not always) and uses this disguise to heighten irony, develop theme, and enhance subtle comic innuendo. In As You Like It, Shakespeare develops specific ironies where the dialogue takes on new meaning when the true identity of the speaker (or hearer) is placed over the dialogue. By having characters in disguise, Shakespeare opens the door for all kinds of comic twists from the shepherdess in love with the "shepherd" Ganymede who is really a girl (Rosalind) to Orlando sharing feelings of love to Ganymede who is really Orlando's love Rosalind in disguise. The difficulty in maintaining a disguise or hidden identity is shown in the desire to say and experience things in the one identity than can only be accomplished by the alter identity which compounds the verbal comedy in the mistaken meanings of what is being said. In Measure for Measure, the Duke uses disguise and mistaken identity to reveal the truth about Angelo's character. At the same time this disguise provides comic moments as Lucio speaks of the Duke to the Duke while unaware of the Duke's identity.

In Twelfth Night Shakespeare shows the self-delusion found in adopting affectations rather than true expressions. This is shown by Malvolio, Orsino, and Olivia in very explicit ways. These characters adopt the masques of certain affectations because they believe these are the accepted and expected ways to act. Through these affected attitudes they lose sight of the truth hidden behind their masques. Taking this further we find that in The Merchant of Venice the central characters are guilty of mistaking their own identities, not just the identity of others, because they pretend to believe one way while acting another. As an example, they espouse mercy which they fail to exercise while all the time viewing themselves as merciful. Bassanio hides his true identity by pretending to have money he does not have. He desires to have others mistake him for what he is not. He tries to fool himself as well as others with the persona of the wealthy young man about town.

Shakespeare specifically explores the differences between outer appearance and inner reality in The Merchant of Venice. As indicated earlier, that is the primary thrust of a mistaken identity plot. Although the identity of the major characters is not "mistaken" to each other (with the exception of the deliberate use of disguise by Portia and her maid), the identities of Shylock and Antonio compare in such a way that there can be a response from the reader/viewer probing the appearance vs. reality idea. Portia's question (while she herself is wearing a disguise) as to which is the merchant and which is the Jew at the trial can take on deeper meaning when placed against the idea of mistaking the identities of the two merchants who are so alike and yet so different. The mistaken identities are established in beliefs not matching with actions. Through the use of the caskets the identity crises of the play are fully revealed to the reader/viewer. By use of the caskets Shakespeare shows the need in identification to focus on the conflicts between outer appearance and inner reality. This thematic development of mistaken identity is also developed in Measure for Measure where the Duke seeks to find the reality of character as opposed to outer illusions. Angelo attempts to maintain his disguise even after it has fallen off in front of Isabella until he is convinced the situation is hopeless. Only then will he drop the disguise to show his true nature to everyone.

These are only a few of the ways Shakespeare altered mistaken identity by expanding the concept to include disguise, self-delusion, and theme. It is impossible to fully develop all the uses and expansions this basic comic device received in Shakespeare's hands even when dealing with the limited scope of plays we are looking at in this question. It is also impossible to isolate one aspect of this development from the others because Shakespeare intertwined them in such a way that in his growth as a comic writer he took the ploy of mistaken identity and used it in its totality of meaning. Ultimately, mistaken identity is a subtle thread underlying virtually every comic action studied in these four works. Through his development of this simple comic device we clearly see one aspect of the whole that makes up Shakespeare's creative genius.

1991, 1998--Faye Kiryakakis