William Shakespeare
The Role of Masquerade in Shakespeare's Plays

By Ian Mugford

So complex are the plays written by William Shakespeare that studying them is an on-going academic and leisure endeavor for many, which is also what makes them so intriguing and popular even today. Scholars have been analyzing and musing on their wonders and meanings for centuries. They have speculated play by play, speech by speech, line by line in conjunction with the times in which the plays were written. I am attempting to do the same. Drawing attention to the frequently used device of masquerade in several of Shakespeare’s plays, it must be noted that this stratagem is used not only frequently, but effectively in many of his plays, and in both tragedy and comedy alike. The recurring use of the masquerade is used in several different ways. One way Shakespeare uses masquerade is to disguise gender and social roles in his Twelfth Night, where the main character, Viola, is used as a symbol of ambiguity in order to question the conventions of gender in relation to human affection.  

In The Tragedy of King Lear, masquerade is used not to disguise or address gender, but to address the state of human existence at its most bare and basic level. The Tragedy of King Lear explores the nature of man as an animal. At man’s most basic state, he is nothing; he must masque himself to be protected and to achieve status. The play also addresses deceit by disguise, as Edgar and Kent both use masquerade to fool their father. Another interesting use of the masquerade device occurs in The Taming of the Shrew, where the masquerades occurring in the Inductions with Sly address societal and class issues and the ability or possibility for one to overcome Elizabethan societal and class restraints.

Through these plays, among many others, Shakespeare addresses human nature and affections as well as societal boundaries. By examining the relationships of the characters to each other and the use of the masquerade device in these plays, such questions can be addressed as: Do gender and society always dictate the way in which we think, act, talk, dress, and behave? Is there any way to cross the gender line? Do the clothes make the “man”?

This paper analyzes the issues of relationships, including male/male relationships, male/female relationships, female/female relationships, and the relationship between society and the individual. The relationships between Cesario and Orsino, Viola and Orsino, Viola and Olivia, and Sly/Lear and nature are examined. Included are issues of homoeroticism (as with Cesario and Orsino and Viola and Olivia), heterosexuality (as with Viola and Orsino), ambiguity (the character of Viola/Cesario), and societal roles both public (as with Sly and Lear) and domestic (using the character of Viola/Cesario). Also included are historical elements of Elizabethan England during Shakespeare’s era. This information is useful to help draw conclusions on the various aspects mentioned concerning the use of masquerade in the plays of William Shakespeare.

This paper attempts to show that William Shakespeare included the masquerade both as a common symbol of his time and as a device against convention. Shakespeare uses the masquerade theme for entertainment, and also as a device to deliver a timeless message to the audience about gender and class roles and expectations in society; Shakespeare’s masquerade device “unsettles fixed categories of gender and social class and allows characters to explore emotional territory” (Greenblatt 1762) which otherwise they would not be able to do in their given environments.

The era in which Shakespeare wrote was full of expectations on propriety in society, especially Elizabethan English society. Certain dress codes were enforced for the lower class (commoners), as well as for the upper class (nobility), and these rules were expected to be followed. These were known as the Sumptuary Laws. While sumptuary laws had been established well before Shakespeare’s time, the Elizabethan laws varied slightly from previously established sumptuary laws. As defined under Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the Sumptuary Laws consisted of actual written laws that enforced a class-based dress code. “The English Sumptuary Laws were excellent tools for maintaining control over the populace” (“Elizabethan”). Specified colors and fabrics were not to be worn by the lower classes; they were reserved only for the upper class. For example, purple was reserved for the royal family only, and scarlet for the royal family and the highest nobility in the land. The main motivation behind the Sumptuary Laws was to preserve class distinctions. The most common punishment for disobeying the Sumptuary Laws was the confiscation of the garment and a fine of several shillings to ten pounds per offense.

Although the laws were strict, there were “exclusions”:

Royal servants could wear specific colors and styles normally prohibited. Contenders and heralds at jousts and tournaments were able to continue relevant armor and colors. And [sic] anyone with a license from the Queen was also exempt - the Elizabethan Acting Troupes and Actors. (“Elizabethan”).

When the masquerades were enacted on the stage, the audience would have recognized the meanings behind certain styles of costume worn. Social status, gender, and whether the characters were noble or peasants would be known by the dress and easily recognized by the audience. The Elizabethan audience took their cues from the various emblems which identified the actor as a Moorish general, a Roman leader, or the King of France. These emblems included different colors considered appropriate for the characters: foresters wore green, shepherds white, friars brown, and kings purple. Dress codes were enforced to draw a line between the classes in order to distinguish each from the other in Elizabethan society, and Shakespeare’s plays reflect this, both in humor, mocking the frivolity of such laws, and in seriousness, showing how dress reflects and can affect many aspects of life.

The term “masquerade” refers to:

1.a party, dance, or other festive gathering of persons wearing masks and other disguises, and often elegant, historical, or fantastic costumes.

2.a costume or disguise worn at such a gathering

3. false outward show: façade, pretense:…

4. activity, existence, etc., under false pretenses:…

5. to go about under false pretenses or a false character; assume the character of; give oneself out to be:…

6. to disguise oneself

7. to take part in a masquerade. (“Masquerade”).

Shakespeare uses masquerade as an event, as in definition one, a costume as in definition two, and as a mechanism for deceit and entertainment as in definitions three, four, and five. He also uses it to portray the evident class conflict present in Elizabethan England’s society. It was well noted and established that, through both the Sumptuary Laws and common practice that there was to be a clear distinction between commoners and upper class. No middle class existed and the upper class controlled everything, including the playhouses for which Shakespeare wrote and performed.

In almost all of Shakespeare’s plays, he incorporated the masquerade or some form of disguise. Another historical element worth looking at that Shakespeare may have been addressing with this motif is the fact that all actors were male. Females were prohibited from acting on stage, so in essence, any female character was already in a male in masquerade.

In other plays not developed in detail in this paper, but well worth mentioning here, such as Romeo and Juliet, the masquerade is a central event in the play where much of the action takes place. The Merry Wives of Windsor also has a theme of masquerade in order to deceive to obtain information, “I will look further into’t: and I have a disguise/ to sound Falstaff’ (ln. 57). Again in Much Ado About Nothing, disguise is used for deception in order to gather some sort of feeling or to obtain some information. In this instance, Don Pedro is trying to woo Hero for Claudio to see if she is receptive: “I will assume thy part in some disguise/ And tell fair Hero that I am Claudio/ And in her bosom, I’ll unlasp my heart” ( ln. 287-88).

One of the best known events for social masquerading was the Twelfth Night celebration, to end the Christmas season. On this day in Elizabethan England, common boys were crowned as bishops and carried through the streets, people gorged on food, drink and laughter. This celebration was a mixing of Christian and pagan rituals. The Puritans objected to the festivities, because they crossed social and religious lines, mixing and confusing two separate beliefs and ways of life (Greenblatt 1762).

This celebration of the Epiphany and pagan winter rituals is inevitably where Shakespeare derived his idea for his play entitled Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Just as the Twelfth Night celebration mixed society in an array of finery, Shakespeare also mixes his Illyrian society, but with a more noticeable gender mixing and cross-dressing element. Viola and Malvolio are the two characters most exploited in this play. They both cross dress and are both used as symbols for societal issues. Viola represents human nature and affection, while Malvolio represents Puritan thoughts and is a symbol of the fun and masquerade of the Twelfth Night celebration.

Olivia’s love for Cesario (the disguised Viola) displays a female / female affection, where Olivia falls in love with Viola’s loving thoughts of Orsino. Olivia believes these words to be from Cesario’s heart, and actually falls in love with the emotions that Viola feels for Orsino. As Viola steps out of her traditionally assigned gendered relationship with both Orsino and Olivia, they are better able to enjoy her for her character and her nature, not for her sex. Viola, serving as a symbol of ambiguity in they play (she neither exhibits masculine or feminine attitudes toward Olivia or Orsino), leads to the conclusion that it is the person him/herself, not the sex of the human that attracts other people.

Orsino concludes at the end of the play, “Cesario, come-/ For so you shall be while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (V.i. 373-5). Greenblatt states that:

Even at the close, when identities have been sorted out and the couples happily matched, Orsino cannot being himself to call his bride-to-be by her rightful name or to address her as a woman…It would have been simple for Shakespeare to devise a concluding scene in which Viola appears in women’s “habits”, but he goes out of his way to leave her in her men’s clothes and hence to disrupt with a delicate comic touch the return to the “normal”. (1761-2).

Addressing the human condition, Orsino seems to believe that if one looks beyond gender roles or outward appearances, true human nature will allow love and friendship to happen. He implies by this that love has no gender or rules, but it has its limitations. As a male, Viola could not openly be in love with Orsino because of societal expectations and guidelines on relationships and marriage; however, this does not stop their affection from taking flight. However, as a female, Viola is free to be Orsino’s “queen” because it is socially acceptable in the tight Elizabethan society. Likewise, being female, Viola could not have legally married Olivia, but yet Olivia did fall in love with her person, disregarding social limitations.

Malvolio seems to be used as representative of some Puritan thoughts. He is not entertained by any of the goings on around him and has a knack for making enemies, but when faced with the possibility of changing his social status to vie revenge on Sir Toby, he conforms to the festive ideas contained in the love letter which was written by Maria. Malvolio has no idea why Olivia would want him to dress in yellow stockings and cross garter, but in order to change his social status, he is willing to do almost anything. Greenblatt states that society “can find no place for Malvolio’s blend of Puritanism and social climbing” even while at the same time it encourages “these failings in a tolerant, bemused, aristocratic recognition of human folly” (1762). If used as entertainment, masquerade or cross dressing is acceptable. As a lifestyle, it would be punishable by law.

Using the masquerade as a tool to display human emotions in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Shakespeare speaks to the reader about how human emotion works. In The Tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare addresses how humans are different from lower animals with the use of Lear’s character. While the clothes are put on Viola to make her the “man” and Malvolio the fool, the clothes are shed in King Lear to show the most basic nature of man along with his vulnerabilities and his vanities.

Lear claims, “Man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal” (III.iv.94-95). As a naked human, he “owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, that cat no perfume” (III.iv. 93-94). Humans, Lear realizes, are no more than naked beasts, much more vulnerable than the lower animals. If we did not use the worm’s silk or the beast’s hide of the sheep’s wool, we would not be able to endure the elements of weather. We are such animals that are unequipped to handle the earth without the assistance of the other animals. The clothes make the man. They make him strong and vain and without them, he is nothing. With them, he is altogether something else, and as his son’s portray, sometimes the difference is not between man and animal but between the outer man and the inner man.

The torture that Lear, Edgar, and Gloucester endure in King Lear is in marked contrast to the humor and good nature of Twelfth Night, but in both plays, the device of masquerade is used effectively to portray human conditions. In King Lear, it is the disguising state of human jealousy and hatred, revealing the lowest human emotions and the base of what humans really are, lower animals unprotected from the Earth. It also represents the man’s ability to deceive in order to achieve a desired effect. In Twelfth Night, it is the human state of love and affection that Shakespeare reveals proving it ambiguous to sex, but only able to flourish when gender and societal issues are followed. Although Viola was able to attract suitors of both sexes, it would be impossible for her to be legally married to Olivia, and reproduction, of course, could never have occurred. Orsino also would not have married his man servant, but was more than willing to follow his affections when he found out that Cesario was really Viola.

A play that contains both of these elements of human nature is The Taming of the Shrew. Here Shakespeare both boldly and subtly introduces masquerade to show the human condition. “The multiple instances of disguise and transformation in the three plots invite reflection on the sources of and possibilities for change both in people’s behavior and in their social roles” (Howard, 134). The first plot, in the Inductions, displays the impossibility for a beggar and tinker, Christopher Sly, to rise in society to the status of a lord. Shakespeare uses language to show that the transformed beggar cannot possibly conform to live as nobility. Sly, not being raised with an education is not able to use proper language in the situations in which he is placed by the lord and his men. He believes that a boy dressed as a woman is his wife, and he foolishly tells the boy, “Madam, undress you and come now to bed” (Induction 2, 113).

The trick played on Christopher Sly in the Induction is a social statement on the differences in the upper and lower classes. The Lord and his men have fun mocking Sly for his ignorance and for believing that he is actually a Lord; they know that he will wake from his dream and his reality will not be anything like the life of a Lord. Sly believes, “Am I a lord, and have I such a lady? / Or do I dream?” (Induction 2, 66-67). “Upon my life, I am a lord indeed, / And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly” (Induction 2, 70-71).

This trick parallels the trick played on Malvolio in Twelfth Night, only Malvolio is closer in status to his pranksters than Christopher Sly is to his. Malvolio is tricked into cross-dressing for status, and his Puritan beliefs are exploited and made fun of by the pagan-like fun of Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew. Sly is innocently taken and used to display that “lords and gentlemen can play with their social roles with more success and less risk than can tinkers” (Howard, 134). Whereas the upper class, like Lucentio, can easily pass themselves off for less educated and wealthy that they really are, it is much harder for a peasant to pretend to be nobility.

Viola would not have been seen as a “man” without her disguise, but her character’s nature is ambiguous (non-gendered). Clothing is an important part of the masquerade; it symbolizes both for masquerading purposes and for societal issues that what the person wears definitely distinguishes who that person is to most of society. Although Viola is actually a woman and has feminine features, when dressed like a man, she was accepted as a man. The story addresses relationships that are normal, in the most basic sense. C. L. Barber writes in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, “Just as a saturnalian reversal of social roles need not threaten the social structure, but can serve instead to consolidate it, so a temporary, playful reversals of sexual roles can renew the meaning of the normal relation” (qtd. in Bloom, 110). He goes on to assert that, “One can add that with sexual as with other relations, it is when the normal is secure that playful aberration is benign” (110).

“In The Taming of the Shrew’s Inductions, when Bartholomew dresses as Sly’s wife, Sly accepts that this boy is his pretty wife. The only problematic view that is presented in masquerade is the transformation from lower class to nobility. Shakespeare seems to imply that this is impossible and if tried, will not succeed because of the huge gap in society.

Such rules like the Sumptuary Laws and such customs as dress reflected a person’s gender and place in Elizabethan society. While it is easy for one to cross dress and cross the gender line, it is much harder to cross the social line, especially for lower class. The upper class had the education and the freedom to don lower garbs, but this was not common practice unless to deceive, like Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew. The upper class would enjoy such a holiday as Twelfth Night, where they would be able to pretend to be peons in society, but they knew that the next day, they could live in all of their magnificence. Social roles were not usually reversed, and seldom would someone of upper class status marry someone of lower class status, like Olivia and Malvolio because of such motives as Malvolio’s, to increase his social standing in order to gain for himself. Rare would the occasion be when a King would shed his clothing and get close to nature while examining the true state of the human condition, but Lear does it well enough for all kings.

Shakespeare uses wonderful characters to speak to the audience, Lear as a King, Viola as a symbol of ambiguity, Malvolio as a Puritan, and Sly as a symbol of the common man to address gender and societal issues. I conclude from what he has presented in his plays and the ways in which he has gone about them that yes, one can cross the gender line or be non-gendered. But change in social status seems available only through pretending. When people are disguised, however, they are less prone to the prejudices already held against them for being who they are to begin with. Women can be men, poor can be rich, and vice versa. But the masks must come off, of like in Twelfth Night, society will turn upside-down and situations will arise that are unable to be solved. Masquerade seems to be an enjoyable entertainment, but it is just that. It doesn’t really change the way things are. It does not change the normal or the safe. It does, however, allow for a safe place for entertainment, exploration, and folly.

The theme of masquerade that Shakespeare uses so frequently and effectively in his plays still draws favor from today’s audience. Tricks via use of disguise are always a favorite because they don’t seem to be more that that, innocent tricks. Take the practice of Halloween ‘trick-or-treating’ for example. Once a year, people are encouraged to masquerade and go in public to receive either a favor or to play a trick. This mimics many of Shakespeare’s characters’ jests. Also, it should be noted that despite the noticeable time span, today’s society slightly mimics that of Elizabethan England in some ways. While there are no Sumptuary Laws defining dress, the availability of certain name brands comes at a price, a price not everyone is able to pay. There is a decline in the middle class, and it is predicted that soon no middle class will exist at all, much like Elizabethan England. In modern society, the clothes do make the man and help to identify gender and status.

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. Bloom's Major Dramatists: Shakespeare's Comedies. "C. L. Barber on Madness and Disguise". Chelsea House: Pennsylvania. 2000. 108-111.
"Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws". http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-sumptuary-laws.htm. Accessed 08 Dec. 2006.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Preface to "Twelfth Night". The Norton Shakespeare. W.W. Norton and Co.: New York. 1997. 1761-1767.
Howard, Jean. Preface to "The Taming of the Shrew". The Norton Shakespeare. W.W. Norton and Co.: New York. 1997. 133-140.
"Masquerade". < http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/masquerade>. Accessed 07 Dec. 2006.
Much Ado about Nothing - Act 1, Scene 1. Lines: 282-294. <shakespeare.clusty.com>; December 10, 2006.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. The Norton Shakespeare. W.W. Norton and Co.: New York. 1997. 2318-2473.
---- The Taming of the Shrew. The Norton Shakespeare. W. W. Norton and Co.: New York. 1997. 142-201.
---- Twelfth Night or What You Will. The Norton Shakespeare. W. W. Norton and Co.: New York. 1997. 1768-1821.

© Ian Mugford, December 2006
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Ian MugfordName: Ian Mugford (More often referred to as Mugz)
D.O.B.: December 5th, 1985
Education: Currently, Ian is in his third year of his Bachelor of Arts program at Cape Breton University with his key focus within the fields of English literature and history. Upon completion, Ian intends to enroll in the University of Maine with aspirations of obtaining his Bachelor of Education degree with future plans of obtaining a PH.D. within a field of literature.
Current Profession: Ian currently works as a technical support agent for the company of iBahn (A hotel based internet provider).
Hobbies: Aside from writing, Ian enjoys various activities including sports, music, partaking in social gatherings amongst friends, and spending time with his family (Father - Eric, Mother - Sabina, Brother - Evan, Sister-In-Law - Candice, Girlfriend - Lauren, and his two nieces which are also his God Daughters - Jessica Sabina-Lynn and Emma Sarah Noelle). Ian also has a great fascination with animals and loves pets. His dog, Maya, is a pure breaded basenji and is with him on most occasions.
Favourite Writers/Inspirations: Ian enjoys reading such authors as James Joyce, Walt Whitman, E.M. Forster, Edgar Allen Poe, Graham Greene, Stephen King, Morley Callaghan, Ernest Hemmingway and most notably Shakespeare (Ian has current intentions of writing his thesis paper on Shakespearean writing)
Other Favourites: Musical Artist - Eminem. Song - The Path (West Avenue). Actor - Will Ferrell; Adam Sandler; Vince Vaughn. Show - House; Criss Angel Cartoon - Family Guy Movie - Remember the Titans; Click. Colour - Blue. Literary Work - Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, (Modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet & Othello)
Pet Peeves: Narrow-minded views and opinions Not finishing an intelligent conversation or debate.
Life's Ambition: To see the world

See also: British and Irish drama on film >

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