The Passionate Pilgrim 1.8: Themes that Repeat

“Again and again in his plays, an unforeseen catastrophe . . . suddenly turns what had seemed like happy progress, prosperity, smooth sailing into disaster, terror, and loss. The loss is obviously and immediately material, but it is also, and more crushingly, a loss of identity. To wind up on an unknown shore, without one’s friends, habitual associates, familiar network – this catastrophe is often epitomized by the deliberate alteration or disappearance of the name and, with it, the alteration or disappearance of social status.”

Greenblatt, Stephen, Will In the World, p 85

Not only is Rosalind not the first female character in these plays to act in the face danger by disguising herself as a man, as Julia precedes her by several years in Two Gentlemen of Verona, she is by no means the last. The list also includes Viola in Twelfth Night, Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Imogen in Cymbeline. To this list could be added Helena in All’s Well, who disguises herself as a “pilgrim,” and female characters who probably appeared in masculine battle-dress, Joan in Henry VI Part I, Margaret in Henry VI Part III, and Eleanor in King John.

About the first four of these characters, Phyllis Rackin in Cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s Comedies – and Beyond observed:

  1. The heroines construct their masculine appearance before traveling.
  2. [They] are active and determined rather than passive and submissive.
  3. All four heroines show their intelligence and capability, even better than the men.
  4. Although the heroines show their masculinity in cross-dressing, they are still biologically female and physically weak sometimes, and they still hold feminine characteristics like tenderness, affection, and chastity.
  5. All four heroines are admirable women, endowed with good feminine qualities like chastity, constancy, tenderness, affection, selflessness and proficiency in housework.

A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, Volume III: The Comedies Edited by: Richard Dutton And Jean E. Howard, eISBN: 9781405136075, Print publication date: 2005.

To this collection of women must be added all of the male characters who travel in disguise, in no particular order:

Master Ford   Brook     Merry Wives

Lucentio      Cambio    Shrew

Tranio        Lucentio     Shrew

Hortentio     Lito      Shrew

Hamlet        Madman    Hamlet

Henry         Soldier   Henry V

Duke Vinciente Gaoler    Measure for Measure

Camillo, Polixenes, Autolycus     Various   Winter’s Tale

And then we have characters who are transformed from one thing into another, including Bottom, Helena, Hermia and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or those who are mistaken for others such as half of the cast of The Comedy of Errors or Sebastian in Twelfth Night. And then there are the men who actually disguise themselves as women in The Taming of the Shrew (Vincentio) and in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Falstaff disguised as Herne).

Falstaff in disguise led out by Mrs Page, Act 4 Scene 2, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, by James Durno
Falstaff in disguise led out by Mrs Page, Act 4 Scene 2, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, by James Durno

It just goes on and on. It is hard to think of any other author who has anything like this kind of fixation on the theme of disguise.

How do we explain this? Unfortunately, Shakespeare doesn’t provide many answers. As historian Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out:

“Of all the immortal geniuses of literature, none is personally so elusive as William Shakespeare. It is exasperating and almost incredible that he should be so. After all, he lived in the full daylight of the English Renaissance, in the well‑documented reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. Since his death, and particularly in the last century, he has been subjected to the greatest battery of organized research that has ever been directed upon a single person. Armies of scholars, formidably equipped, have examined all the documents that could possibly contain at least a mention of Shakespeare’s name. One hundredth of this labor applied to one of his insignificant contemporaries would be sufficient to produce a substantial biography. And yet the greatest of all Englishmen, after this tremendous inquisition, still remains so close to a mystery that even his identity can still be doubted.”

Trevor-Roper, Hugh, “What’s in a Name?” Réalités, November 1962.

So, does Shakespeare have a fondness for tales built on disguise, camouflage and concealment because it is his nature to be evasive? Or does he just know a good story when he sees one?

Fortunately, for Rosalind, the result is all to the good. And, in fact, in most cases this theme produces pleasing results. It is remarkable that when all the disguises are exposed very few of the characters suffer; they are for the most part rewarded.

I suspect that this is not how most people would perceive being deceived. Rosalind and her author, however, have a different point of view: deception may be a mixed blessing, but it can be a blessing nonetheless.

Next:     Rosalind, Celia and Jacques

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

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