Disguise in Shakespeare

Shakespeare Masks
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Characters often resort to disguise in Shakespeare plays. This is a plot device that the Bard uses over and over again ... but why?

We take a look at the history of disguise and reveal why it was considered controversial and dangerous in Shakespeare's time.

Gender Disguise in Shakespeare

One of the most common plot lines used in relation to disguise is when a woman such as Rosalind in As You Like It disguises herself as a man. This is looked at in more depth in "Cross-Dressing in Shakespeare Plays."

This plot device allows Shakespeare to explore gender roles as with Portia in The Merchant of Venice who, when dressed as a man, is able to solve the problem of Shylock and demonstrate that she is just as bright as the male characters.

History of Disguise

Disguise goes back to Greek and Roman theater and allows the playwright to demonstrate dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony is when the audience is party to knowledge that the characters in the play are not. Often, humor can be derived from this. For example, when Olivia in Twelfth Night is in love with Viola (who is dressed as her brother Sebastian), we know that she is in fact in love with a woman. This is amusing but it also allows the audience to feel pity for Olivia, who does not have all of the information.

The English Sumptuary Laws

In Elizabethan times, clothes indicated a persons’ identity and class. Queen Elizabeth had supported a law pronounced by her predecessor named ‘The English Sumptuary Laws’ where a person must dress according to their class but also should limit extravagance.

People must protect the levels of society, but they must also dress so as not to flaunt their riches—they must not dress too sumptuously.

Penalties could be enforced such as fines, the loss of property, and even execution. As a result, clothes were regarded as a manifestation of a persons’ position in life and therefore, dressing in a different way had a lot more power and significance and danger than it has today.

Here are some examples from King Lear:

  • Kent, a nobleman disguises himself as a lowly servant called Caius in order to stay close to the King to keep him safe and remain loyal despite being banished by him. This is a deception but he does it for honorable reasons. The audience has sympathy for Kent as he debases himself in honor of the King. 
  • Edgar, Gloucester’s son disguises himself as a beggar called Poor Tom after he is wrongly accused of plotting to kill his father. His character is altered as well as his appearance as he becomes intent on revenge.
  • Goneril and Regan disguise their true intentions rather than wearing a physical disguise. They flatter their father in order to inherit his Kingdom and then betray him.

Masque Balls 

The use of Masques during festivals and carnivals was commonplace in Elizabethan society both among the aristocracy and the common classes.

Originating from Italy, Masques appear regularly in Shakespeare’s plays. There is a masked ball in Romeo and Juliet, and in Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a masque dance to celebrate the wedding of the Duke to the Amazon Queen.

There is a masque in Henry VIII, and The Tempest could be considered a masque the whole way through—Prospero is in authority but we come to understand the frailty and vulnerability of authority.

Masque balls allowed people to behave differently to how they may do in everyday life. They could get away with more merriment and no one would be sure of their true identity.

Disguise in the Audience

Sometimes members of the Elizabethan audience would disguise themselves. Especially the women because even though Queen Elizabeth herself loved the theater, it was generally considered that a woman who wanted to see a play was of ill repute. She may even be considered to be a prostitute, so masks and other forms of disguise were used by the audience members themselves.


Disguise was a powerful tool in Elizabethan society—you could instantly change your position, if you were brave enough to take the risk. You could also change people’s perception of you.

Shakespeare’s use of disguise could foster humour or a sense of impending doom, and as such, disguise is an incredibly powerful narrative technique:

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. (Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 2)
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Jamieson, Lee. "Disguise in Shakespeare." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/disguise-in-shakespeare-2985303. Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). Disguise in Shakespeare. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/disguise-in-shakespeare-2985303 Jamieson, Lee. "Disguise in Shakespeare." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/disguise-in-shakespeare-2985303 (accessed May 28, 2023).