English Drama to 1642
May 1, 2014
Different Stretches of Disguise
Oftentimes playwrights utilize particular elements to emphasize certain aspects of their play. In this case disguise provokes confusion and creates a space in which social boundaries are suspended. When identities are concealed, characters face an unsurpassed freedom to test the limitations of their power in courtship. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has complicated the relationship between Olivia and Viola by cloaking Viola as a male, hence Cesario. Viola's identity up until the end is double-gendered, and the romantic frustrations she feels as Viola in courting her master Orsino leak into her interactions with Olivia as Cesario. The friendship and respect Viola feels for Olivia as a woman merge with the inherent cravings of her heart to provoke in Olivia's mind the luscious fantasies of an admirer. The fact that she is a male disguised as a female allows Shakespeare to test of the female role in courtship.
The situation is different in Philip Massinger's, A New Way to Pay Old Debts. Allworth is Lord Lovell's servant and his low-class disallows him from acting on his love for Sir Giles Overreach's daughter, Margaret; Overreach desires a suit between his daughter and an even higher Lord Lovell. Allworth uses this desire to hatch a plan with Lovell and acts upon his love for Margaret. He disguises himself as a messenger who Lovell entrusts to recite his love letters to Margaret. Accordingly Lovell's love letters enable Allworth to openly pursue his and Margaret's suit without Overreach finding out. Taken together, the two plays illustrate different meanings of disguise for men and women, and its impact on the interactions between the sexes in courtship.
The situation of their initial meet would not seem beneficial for an...