and Mistaken Identity in Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s life is somewhat
of a mystery to scholars due to the fact that most information that is
known is very scattered and sparse. No one knows the exact date of
Shakespeare’s birth, but his baptism occurred on Wednesday, April 26, 1564.
His father was John Shakespeare, a tanner, glover, dealer in grain, and
town official of Stratford. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of
Robert Arden, a prosperous gentleman-farmer. William Shakespeare
and his family lived on Henley Street.
A bond dated November 28, 1582 stated that
William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway entered into a marriage contract.
The baptism of their eldest child, Susanna, took place in Stratford in
May of 1583. Hamnet and Judith, their twins were christened in the
same church one year and nine months later. In May of 1597, Shakespeare
purchased a residential property in Stratford called New Place.
Due to the fact that his father had suffered financial problems prior to
this date, it is assumed that Shakespeare must have achieved success by
himself. On March 25, 1616 William Shakespeare revised his last will
and testament. He died on April 23, 1616.
There are certainly many things in which
scholars cannot explain about the life of William Shakespeare, however
the facts that do exist are enough to identify him as a real person.
He was a writer who, for the last three hundred years, has continued to
be a major influence on drama and poetry. Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven
plays that are all very unique in their style and subject matter.
The themes vary anywhere from extreme jealousy to silly humor. Two
major themes that are apparent in a lot of Shakespeare’s works are mistaken
identity and jealousy.
The idea of mistaken identity as a plot
device in comedies dates all the way back to the writers, Menander and
Plautus, in the Greek and Roman times. Shakespeare borrowed that
device and used it to further his plots in his comedies. His artistic
use of mistaken identity is brilliantly used in many of his plays.
In Shakespeare’s comedy, The Comedy of
Errors, mistaken identity is the sole story line of the play. The
idea of asking how one really knows who one is, is introduced, but the
problems that will occur between appearance and reality are not totally
realized. As Shakespeare begins to write more about mistaken identity,
his comic style using this ploy begins to develop more and more.
In a very simple form, mistaken identity
is shown in Twelfth Night. The twins are mistaken for each other
and this brings about a comic conflict throughout the play. This
simple form of the plot device is extended when it becomes known that one
twin is actually a girl who would not normally be mistaken for her brother.
This is a result because she has resorted to a disguise. Viola disguising
herself as Cessario is a beginning to the double meanings throughout the
dialogue that Shakespeare uses as comedy within the playing of the words.
When her twin brother, Sebastian, arrives her passive nature is mistaken
to be his and he is married to Olivia who thinks he is his disguised sister.
As an audience member, part of the fun of mistaken identity is the sole
enjoyment of trying to keep who is who straight and knowing something that
the actors do not.
Disguise is one of Shakespeare’s
favorite devices, found in many of his works. Through it he alters
the identity of an individual, which creates an elevated irony, a developed
theme, and an enhanced comic element to the story. In As You Like
It, Shakespeare, by having characters in disguise, creates an outlet for
new ironies and comic twists throughout the work. The shepherdess
who is in love with the “shepherd” Ganymede who is really a girl (Rosalind)
is one of the comic twists, as well as Orlando sharing feelings of love
to Ganymede who is really Orlando’s love Rosalind in disguise. Once
again the hidden and mistaken identity constructs this plot and furthers
its comedy. The entire purpose of mistaken identity can only be accomplished
when a disguise is shown in the way to say and experience things in the
one identity that can only be accomplished by the altar identity: this
is what composes the comedy within the words. For example, in Measure
For Measure, the Duke uses disguise and mistaken identity to reveal the
truth about Angelo, while simultaneously providing comic moments when Lucio
speaks of the Duke to the Duke unaware of his true identity.
Another re-occurring theme throughout Shakespeare’s
plays is jealousy. Perhaps the most outstanding form appears in Othello.
It is a classic story of boy meets girl and the jealous lover, only with
an extremely tragic ending. Othello and Desdemona are in love with
each other. Iago, the antagonist, wants Desdemona for himself and
is extremely jealous of Othello. He plots a scheme to make Othello
believe that Desdemona was having an affair with Cassio. Without
even asking Desdemona if it is true or not, Othello kills her by smothering
her. Then, after becoming cognizant of the truth, he kills himself.
Jealousy is a hard subject to write and read about because it is an emotion
of terror, meaning that it can be extremely dangerous in any situation.
Jealousy can produce tragic denouements. Iago says in the play, “Oh
beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which
doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Perhaps the theme of Othello is
that it is wise to find out the truth before jumping to conclusions because
jealousy can eat away your heart.
The theme of jealousy throughout Shakespeare’s
plays is a great plot device because it is a very universal emotion, whereas
mistaken identity is exactly the opposite; it is something we can look
at and know that it would never happen, therefore we laugh. Both
devices are efficient and produce extremely different reactions.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the jealousy is very differently portrayed
than it is in Othello. Hermia and Lysander are in love, however Demetrius
is in love with Hermia as well. Helena is in love with Demetrius
and very admirable of Hermia. “O, teach me how you look and with
what art you sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.” The jealousy in
this play is in its simplest form. Helena is jealous of the love
that Demetrius has for Hermia and wants his attention turned toward her.
This type of jealousy is not even close to the extreme it was in Othello,
however it produces the same reaction that it is a universal emotion.
Helena’s jealousy is more of an admiration, whereas Othello and Iago’s
jealousy is more of a desperation.
Shakespeare’s use of the two literary devices,
mistaken identity and jealousy, are only a suggestion of everything else
he wrote about in his literature. They are elements within his works
that reoccur and help in furthering the plot within the story. William
Shakespeare wrote with many different approaches and about many different
subjects. The devices he used within his literature are only an addition
to the words Shakespeare wrote so beautifully.