Mistaken Identity in Merchant of Venice, Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and As You Like It
The ploy of mistaken identity as a plot device in writing comedies dates back at least to the times of the Greeks and Romans in the writings of Menander and Plautus. Shakespeare borrowed the device they introduced and developed it into a fine art as a means of expressing theme as well as furthering comic relief in his works. Shakespeare's artistic development is clearly shown in the four comedies The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure where he manages to take the germinal idea of mistaken identity and expand it to peaks its originators never fathomed.
In Shakespeare's first comedy, The Comedy of Errors, mistaken identity is the sole impetus behind the action, as it had been with its original sources. The germinal idea of asking how one really knows who one is is introduced, but the conflicts that occur between appearance and reality are not totally realized. This will be accomplished by Shakespeare's maturing comic style as he begins to recognize all the varying aspects presented by the ploy of mistaken identity.
In its simplest form, mistaken identity is shown in Twelfth Night where twins are mistaken for each other enhancing the comic confusion of the plot. This basic concept is taken deeper, however, when it is recognized that one twin is actually a girl who would not normally be mistaken for her brother. This only happens because she has resorted to disguise. Viola masquerading as Cessario opens the doors for many double meanings in dialogue through a great deal of playing with words. When her twin brother Sebastian arrives, the comic elements reign as her meek nature is mistakenly though to be his and he is married to Olivia who thinks he is his disguised sister. A more subtle means of developing this direct form of mistaken identity is found in As You Like It where pastoral, romantic shepherds are mistaken for shepherds of the real world.
Disguise is one of Shakespeare's favorite ploys found in varying degrees in each of the mentioned works. Through it he alters the identity of an individual (frequently female character, though not always) and uses this disguise to heighten irony, develop theme, and enhance subtle comic innuendo. In As You Like It, Shakespeare develops specific ironies where the dialogue takes on new meaning when the true identity of the speaker (or hearer) is placed over the dialogue. By having characters in disguise, Shakespeare opens the door for all kinds of comic twists from the shepherdess in love with the "shepherd" Ganymede who is really a girl (Rosalind) to Orlando sharing feelings of love to Ganymede who is really Orlando's love Rosalind in disguise. The difficulty in maintaining a disguise or hidden identity is shown in the desire to say and experience things in the one identity than can only be accomplished by the alter identity which...