Shakespeare in Disguise

October 21, 2013

Celebrate Halloween with Shakespeare and Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO)! Discover which characters are in disguise, what the witches say around their cauldron, why ghosts are haunting the living, and what tricks are being played in the night …

Characters in disguise

“Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent”
– Viola in Twelfth Night, Act 1 Scene 2

  • In Twelfth Night Viola disguises herself as a page and woos another lady on behalf of the master whom Viola loves; this lady then falls in love with Viola as the 'page', but subsequently marries 'his' (Viola’s) twin brother!
  • King Lear sees Edgar, the elder son of the Earl of Gloucester, disguise himself as a madman called Tom o'Bedlam to escape from persecution. However, it is said that it is more difficult to establish an identity for Edgar before he adopts this disguise.

The witches in Macbeth

“Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble”
read Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth

  • Did you know that, according to Nicholas Brooke’s introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth, the only time the word 'witch' is heard is in Act 1, Scene 3, line 6, when the First Witch quotes the words of the sailor's wife:

    “A sailor's wife had chestnuts in her lap,
    And munched, and munched, and munched. 'Give me', quoth I;
    Aroynt thee, witch', the rump-fed ronyon cries.”
  • The witches call themselves the Weird Sisters, but ‘weird’ did not have the same meaning as it does today, whose modern usage did not appear until the early nineteenth century. For Shakespeare and his play-goers it meant “destiny” or “fate”, with foreknowledge being the witches’ main function.

Ghostly hauntings

“What may this mean
That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel,
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon”
– Hamlet speaking to the ghost of his father, Act 1 Scene 4

  • The ghost of Hamlet’s dead father, the King of Denmark, takes centre stage in the opening scenes of Hamlet, telling Hamlet to revenge his death. Did you know that the Ghost does not speak until approximately six hundred lines after its initial entry?
  • The play Richard III concludes a sequence that Shakespeare began with the three parts of Henry VI. There are numerous ghostly appearances throughout these plays, but there is only one character that remains alive for all four plays: Queen Margaret, the widow of King Henry VI! King Henry is present in all of them, but only as a corpse and a ghost in Richard III.

Tricks in the night

“Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down.
I am feared in field and town.
Goblin, lead them up and down”
– Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3 Scene 2

  • Robin Goodfellow plays tricks on many of the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – from love spells to giving a man the head of a donkey! This character is present in texts throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however Shakespeare’s Robin was new – he was on-stage, in conjunction with the other fairies, and was redefined as both puck and hobgoblin (as discussed by Peter Holland in his introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream).
  • Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most famous villains. He tricks Othello into thinking his love, Desdemona, is unfaithful by using a simple handkerchief:

    “such a handkerchief—
    I am sure it was your wife's—did I today
    See Cassio wipe his beard with” (Othello, Act 3, Scene 3, line 438-40)

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