- Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage
Disguise features in many early modern plays, more so in fact than in any body of drama before or since. Peter Hyland’s book explores the significance of disguise plots and devices in plays from Clyomon and Clamydes in the 1570s to James Shirley’s The Sisters in 1642. He argues that we have lost the full meaning of disguise because ‘it is part of a lost tradition of spectacular [End Page 220] performance that depended on specific kinds of acting skills that offered not depth and concentration, but frenzied versatility and complex staging’ (p 14). Much of his detailed analysis is based on lesser-known plays that have been critically marginalized because their popularity rested on ‘the dynamics of live performance’. Shakespeare is treated as but one among many, since his plays do not reveal the diversity and vitality of disguise; yet Hyland does offer illuminating discussions, especially of Twelfth Night and King Lear.
The book contributes to the recent realignment in performance criticism towards expanding the base of study, from analysing productions of Shakespeare to appreciating the vitality of less ‘literary’, less well-known early modern plays that work far better in performance than on the page. There is also renewed attention to company repertories, performance conventions, and audience response. Hyland’s book complements the studies of others like Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean, Jeremy Lopez, Roslyn Knutson, Andrew Gurr, and Charles Whitney.
Hyland distinguishes carefully between disguise and the other elements that have often been equated with it such as role-playing, deception, and doubling. Disguise is essentially a change in physical appearance, something the audience can actually see and probably also hear, involving clothing, cosmetics, prosthetics, posture, gesture, movement, and voice. He has a keen sense of the practicalities of disguising, suggesting that changes were most often achieved simply, especially at a time when formal clothing was elaborate and a matter of pins, hooks, wires, and laces rather than zip fasteners and velcro. Hence the transformation from boy to woman may often have been managed by removing a cap and loosening the hair.
For Hyland, the popularity of disguise was associated with theatrical pleasures: the ‘simple fun’ of watching the quick-change artist; the marvelling at the virtuoso player and his multiple disguises; the satisfactions of identification, complicity, and suspense; and the transgressive delights of crossing the boundaries of class or gender or morality. Disguise, he comments, is ‘fundamentally a comic device’ allied to inversion and confusion; it is seldom found in tragedies, except in revenge tragedy where it produces disturbing, ambiguous effects. Used in history plays disguise tends to drown any ‘factual’ content in entertaining fictions; in tragicomedy it is prone to sentimental and sensational extremes.
Disguise brought pleasure to playgoers, but it also aroused anxieties. The meta-theatrical nature of disguise was one of its attractions, but the seventeenth century saw an increasing number of plays such as Jonson’s that dramatized through disguise the dangers of theatrical illusion. In a wide-ranging discussion, Hyland considers the aesthetic, social, personal, and [End Page 221] moral implications of disguise for its early modern audiences. The use of clothing, for instance, to effect disguise entailed challenges to sumptuary legislation, official homilies, anti-theatrical scolding, audience expectations, and centuries of moral and religious commentary.
Disguise might be ‘playful and liberating, reflecting a human need to escape the constrictions of self’, but its widespread use ‘registered a fissure in early modern culture, an anxiety about the identity and stability of the self’ (p. 111). Hyland contends, moreover, that the device of the ‘girl page’ or transvestite disguise should not be discussed solely in terms of the sexual politics of performance but rather be seen in the context of wider concerns about identity and representation.
Hyland notes that ‘any disguise can be read in multiple and sometimes antithetical ways’. More generally, its use ‘allowed the spectators to embrace conflicting responses, to experience the possibility of mutability in a...