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In the study of three of Shakespeare’s plays, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, The Tragedy of Richard II, and Henry IV, Part 1, one of the themes that is presented is the contrast of “appearance vs. reality.” Sometimes the confusion is comedic, and at other times, it is simply tragic.
In examining Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, it becomes apparent that the theme of “appearance vs. reality” is evident at many different levels. One of the comedic devices utilized is the mistaken identity of the twins, Viola and Sebastian. We are asked to believe that these two fraternal twins who are brother and sister are so identical in appearance that, when dressed in similar fashion, they are indistinguishable from one another. The disguise of Viola is so effective that the fair Olivia mistakes her for a young man (Cesario) and falls in love, not only with his/her appearance, but also with the intelligence and grace with which he/she addresses her. The illusion is so complete that when Olivia sees Sebastian, she assumes that he is the person with whom she is already acquainted. Sebastian is puzzled by her advances, but decides to accept the beautiful Olivia at face value (Bates).
Malvolio is a character whose very essence personifies “appearance vs. reality.” He is a totally self-absorbed person who daydreams about running Olivia’s household as its master. He presents himself as a very pious, holier-than-thou steward of his mistress’s affairs, when in reality he is only looking for a way to advance his own ambitious desires. When the pompous Malvolio finds the love-letter (supposedly from Olivia) that Maria has written for the purposes of baiting him, he is already so in love with himself that it is easy for him to believe that Olivia is in love with him, too. He is so pretentious that Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and their friend Fabian would like to beat him for his hypocrisy, and Maria just enjoys seeing him make a fool of himself.
As Malvolio is a fool who thinks himself wise, Feste is a very intelligent man who presents himself as a fool. He hides his knowledge behind his shows of foolery (Bates). His witty criticism and observations on the events of the play belie his station as fool in Lady Olivia’s household. His role as the fool allows him to engage in some conversational jousting with Viola, who, taking no offense, even rewards him for his wit while, at the same time, recognizing that he may be intelligent enough to see through her disguise. He “is wise enough to play the fool, and to do that well craves a kind of wit,” Viola says of him. Feste even hints that he has guessed that Viola is in disguise when he quips, “Now Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard [referring to pubic hair] (Shakespeare 458).” Neither of them are quite what they seem, though both of them are able to see through the other’s disguise with little problem.
It is ironic because the licensed fool is actually no fool at all and the true fool, Sir Andrew, is the character. It is this interaction that reveals two kinds of fools, the conscious and the unconscious fool. In Twelfth Night it is essentially the unknowing fools that provide the actual comedy, while the wise Feste adds insight to greater meaning of the play. It is by his acting like a fool that Feste gains the privilege to speak the truth of the people around him. Through these truths, which are directed jokingly at another, Feste’s keen perception of others is disclosed (Knisley).
Richard II is shown to be an outwardly self-confident and inwardly corrupt ruler very early in the play. He enjoys the outward trappings of being a monarch and, because of his belief in his own divinity, he is arrogant enough to think he has the right to do whatever he wants. This discrepancy between the appearance of royalty and the reality of ruling will ultimately lead to Richard’s downfall and loss of the crown. In the opening scene, the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray is confusing because it is not clear who is telling the truth. The focus is on the responses of Richard. While addressing Richard in a very formal and conventional manner, the elaborate rhetoric of the two men conceals their true nature until their empty show of loyalty to the king breaks down in a flurry of angry accusations.
Bolingbroke (who later becomes King Henry IV) appears to revere the office of the king and obeys Richard’s order of banishment. When he later learns of Richard’s acquisition of land that rightfully belongs to him, he still states that all he wants is what is his, seeming to have no intention of usurping the throne. Soon enough, however, he shows an amazing inclination to do so when he sees how much support he is given by Northumberland, Ross, and Willoughby. They, and other nobles, are upset with Richard for his taxation and are disgusted by his heartless theft of Gaunt’s estate. Even though Richard boasts of his wisdom and practicality, he misuses the power of his position and, ultimately, brings about his own deposition (Boyce 536).
After Richard’s banishment, Bolingbroke asks, apparently rhetorically, “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” This is misconstrued by Exton as being a request to kill the former king, but after he has done so, Bolingbroke condemns him for it. It is apparent that Richard’s death weighs heavily on the new king and he announces his desire to go to the Holy Land to assuage his guilty conscience.
In Henry IV, Part 1, one of the most pronounced instances of “appearance vs. reality” is Prince Hal: the young reveler who shows that his disrespect of the conventions of court life is just a mask hiding a man who takes his duty as future king seriously, after all. At the end of Act I, Scene 2, Hal switches from prose to courtly verse and reveals that his “loose behavior” is just a disguise. He realizes that the contrast between his current exploits and his future reformation will be all the more dramatic when it does occur (Shakespeare 893).
Falstaff, too is a shining example of the contrast between appearance and reality. He is a combination of many different types of characters: “Vice of the morality play, the braggart soldier?, the witty parasite, and the Fool?(Baker 887).” While he swaggers through the world of the commoner, promoting drinking and eating to excess, he engages in extraordinarily witty conversation, revealing the intelligence underneath the lecherous exterior. Trying to decide what’s real or counterfeit, true or false, is one of the major concerns of the play. Characters ask each other to decide on the accuracy of news and reports, on different versions of history, and on the reality of a man’s reputation. Since Henry IV’s claim on the crown is dubious because of the manner in which he obtained it, all other claims for authenticity begin to be doubted. The imagery of stolen and cracked “crowns”, representing both coins and the symbol of kingship, emphasizes the fact that the usurpation of the crown is merely being passed off as legal and legitimate. Throughout Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1, there is the undeniable element of treachery among the nobles who often appear to be supporting one side, when in reality, are planning something entirely different behind the scenes.
Shakespeare writes plays that speak to the audience on many levels. One of the themes that recurs throughout many of his works is that of “appearance vs. reality.” Feste is a delightful comic example of a man who appears to be something quite different from the intelligent person that he is, while Richard’s tragic death occurs because Bolingbroke’s rhetorical statement appeared to a listener to be a request to murder the dethroned king. These interesting twists and turns serve not only as comedic devices in some cases, but also as necessary elements of the development of the plot and of the characters involved. However, it is sometimes difficult to know when what we see and hear on the stage is a true representation of the reality of the play, or when it is simply the appearance of truth.
Baker, Herschel. “Henry IV, Parts I and II.” The Riverside Shakespeare.Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd ed. Boston and NewYork: HoughtonMifflin Company, 1997.
Bates, Rheanna. “ClassicNotes: Twelfth Night Act IV.” GradeSaver.com.17 July 2000.GradeSaver. 13 November 2002 <http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/twelfth/summ4.html>.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems,His Life and Times, and More. New York: Roundtable Press, Inc., 1990
Knisley, Brad. “The Role of the Fool: Feste’s Significance.” GradeSaver.com.22 December 2000. GradeSaver. 13 November 2002 <http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/twelfth/essays/essay1.html>.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans.2nd ed. Boston and NewYork: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
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