Shakespeare’s plays display countless themes, some of which develop through the body of plays as a whole. The idea, though, that people, events and things in our world are often not what they seem, is at the heart of all the plays. Indeed, some of the plays, for example A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, are largely about the confusion between what is real and what is not. This theme of appearance and reality is one that runs through many of Shakespeare’s plays.
What is appearance and reality? Well, as Shakespeare himself put it: ‘All that glisters is not gold.’ At its most simple level, the way some characters appear to the other characters on the one hand and the way they appear to the audience on the other is often different. Iago in Othello conceals his real nature behind a facade of honesty and is trusted by all, whereas, in his dealings with everyone he is manipulative and remorseless. In Measure for Measure Angelo, apparently incorruptible, is in reality a deceitful sexual abuser. Macbeth takes Duncan into his home as a friend while planning to murder him, and acknowledges that ‘false face must hide what the false heart does know.’
Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to men who hide their evil natures behind smiles. When Hamlet thinks about his father’s murderer he comments ‘One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’ Such observations about men’s smiles fill the plays: ‘There’s daggers in men’s smiles’; ‘Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile’; ‘Some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, millions of mischief.’
The characters in Shakespeare’s plays often wear masks. The stage convention was that if a character was wearing a mask no-one would recognise him or her, so characters could appear to a friend as a stranger, or as anonymous, or hide his or her identity for any other purpose.
Shakespeare found disguise, another of the Elizabethan theatre’s conventions, most useful for his representation of appearance and reality. Disguise was a staple of the Elizabethan stage.
Several characters conceal their true identity behind disguises. The Duke of Kent, for example, banished by King Lear, determines to stay with him and look after him: he disguises himself as a servant. The device of disguise is highly dramatic and Shakespeare exploited it to the full.
One of Shakespeare’s favourite tricks was to disguise a girl as a boy. Probably the two most famous are Viola in Twelfth Night and Rosalind in As You Like It. In those cases everyone is deceived, regarding appearance as the reality.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all about confusing appearance and reality. Shakespeare uses various devices to create confusion as to what is real and what is illusion. There are two worlds in the play, the fairy world and the human world. They operate harmoniously but separately. But in this play the fairy world intervenes in the human world and throws up all kinds of illusions as the action develops. The fairly king’s servant, Puck, plays tricks on the lovers and that makes things seem to be what they are not and bewilders them: Puck becomes confused himself and puts the love potion in the wrong young man’s eyes, further complicating matters. The four lovers are not only lost in the forest but have lost their grip on reality.