Disguise and the Comic Revenge

A great number of comic revenges make use of disguise or a false identity as a means of achieving vengeance. In many of these plays, the protagonists fabricate an identity through some sort of in order to take vengeance against their enemies. As this is such a conspicuous and recurrent theme, it is important to examine the ways in which the use of a false identity functions in the context of the comic revenge and how it works to achieve the revenger's ends. Significantly, the false identity is often shaped in a manner to bring out the weaknesses of the revenger's victim, and often works because the victim is unable to overcome these faults and see the deception for what it is. Victims such as Malvolio, Lucre, and Morose are taunted by fictional identities that are tailor-made to point out and accentuate their faults. Once the revenge is completed, the victim is forced to see these weaknesses for himself and must learn from these mistakes if he wishes to return to society. This fits with the basic goals of the comic revenge; unlike in tragic revenge, the ultimate aim of the revenger is not annihilation of the victim, but integration into a new and more perfect world order. It is because of this that disguise is such a popular tool of comic revenges, since, insomuch as they do not physically harm the victim, they allow the victim to reexamine his position and change his ways. In addition, the lessons learned by the victim can be transferred to the audience, as they are able to see their own weaknesses through the fiction of the play in the way that the victim can understand his weaknesses through the fiction of disguise. As it acts to fulfill the functions of a comic revenge, disguise is central in the cannon of revenge comedy.

Disguise is a useful tool of revenge, as it allows the protagonist to take revenge by using the victims' own negative qualities against them. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio's self-righteous egotism, which is the instigator for the comic revenge, is used as a tool of revenge through the assumption of a false identity. Malvolio is "the best persuaded of himself; so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will [the] revenge [will] find notable cause to work" (Twelfth Night II.iii.149-153). By taking on Olivia's identity through the letter, Maria and her collaborators are able to play on his sense of superiority; to Malvolio, it seems conceivable that Olivia would fall in love with him. When Malvolio comes across the letter, his interpretation demonstrates how Malvolio is vulnerable to the fiction contained in the letter. Once he finds the letter and finds that it is in Olivia's writing, Malvolio is easily fooled into believing that he is beloved of her, comparable to "sowter [crying] upon [the scent] for all this, though it be as rank as a fox" (Twelfth Night II.v.123-124). This belief colors his interpretation of the letter, and he cannot help but believe that Olivia is in love with him and wishes him to act in the desired manner. When looked at through this standpoint, the irony of Malvolio's claim that "I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me, for every reason excites me to this, that my lady loves me" (Twelfth Night II.v.164-167) is clearly evident. Maria was able to succeed in her revenge against Malvolio because her disguise allowed her to take advantage of the pretension and self-righteousness that made her take revenge in the first place.

This pattern also holds for Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One. In this play, Witgood seeks revenge on his uncle Lucre for taking control of his estate, and is able to succeed by crafting a false identity that plays to Lucre's covetousness and love of money. This false identity makes it so that Lucre's desire for accumulation blinds him to the machinations of the plot. By transforming the courtesan into "a rich country widow, four hundred a year valiant, in woods, in bullocks, in barns and in rye stacks" (A Trick to Catch the Old One I.i.55-56), Witgood is able to take his vengeance by taking advantage of the very qualities that first impelled him to do so. Because Witgood uses a façade that appeals to Lucre's greed, Lucre becomes a willing participant, as Lucre's desire to get a share of the widow's money impels him to act in a way that will allow Witgood to take his revenge. Significantly, the ploy is somewhat flimsy and Lucre could find out the truth if he was not drawn into this fiction through his personal faults. Lucre's greed compels him to believe the story and "make him rich enough in words, if that be good; and if it come to a piece of money, [he] will not greatly stick for't [because] there may be hope some of the widow's lands too may one day fall upon [him]" (A Trick to Catch the Old One II.i.152-155). In a later attempt to gain part of the widow's fortune, he returns Wtigood's land as so to prevent Hoard from marrying the widow and "deliver[ing] in [Witgood's] mortgage, [his] promise to the widow" (A Trick to Catch the Old One IV.ii.36-37). Thus Witgood is able to reverse his bad fortune through the action of Lucre, who instigated these problems in the first place. By cleverly constructing a false identity that takes advantage of Lucre's love of money, Witgood is able to manipulate his uncle, thereby taking revenge and regaining his estate.

A third example of a comic revenger who crafts a false identity to play off his victim's weakness is that of Dauphine in Ben Jonson's Epicoene. Morose's situation and character allow Dauphine to take advantage of Morose, and his weaknesses are easy targets for Dauphine. Morose cannot stand noise; "all discourse but [his] own afflict [him], they seem harsh, impertinent, and irksome" (Epicoene II.i.3-5). In addition to this malady, Morose also harbors a hatred for his nephew and fervently wishes to "thrust him out of [his] blood like a stranger" (Epicoene II.v.98-99) through marriage. Threatened by disinheritance by his uncle, Dauphine is able to take revenge by creating a bride for Morose and thereby exploiting Morose's need for isolation as well as his desire for a wife to disinherit Dauphine. Morose's need to find a wife who will not disturb him leads Dauphine to train a boy to become Epicoene, a lady "who is exceedingly soft-spoken, thrifty of her speech, that spends but six words a day" (Epicoene I.ii.28-29) before the marriage, but becomes domineering and noisy once the marriage is complete. As Epicoene loses the veneer of silence and brings the clamor of the town into Morose's household, he is unable to cope with the noise, and must end his suit against Dauphine in order to regain peace of mind. Morose's distress is so great that he offers his fortune to Dauphine, telling him "make thine own conditions. My whole estate is thine. Manage it, I will become thy ward" (Epicoene V.iv.160-161). After an agreement is reached and the revenge is completed, Dauphine terminates the fiction of Epicoene, revealing her true identity. Dauphine's successful revenge is due to his ability to manipulate Morose and his weaknesses through the artificial identity of Epicoene.

These patterns fit into the larger schema of the comic revenge and are in sync with its aims and purposes. While a tragic revenger might seek annihilation of the enemy, the comic revenger tries to integrate the victim into a reformed world order. Both Morose and Lucre are able to reconcile themselves with their nephews, peacefully renouncing their own claims to property. However, Malvolio resists this reconciliation, and, though the other characters wish to "entreat him to a peace" (Twelfth Night V.i.382) and take him back into their circle, Malvolio is resistant, swearing to "be revenged on the whole pack" (Twelfth Night V.i.380). This exception to the rule illuminates the way in which reconciliation is important in most comic revenges. Unlike Morose or Lucre, Malvolio is unwilling to admit his defeat or reflect upon his faults and is therefore unable to work towards an improved relationship between himself and the others. He cannot learn his lesson; instead, he remains obstinate and retains the pride that had marked him earlier. This refusal to integrate himself into the society and provide a resolution of some sort casts a shadow over the final scene, as the characters' conflict is not put to rest even after the disclosure of Maria's plot. A completed comic revenge requires a degree of reconciliation and atonement to truly be called successful.

This theme can carry over to the world at large, and the characters' assumption of false identity within the universe of the play can be seen as analogous to the actors' use of fictional identities in the interplay between themselves and the audience. Just as the use of false identities within the play can be used to exaggerate the victim's faults, the creation of fictional characters allows members of the audience to see their own characteristics exaggerated to a great degree through a process of identification. Just like the victims in the plays, they can choose to use the false identity as a source on which to reflect and thereby improve behavior. In this manner the disguise and the play both present the individual with an impetus for self-improvement which points out the ridiculousness of certain faulty behaviors carried to the extreme. Through this, the playwrights act as moral guides for their audience much like the revengers, or the 'authors' of the false identity, attempt to change the behavior of their victims.

The assumption of a false identity is central to the genre of revenge comedy and is central to the understanding of the comic revenge. The machinations of the comic revenge rely on using disguise to point out the faults of the victim and impel him to change his behavior, improving himself and the balance of society. This pattern is carried over from the interaction between revenger and victim to that of the playwright and the audience. The playwright is able to compel the audience to act in a more appropriate way by utilizing the exaggerated character types of the comic revenge. The use disguise and the creation of false identities prove essential to the comic revenge while serving a larger purpose for the playwright.

Go back to my main page.