Comparing Mistaken Identity in Merchant of Venice, Comedy Errors, Twelfth Night and As You Like It

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Mistaken Identity in Merchant of Venice, Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and As You Like It The ploy of mistaken identity as a plot device in writing comedies dates back at least to the times of the Greeks and Romans in the writings of Menander and Plautus. Shakespeare borrowed the device they introduced and developed it into a fine art as a means of expressing theme as well as furthering comic relief in his works. Shakespeare's artistic development is clearly shown in the four comedies The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure where he manages to take the germinal idea of mistaken identity and expand it to peaks its originators never fathomed. In Shakespeare's first comedy, The Comedy of Errors, mistaken identity is the sole impetus behind the action, as it had been with its original sources. The germinal idea of asking how one really knows who one is is introduced, but the conflicts that occur between appearance and reality are not totally realized. This will be accomplished by Shakespeare's maturing comic style as he begins to recognize all the varying aspects presented by the ploy of mistaken identity. In its simplest form, mistaken identity is shown in Twelfth Night where twins are mistaken for each other enhancing the comic confusion of the plot. This basic concept is taken deeper, however, when it is recognized that one twin is actually a girl who would not normally be mistaken for her brother. This only happens because she has resorted to disguise. Viola masquerading as Cessario opens the doors for many double meanings in dialogue through a great deal of playing with words. When her twin brother Sebastian arrives, the comic elements reign as her meek natur... ... middle of paper ... ...re to everyone. These are only a few of the ways Shakespeare altered mistaken identity by expanding the concept to include disguise, self-delusion, and theme. It is impossible to fully develop all the uses and expansions this basic comic device received in Shakespeare's hands even when dealing with the limited scope of plays we are looking at in this question. It is also impossible to isolate one aspect of this development from the others because Shakespeare intertwined them in such a way that in his growth as a comic writer he took the ploy of mistaken identity and used it in its totality of meaning. Ultimately, mistaken identity is a subtle thread underlying virtually every comic action studied in these four works. Through his development of this simple comic device we clearly see one aspect of the whole that makes up Shakespeare's creative genius.

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