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
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Disguise is one of Shakespeare's favorite ploys found in varying degrees in each of the mentioned works. Through it he alters the identity of an individual (frequently female character, though not always) and uses this disguise to heighten irony, develop theme, and enhance subtle comic innuendo. In As You Like It, Shakespeare develops specific ironies where the dialogue takes on new meaning when the true identity of the speaker (or hearer) is placed over the dialogue. By having characters in disguise, Shakespeare opens the door for all kinds of comic twists from the shepherdess in love with the "shepherd" Ganymede who is really a girl (Rosalind) to Orlando sharing feelings of love to Ganymede who is really Orlando's love Rosalind in disguise. The difficulty in maintaining a disguise or hidden identity is shown in the desire to say and experience things in the one identity than can only be accomplished by the alter identity which compounds the verbal comedy in the mistaken meanings of what is being said. In Measure for Measure, the Duke uses disguise and mistaken identity to reveal the truth about Angelo's character. At the same time this disguise provides comic moments as Lucio speaks of the Duke to the Duke while unaware of the Duke's identity.

In Twelfth Night Shakespeare

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