MASKING AND UNMASKING IN WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S MEASURE FOR MEASURE

By Atlantica Boruah

The term ‘mask’ defines a cover for the face used for disguise or something that serves to conceal or misrepresent. The technique of disguise was very much prevalent in Shakespearean plays. One of the notable kinds of disguise is seen when the female roles of the play were assigned to young boys baring beards. William Shakespeare in some of his plays uses the technique of masking as in The Merchant of Venice where Portia in disguise of a lawyer helps Antonio from Shylock, the Jew. This article is an attempt to show how Shakespeare uses the device of masking and unmasking in his play Measure for Measure.

In the play Measure for Measure all the incidents which took place, are under the control of the Duke Vincentio. By being in disguise as a Friar he controls all the actions of Angelo, Isabella. It is he who ordered Angelo to assume the guise of the Duke. He gave advices to Isabella to exchange herself with Mariana to meet Angelo. Again it is the same Duke in the guise of Friar who orders to replace Claudio’s head with Ragozine’s. He through the technique of masking maintains almost all the actions in the play. As in The Tempest, Prospero takes the help of magic to regain his lost dukedom; the Duke here seems to be asserting his authority through disguise.

The whole action of the play Measure for Measure from the very beginning was under the control of the Duke through his disguise. After handing over his authority to Angelo on the ground that he himself is leaving the country on a foreign trip, the Duke goes and meets, Friar Thomas. The Duke has not actually left the kingdom because his object in handing over his duties to Angelo was to remain in the country in disguise of a Friar and to watch the manner in which Angelo governs the country. He himself admits that he had been lax in administering the laws and that this lapse on his part has led to the prevailing anarchy in his kingdom. The Duke in the mask of a Friar entered the prison to put Claudio in the right frame of mind to be able to meet his death bravely. The Duke paints a dark picture of the human life so that Claudio should willingly submit to death.

Again, it is Duke’s wish and plan to disguise Mariana as Isabella to meet Angelo. Angelo asks Isabella to please him with sexual desire so that her brother Claudio can be freed from the death sentence. At that time it is the Duke himself who first utters about Mariana in front of Isabella. By doing so he wants to teach a lesson to Angelo and at the same time he saved the life of a would be nun, Isabella and he played a trick that Mariana could be able to claim Angelo as her husband who at one time rejected her. The duke himself in disguise of a Friar suggests to the Provost about the head of Claudio which will be sent to Angelo. As Angelo orders the Provost to produce Claudio’s head after his execution. Therefore, the Duke in the guise of a Friar manages the situation by replacing the head of Claudio with Ragozine.

Angelo decides to cover the mask of a good man and manipulate all powers to answer the call of the flesh. One must not forget that it is again the Duke who gives this opportunity to Angelo (Lever, 1967). At the end, it is the Duke who unmasks himself and also exposes Angelo’s real nature as he re-assumes authority; he tries to resolve the crisis in the play through marriages. The mask of the Friar teaches him some important lessons that one has to know to strike a balance between the personal and the public; especially when one is in a responsible position or status as that of an administrator and secondly when in authority one has to put on the mask of an able administrator no matter what amount of public scrutiny one subject to.

In fact, every person masks himself/herself as a responsible member of a society, complying with its norms. In doing so one has to keep aside all desires, urges, fears and fantasies etc. However in case of the members of the underworld that is Claudio, Juliet, and Mistress Overdonne etc are the only characters who do not cover any mask. They are impulsive and are only concerned about fulfilling their sexual urges, hunger, sex etc. In case of Claudio and Juliet they could not put any mask rather they give free rein to their physical urges. While Lucio on seeing Claudio as a prisoner in the hands of the Provost, asks Claudio the reason for his arrest. Claudio replies that his arrest is the result of his having enjoyed too much freedom of action. Excessive freedom, says Claudio leads ultimately to restrictions being placed upon the man who makes an excessive use of his freedom. Freedom is “a thirsty evil” which encourages desire and the gratification of desire than leads a man to the restraint of prison. On the other hand, Juliet replies the Duke that the sin which was committed by her and by her lover was by their mutual consent. She does repent of her sin in front of the Duke by saying that she cheerfully accepts the disgrace which her sin has brought to her (Lever, 1967).

Being a member of underworld, Mistress Overdonne never dons any mask rather she is very much concerned with her business of prostitution. She complains that as a result of several developments in the country, she is losing her customers. On being further told by Pompey that all the brothels in the suburbs of Vienna are going to be dismantled, she feels much grief because her trade of prostitution would gravely suffer. She feels deeply concerned by the new order of the government, and asks what would happen to her in case prostitution is totally banned. Lucio also admits that on one occasion he himself had been produced before the Duke for a trial on a charge of having made a wench pregnant. He also confesses that he has been a regular customer at Mistress Overdonne’s brothel and he had contracted many diseases by his sexual contact with the prostitutes.

The characters of the underworld never don any mask, they only concerned about their own desires, urges through which they can get pleasure. It seems that disguise or masking remains a technique throughout the play through which member of court world Duke Vincentio employs to assert his authority in Vienna. The Duke controls and manipulates all instances of disguise. In fact it appears that like a director of a play, he actually directs a play within a play. Moreover the mask plays a transformational role in the character of Duke himself.

Reference:             
  • J.W.Lever. The Arden Edition of the works of William Shakespeare Measure for Measure. Methuen Publishers, 1967.

About the author: The author, Atlantica Boruah was a former student of Department of English, Dibrugarh University. She is very fond of writing articles. Some of her articles were published in Assamese daily Amar Asom.

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