Mistaken Identities

Mistaken Identity in Shakespeare’s Comedies

By Claire Sabatine, Marketing Apprentice

Mistaken identity is a common device used in writing comedies, and is specifically a popular element seen in many Shakespearean plays. Often plausibility is not the central characteristic of comedic plot lines; Shakespeare utilized improbable progression, disguises, tricky tactics and coincidences. He succeeded in using the trope of mistaken identities in order to forward the plot and heighten the comedic tone, thereby creating further depth to his characters in The Comedy of Errors.

The central action in The Comedy of Errors is mistaken identity, as the play is concerned with two sets of identical twins: the Antipholi of Ephesus and Syracuse and the Dromios of Ephesus and Syracuse. Luckily, unlike the characters, the audience is in on this secret; prior to the discovery of their true identities, this plot device makes for hilarious mix-ups involving siblings, significant others, and strangers in the city of Ephesus. What’s different about the use of mistaken identity in The Comedy of Errors, versus Shakespeare’s other plays that use the same device, is that nobody ever pretends to be someone they are not yet confusion still ensues. The beauty of how these scenes weave together speaks to Shakespeare’s strength as a storyteller. He sprinkled The Comedy of Errors with slapstick humor and occasional moments of unease as the audience waits for the inevitable moment of the reunion of the twins.

Unlike The Comedy of Errors, where there are no disguises, Shakespeare’s later comedy Twelfth Night is driven by a fairly extreme disguise. Viola poses as her twin brother, Cesario, which serves as a catalyst for much comic confusion in the plot and double meanings to language. Because Viola is posing as a male servant while visiting Countess Olivia, words that may not be funny when taken out of context become hilarious when paired with Olivia’s delusion and makes for a playful secret between the audience and protagonist. Here, Shakespeare is using the given circumstances to his advantage when implementing the device of mistaken identity.

In Measure for Measure, the person in disguise is pivotal to the play’s outcome. This play revolves around Claudio, a man sentenced to death by Lord Angelo for impregnating his lover. Angelo is only placed in charge temporarily by the Duke of Vienna. Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is left to contemplate an horrific ultimatum given to her by Angelo that could save her brother’s life. The Duke returns in disguise as Friar Lodowick to watch the madness unfold; his appearance gives a comic twist to what would otherwise be a tragedy for Isabella. A light-minded young man, Lucio, talks about the situation with the Duke to Friar Lodowick, not realizing his true identity, and the truth about Angelo is exposed. In this case, Shakespeare gives the comedic device of mistaken identity gravitas as it saves both Isabella and Claudio.

Shakespeare is able to execute varying degrees of mistaken identity in many of his comedies. Whether the character’s motivations be for love or mischief, if done well, the use of this device should incite laughter for the audience rather than confusion on stage.