VOLPONE: I ne’er was in dislike with my disguise
Till this fled moment.
(BEN JONSON, Volpone)
With these lines Volpone indicates that he is becoming tired with pretending to be sick and wants to give up the con game (give me some wine to ‘fright’ this ‘humour’). Although not a disguise per se which necessitates change in identity but instead a change in condition, his feigning illness is still a deception perpetrated to further plot development.
However it is my contention that such change in condition as Volpone’s is not as helpful as it might be in understanding the significance of the device of disguise in Renaissance drama. This is because unlike with disguise, a mere change in someone’s condition (such as illness) does not allow him/her to leave his/her entire past behind him and become someone else altogether. If as postmodern philosophers like Foucault have suggested, the ‘self’ is narrated into existence by the stories that we and others tell us about us, then this ability to be someone else allows the disguised character to disconnect with his/her story and play an entirely different one to great effect.
For example, with Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar who is himself the victim of deceit, is able to dismiss all boundaries of wealth and class when he disguises himself as a poor (and slightly mad) beggar named Poor Tom. Lear himself sympathizes with Edgar’s situation (as Poor Tom) in a way that we can imagine would have been impossible had Poor Tom still been the Edgar that Lear had always known (or even a mad version of Edgar). In the process of this interchange with Poor Tom, however Lear learns something very important about his own situation (‘unaccommodated man’ is no more than an ‘animal’).
In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano, uses disguise to perpetrate his deceit in exposing his mistress and Horatio as lovers to her brother, Lorenzo and would-be lover Balthazar. If in the garden with her lover, Bel-Imperia had realised that is Pedringano accompanying Lorenzo and Balthazar, the game would have been given up much earlier and the play’s plot much changed; for example Hieronomo would have more quickly and easily identified his son’s murderers and audience would not have witnessed nearly so much of his agonizing prevarication, the very painful explorations of the nature of revenge that Kyd achieved would have fallen by the wayside.
In Middleton’s The Changeling, the substitution of Beatrice’s maid for Beatrice in consummating the latter’s marriage to Alsemero is also perpetrated by disguise. Beatrice cannot allow her husband to realise that she is not a virgin. Not only does this result in the maid’s death which furthers the plot (toward Alsemero’s understanding of what has been going on behind his back) but it furthers one of the primary themes of the play – that of changelings and explorations of what happens when a person or thing is (surreptitiously) exchanged for another.
But in this play disguise also operates at much more sophisticated level. Keeping in mind Foucault and the narrated ‘self’, we can see that even without a disguise Beatrice plays two roles/stories living up to at least two different ways that she is perceived; Alsemero’s ideal of womanly perfection and also DeFlores’s ideal of ugliness. At the end of the play when Alsemero is discussing with Beatrice’s father, Vermandero, the identity of Alonzo’s murderers, he even uses the term ‘disguise’ – (I have ‘two other’ that were more ‘close disguised’) in reference to the real perpetrators, Beatrice and DeFlores. Clearly the realisation that Beatrice had played such two different roles triggers an even greater epiphany for Alsemero than had Poor Tom’s disguise triggered for Lear – for at the very end of the play Alsemero willingly admits that although previously he had been a ‘little ass’ he now considers himself to be a ‘great fool’.
In summary, a mere change in condition (illness) such as that demonstrated by Volpone is not as useful as it might be in considering the significance of disguise in Renaissance drama. Even though Volpone suggests that he had almost become the sick man whose role he had been playing (‘fore God, my leg ‘gan to actually ‘have a cramp’) he is still not seen by others as a different person. This prevents furtherance of scenarios that actual disguise allows such as great epiphanies as with Lear and Poor Tom- or clandestine operations like with Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano – both of which further plot by either clarification or confusion. In the case of Beatrice in The Changeling, disguise operates at several levels – in my view the most important being in demonstrating how one person can in effect be two persons because we define ‘self’ or personage in regards to the stories we and others tell about ourselves. If she had merely been feigning illness like Volpone, such differences would be been anticipated hence taking much of the sting away from Alsemero’s final realisation.