In the play Measure for Measure Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, leaves his city in the charge of a judge while he goes on a "diplomatic mission". It transpires that he has not, in fact, left the city at all but has disguised himself as a monk and remained to spy on the actions of his courtiers.

However, it has always bothered me that during the course of the play, the disguised Duke interacts with several characters who know him well. It seems to be stretching the bounds of credulity to believe that they would not recognize him in his relatively thin disguise. Yet none do.

This motif, of a disguised character interacting with people close to them without being recognized, recurs in other literature of the period.

Is this something audiences in Shakespeare's day would simply have accepted? If so, why? And if not, why was/is it not viewed as a problem with the narrative of the play?

  • This question isn't really specific to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. As you note in the third paragraph, the same theme occurs all over the place (The Winter's Tale is another example, but this isn't restricted to Shakespeare). It's just a question of suspension of disbelief. Modern audiences are far more nitpicky.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 21 '17 at 19:26
  • 2
    You still see that sort of thing in modern times, e.g., Lois Lane not recognizing Clark Kent in his Superman costume.
    – user14111
    Feb 12 '17 at 22:54

One of the advantages of setting it in "Vienna" is that the audience could believe that "that's the way those foreigners do it". It gave the audience some distance from reality: they would accept it without having to question whether it was realistic.

It certainly does push the bounds of "suspension of disbelief". Foreigners may be foreign, but surely they'd recognize somebody with a light disguise, wouldn't they?

I suspect that Shakespeare's audiences were also primed with the fact of one actor playing multiple roles already. The same actor wearing different clothes was a different person. Sometimes they'd even be playing "brothers" and were expected to look alike: the Ghost and Claudius were likely played by the same actor. With preparation like that, audiences might well accept the conceit, even though they would certainly never expect it to work.

It was just part of reality, the way you accept multiple camera angles in movies even though real life never works like that. It's not that you see it and dismiss it; you accept it at a deep level without having to question it.

At least Measure for Measure makes a stab at explaining one substitution: the assignation with Marina happens in the dark, with no talking. Maybe Shakespeare shouldn't have bothered: it just calls attention to the use of the conceit in other places.

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