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The Truth of Masks – A Note On Illusion
by [?]

Nor are the examples of the employment of costume as a mode of intensifying dramatic situation less numerous. After slaughter of Duncan, Macbeth appears in his night-gown as if aroused from sleep; Timon ends in rags the play he had begun in splendour; Richard flatters the London citizens in a suit of mean and shabby armour, and, as soon as he has stepped in blood to the throne, marches through the streets in crown and George and Garter; the climax of The Tempest is reached when Prospero, throwing off his enchanter’s robes, sends Ariel for his hat and rapier, and reveals himself as the great Italian Duke; the very Ghost in Hamlet changes his mystical apparel to produce different effects; and as for Juliet, a modern playwright would probably have laid her out in her shroud, and made the scene a scene of horror merely, but Shakespeare arrays her in rich and gorgeous raiment, whose loveliness makes the vault ‘a feasting presence full of light,’ turns the tomb into a bridal chamber, and gives the cue and motive for Romeo’s speech of the triumph of Beauty over Death.

Even small details of dress, such as the colour of a major-domo’s stockings, the pattern on a wife’s handkerchief, the sleeve of a young soldier, and a fashionable woman’s bonnets, become in Shakespeare’s hands points of actual dramatic importance, and by some of them the action of the play in question is conditioned absolutely. Many other dramatists have availed themselves of costume as a method of expressing directly to the audience the character of a person on his entrance, though hardly so brilliantly as Shakespeare has done in the case of the dandy Parolles, whose dress, by the way, only an archaeologist can understand; the fun of a master and servant exchanging coats in presence of the audience, of shipwrecked sailors squabbling over the division of a lot of fine clothes, and of a tinker dressed up like a duke while he is in his cups, may be regarded as part of that great career which costume has always played in comedy from the time of Aristophanes down to Mr. Gilbert; but nobody from the mere details of apparel and adornment has ever drawn such irony of contrast, such immediate and tragic effect, such pity and such pathos, as Shakespeare himself. Armed cap-a-pie, the dead King stalks on the battlements of Elsinore because all is not right with Denmark; Shylock’s Jewish gaberdine is part of the stigma under which that wounded and embittered nature writhes; Arthur begging for his life can think of no better plea than the handkerchief he had given Hubert –

Have you the heart? when your head did but ache,
I knit my handkerchief about your brows,
(The best I had, a princess wrought it me)
And I did never ask it you again;

and Orlando’s blood-stained napkin strikes the first sombre note in that exquisite woodland idyll, and shows us the depth of feeling that underlies Rosalind’s fanciful wit and wilful jesting.

Last night ’twas on my arm; I kissed it;
I hope it be not gone to tell my lord
That I kiss aught but he,

says Imogen, jesting on the loss of the bracelet which was already on its way to Rome to rob her of her husband’s faith; the little Prince passing to the Tower plays with the dagger in his uncle’s girdle; Duncan sends a ring to Lady Macbeth on the night of his own murder, and the ring of Portia turns the tragedy of the merchant into a wife’s comedy. The great rebel York dies with a paper crown on his head; Hamlet’s black suit is a kind of colour-motive in the piece, like the mourning of the Chimene in the Cid; and the climax of Antony’s speech is the production of Caesar’s cloak:-