Disguise and seeming

Appearance and reality

Shakespeare was a man of the theatre (see also The Theatre; Author > 1592 - 1611 > Life in London) and consequently knew the importance of illusion. Many of his plays – for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Macbeth deal with the difference between what the eyes think they see and what the reality is.

The Duke's disguise

The Duke in disguise. Photo by Keith Pattison, belong to Almeida Theatre, aailable through Creative CommonsIn Measure for Measure the most obvious difference between appearance and reality concerns the disguise which the Duke adopts as he observes Angelo – whose own appearance of saintliness disguises his actual corruption.

The Duke dresses as a friar – that is, a member of a religious group, or order, many of whom travelled around preaching sermons and hearing confessions. Like monks, friars would wear a special long robe, or ‘habit' with a large hood which could be pulled forward to cover the face. This is what Lucio refers to in Act V when he comments ‘Cucullus non facit monachum', which means ‘a hood does not create a monk.'

Ironically, this is more true than Lucio realises at the time:

  • Merely wearing the robe does not make the Duke a friar
  • He has borrowed the robe from Friar Thomas (in Act I sc iii) and has had to ask for instruction:
I prithee,
Supply me with the habit, and instruct me,
That I may formally in person bear
Like a true friar
  • Although he acts as if he is a friar and a priest:
    • He hears confession from Mariana (he tells Angelo in Act V sc i: ‘I have confess'd her, and I know her virtue' )
    • He gives spiritual advice to Juliet (Act II sc iii) and Claudio (Act III sc i)

he has no right to behave in this way (see also Characterisation > The Duke).

Pretence reveals pretence

  • When Lucio pulls back the Duke's hood, uncovering his face, in Act V – ‘Show your knave's visage' – he not only removes the Duke's disguise, but uncovers his own ‘seeming':
    • Lucio has pretended (Act III sc ii) to be ‘an inward' of the Duke's, claiming to be a close friend who knows the Duke as a lecher and ‘a very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow'
    • This pretence is now revealed for what it is: a pack of lies.
  • Mariana's veil, which she wears for the first part of the last scene, has the same effect:
    • Thinking that he will unmask some plot – some ‘strange abuse' - Angelo's command, ‘Let's see thy face', in fact has the ironic effect of unmasking himself and his own devious behaviour.

‘Seeming' Angelo

Although the Duke is the only person who wears a physical disguise throughout most of the play, the prevalence of pretence, hypocrisy and ‘seeming' is a strong theme, especially when associated with Angelo:

  • His very name is the ironic opposite of what he is revealed to be, and the Duke appears aware of this from the start, commenting to Friar Thomas (Act I sc iii):
‘Hence we shall seeIf power change purpose, what our seemers be.'
  • Isabella uses the same term when she accuses Angelo of hypocrisy in Act II sc iv: 
‘Seeming, seeming! I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for't.'
  • When she does ‘proclaim' him (Act V sc i) as
‘an hypocrite, a virgin-violator',

she asks the Duke to

‘make the truth appear where it seems hid, And hide the false seems true.'

The deceiver deceived

Angelo is himself deceived by:

  • The Duke's apparent removal from the state
  • The ‘bed-trick', whereby Mariana comes to him at night instead of Isabella
  • Being sent the head of Ragozine instead of Claudio (the Duke having already suggested sending the head of Barnardine since ‘death's a great disguiser')

Acceptable deceit?

Although the Duke's stratagems are subterfuges, the disguised Duke tells Isabella (Act III sc i) that:

‘the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof'.

This argument could well be used for the Duke's apparent withdrawal from Vienna and his return in disguise, since it enables him to ‘visit both prince and people' (Act I sc iii). The Duke also sees the substitution for Claudio's head as a good action - ‘an accident that heaven provides (Act IV sc ii). As the Duke tells Angelo in the last speech of the play, ‘Th'offence pardons itself."


The Friar's habit is an overt image of disguise, and throughout the play Shakespeare uses images of clothing to suggest pretence.

More on clothing and pretence: Clothing to suggest pretence seems to be a favourite device of Shakespeare's, probably stemming from his role as an actor as well as playwright. Clothing imagery features prominently in plays such as Macbeth and King Lear, where a ruler's power is compared to a robe which is put on, not part of a king's physical self. In the first scene of Measure for Measure, the Duke uses the same idea when he says that he has ‘Lent (Angelo) our terror, drest him with our love.'
  • Isabella points out to Angelo (Act II sc ii) that the trappings and clothing of a ruler are insignificant; what matters is his virtue, his grace:
No ceremony that to great ones longs,
Not the king's crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe,
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does

She goes on to say that ‘Man, proud man' is merely ‘dress'd in a little brief authority.'

  • Angelo himself recognises, in his soliloquy in Act II sc iv, that his gravity and apparent moral behaviour is false, and that a position of power can impress with its external trappings:
O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming!
  • When Elbow tells the disguised Duke how strictly moral Angelo is, hating lechery, the Duke comments bitterly (and, the audience may feel in view of his own disguise, ironically):
That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!
  • Elbow himself, with his strange misuse of language (see also Shakespeare's Language > Language as a weapon), whereby he often creates exactly the opposite from the sense he intends, may be seen as a humorous contributor to the idea of falseness and disguise.


Face-painting, or make-up, is closely associated in Shakespearean imagery with pretence and disguise. In Measure for Measure it is also associated with prostitution:

  • Lucio refers to this when he asks Pompey in Act III sc ii,
‘Does Bridget paint still, Pompey?'

In contrast, in Act I sc iv Lucio comments on Isabella's ‘cheek-roses' – that is, her natural complexion

  • When commenting to himself on the power the innocent Isabella has over him (Act II sc ii) it is face-painting which Angelo means when he refers to the ‘art' of the ‘strumpet', or prostitute:
Never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite.
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