As for the uses Shakespeare makes of disguises the instances are almost numberless. Posthumus hides his passion under a peasant’s garb, and Edgar his pride beneath an idiot’s rags; Portia wears the apparel of a lawyer, and Rosalind is attired in ‘all points as a man’; the cloak-bag of Pisanio changes Imogen to the Youth Fidele; Jessica flees from her father’s house in boy’s dress, and Julia ties up her yellow hair in fantastic love-knots, and dons hose and doublet; Henry the Eighth woos his lady as a shepherd, and Romeo his as a pilgrim; Prince Hal and Poins appear first as footpads in buckram suits, and then in white aprons and leather jerkins as the waiters in a tavern: and as for Falstaff, does he not come on as a highwayman, as an old woman, as Herne the Hunter, and as the clothes going to the laundry?
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.