“Conceal me what I am, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent.”
The tension between appearance and reality, between who we seem to be and who we are, is a recurring theme in Shakespeare. Sometimes the role they play defines Shakespeare’s characters – for instance, Richard II, in the play named for him, is transformed by the kingship or lack thereof, as is Henry. Lear, too, in King Lear, is defined by the crown he wears and loses.
In stark contrast, Othello’s Iago is the mask, and defines the masks of others – his famous line, “I am not what I am” (Othello, 1.1.65) is just about the closest we can come to understanding him. He sees the world as a mirror of himself, where appearances are always false, always concealing the opposite of what they appear to be. “Honest Iago,” as everyone calls him, is lies personified, one who can speak no more when his lies are revealed. His power rests in painting masks for other people – of a bestial inferior for Othello, the noble and mighty warrior; a strumpet for Desdemona, the epitome of purity, etc., and making them – or others — believe those lies over the truth.
But though a role or disguise can sometimes shape the person who wears it, and is sometimes shaped by him, it can also free a character from societal and personal constraints. This, to my knowledge, only happens in the comedies, and only to women. Rosalind in As You Like It, Portia in Merchant of Venice¸ Viola in Twelfth Night, Innogen in Cymbeline, all dress as men to accomplish some goal, but as men, they are able to be much more free, and more truly themselves. As men, they can speak their minds, direct events, and be active players in their lives.
Roles are powerful, Shakespeare tells us, and who you seem to be might just become who you are. The stories we tell about ourselves, whether they begin true or false, have the power to shape both memory and the future.