Masks of Identity in Haywood's Fantomina and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

About this essay

We often think of disguises in a very stereotypical way – a man is disguised if he is wearing a large bushy moustache or a humorously oversized trench coat. However, disguises are often far more subtle; we disguise bits and pieces of our inner selves with small alterations to our behavior, better clothing, even hairstyles. Disguises, or better yet, changed appearances, are utilized to project the best possible image and conceal parts of our inner identity while making impressions. In Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina and William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, main characters employ disguises of the more overt kind, but the roles that they play while disguised also show the aforementioned subtle shifts in behavior and attitude.

Through the disguises of Haywood’s Young Lady and Shakespeare’s Duke, we can see how these two authors view identity as something permanent and unchanged by shifts in social appearance. We can also see, however, the disparity in what behaviors and demeanors are societally expected and accepted for both men and women, revealing a social disadvantage for women that still continues today.

Haywood’s Young Woman undergoes many shifts in appearance over the course of the novel, but her core self remains true. The Young Woman shows that we all have an inner identity that guides the many faces we put on in public. Her first disguise, Fantomina, is only put on after her first amorous encounter with Beauplaisir. Up until he ravaged her, much against her own consent, she had been satisfied with acting as an unnamed prostitute, simply contented with an amusing pretense. However, when asked her name, in fear of Beauplaisir “discovering her true Name and Quality,” she invents the guise of Fantomina (Haywood 605). Haywood’s language suggests that there is a real identity to the Young Lady, one that it is dangerous for Beauplaisir to find out. Fantomina is not associated with her core self – if the Young Lady was synonymous in some way with Fantomina, she would have thought up this disguise well before bringing Beauplaisir home. This interaction also suggests the true power of the core identity – the Young Lady’s identity, reputation, and good name is so intimately personal that she absolutely has to invent a disguise to avoid disgrace. Her identity is so vital to her self-worth that even the audience never learns her name – the core self is constant, and it is also extremely guarded. After inviting him to her house as Incognita, the Young Woman is almost glad that Beauplaisir has not “been faithful to me’… ‘either as Fantomina, or Celia, or the Widow Bloomer”” (613). Here Fantomina, Celia, and Bloomer are all grouped as the same woman under the pronoun “me.”

These are different personalities, possibly even different perceived identities, but not actually different personal identities. Though Beauplaisir has been inconstant to different disguises, he has still technically stayed with the same woman throughout. Haywood’s protagonist gives us a picture of what unifies a person – no matter what disguises, forms, or assumed personalities they may put on, one set of values and an incredibly precious reputation remain constant at a person’s core.

Measure for Measure’s Duke Vincentio demonstrates a similar personal identity, allowing Shakespeare to also assert that a person’s core self remains the same despite any changes in appearance as long as their values remain constant. At the end of the play, the Duke, still posing as a friar, is unmasked by Lucio. He quickly tells Isabella that he is not “changing heart with habit” (5.1.385). His habit, or attire, was altered for almost the entirety of the play, but his heart never changed with it. The word “heart” also demonstrates what part of him remained the same – Vincentio was unchanged because of his values, his beliefs, and his inner emotional life. His physical appearance did not play into his identity, and so he altered it to suit his fancy, but his symbolic heart could not change without changing his identity. Vincentio’s remarks to Isabella continue and affirm even more strongly his belief that his core self was never altered. The Duke remarks that “I obscured myself” (5.1.391). If the belief was that the Duke’s identity had been altered, there would be nothing to obscure, just a new man taking the old Duke’s place. However, there is clearly something to obscure, something to use a social appearance to disguise, and that is the Duke’s core self. Throughout the entire play, the Duke is disguised – hiding the beliefs and values he holds, which have never changed, instead of becoming a different man. Shakespeare shows with certainty the core selves of individuals, comprised of emotions, values, and the beliefs that dictate a person’s actions, and how a simple disguise cannot change them.

Appearances may be assumed that fool society, but if a person knows that his values remain unchanged, at least internally, then he cannot fear his identity having changed.

While both Shakespeare and Haywood have similar takes on how identity remains constant despite changes in social appearance, the message of this constant identity differs greatly. Haywood views her Young Lady’s constant inner self as something important to herself but ultimately unimportant to society. We, as an audience, never learn the name of the protagonist – it’s simply not important to the story, not important to the society of the time. Even the title gives us no help – the book is named after the Young Lady’s disguise, not even her true self. “The fond, the yielding” Fantomina matters far more than “my fine Lady Such-a-one,”” a protagonist whose identity matters so little that even other characters do not mention her name while talking directly about her (Haywood 606, 604). Importantly, too, other characters do talk about her while she is in disguise – Haywood makes sure to draw attention to the protagonist’s disguise in a way Shakespeare does not. Whereas the Duke’s disguise is just a tool to achieve a goal, the Young Lady’s disguise is so important, so much a part of her importance to society, that other characters are used to point out this disguise. Fantomina’s world is a man’s world, dominated by masculine desires and needs. Men have reverence, but little passion, for the “Haughty Awe-inspiring Lady” – they instead want a Fantomina, a Celia, or a Mrs. Bloomer who will consent to every amorous encounter, to give themselves entirely to their man. As mentioned in my fourth Formal Feature Journal, “To Beauplaisir, women are similar enough to be generalize, one almost exactly like another, and one of their defining traits is a complete subservience to the men that they love” (Magoon, 1-2). The Young Lady’s inner self remains true and allows herself to feel in control of her affairs, having “outwitted even the most Subtle of the deceiving Kind,” but this is an empty victory at best (Haywood 610). Beauplaisir has no idea that he is remaining constant to the same Lady – in his mind, he is seducing a series of willing women, because the Lady’s different appearances are all that matters to him. The Young Lady contains parallels with Isabella from Shakespeare’s play. Isabella is also seen almost entirely in the context of her social appearances – what she thinks never enters into the plot as she is used as a piece in the political games of men. Angelo tells her to “Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite” – she has to change to meet his needs, whatever they be (Shakespeare 2.4.162). Her identity matters so little that Angelo doesn’t even notice that Mariana, not Isabella, is sleeping with him – one woman is as good as another. Isabella and the Young Lady demonstrate a kind of gender futility – they stay true to themselves and never surrender their true core values and beliefs, but this steadfastness is an empty gesture at best. Beauplaisir and Angelo only care for them in disguise.

Compared to Haywood’s stance that identity doesn’t matter, Shakespeare shows the male perspective, demonstrating that a disguise or public appearance hardly matters in comparison to personal identity. Not only does the Duke assume a new appearance for most of the play, but it is through this disguise that he learns at length what the common people think of him. The Duke, in the eyes of some commoners like Lucio, “would be drunk,” and is “A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow” (3.1.389, 400). The way the Duke is perceived by the people is yet another social appearance – granted, not one the Duke himself put on, but definitely a perception of his person not quite in line with his actual core self. The inner Duke shows himself repeatedly to be virtuous, fair, and very wise – though his tactics are roundabout and convoluted, he nevertheless looks out for subjects like Claudio and Isabella and crafts detailed plans on the fly to bring down Angelo. While talking to Lucio, the slanderer, at the end, he even makes reference to “mine honor,” showing that he has a stronger inner morality than Lucio thought (5.1.521). For the Duke, and therefore Shakespeare, it doesn’t matter what social appearances he has, all that matters is his inner self. As opposed to the Young Lady, who has to use disguises to get recognition, the Duke’s disguise barely matters – the other characters never realize and little attention is drawn to it. His disguise is merely a way to accomplish a job, a man’s task. The part his identity plays in his role as a man is identical to that of Beauplaisir in Haywood’s novel.

Beauplaisir is “accomplished” and has “Reserve;” he is a true and respected gentleman of the times (Haywood 603). He is seen this way despite the fact that he is also soliciting prostitutes in a public theater. Beauplaisir, like the Duke, never has to worry about keeping up appearances – his maleness allows him to act with an air of impunity, seeing as his personal identity matters far more than his appearance. Beauplaisir’s appearance is barely mentioned, but there are constant remarks about his honor, virtue, and charm – the qualities of identity that matter for a man. In Beauplaisir and the Duke, we can see the freedom with which men act – appearances hardly matter as they do with women. As long as a man is known to be of good character, he can act however he wants, and his appearance never matters. 

The fact that these two texts, written with such a similar concept of identity and how it compares to social appearances, have such different messages about said identity signifies the place of gender roles in society, an issue that remains as contentious now as it was in the time of the publications of these books. The difference in how the identity of the Young Woman and the identity of the Duke are seen can be heavily attributed to their genders. The Young Woman is not expected to have a strong central identity – as a woman, she is expected to be fawning, servile,

and compliant, and therefore her multiple changes of appearance are simply expected. It is not strange in this world of men that a woman should alter how she behaves, talks, and even appears to think in order to please a man. The Duke, a man, can place far more importance on his central identity. He is the one with the plan, the person expected to solve problems. His disguise is simply something he uses to accomplish a personal goal. It is hard to escape these stereotypical views of the sexes, even three to four hundred years after the publications of these texts. When we see events in the news like the “Gamergate” scandal, in which a female videogame developer was targeted in a supposed sex scandal, we once again see these gender roles come to light.

Women are still not expected to be as good at certain things as men – “girls can’t make videogames,” “girls can’t program computers,” and similar ideas run rampant in internet comment threads, news broadcasts, and even real-life conversations. While Shakespeare’s and Haywood’s ideas on identity seem innocuous and simple when read separately, reading them together forces us to notice this odd gender disparity, something which we cannot seem to escape from as a society. Reading these works together forces us to see how little has changed, how far we still have to go to alter societal perceptions, and how nothing can be done until the real identities of women are recognized – not what society asks them to be, but what they choose to be themselves.

Works Cited

  1. Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. Ed. N. W. Bawcutt. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1991. Print.
  2. Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze.” in British Literature, 1640–1789: An
  3. Anthology, Second Edition, edited by Robert De Maria, Jr (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 602–16.
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Masks of Identity in Haywood's Fantomina and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. (2022, Mar 30). Retrieved from

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