In the tragedy I am looking for today quite a number of characters pick up mask and pretend to be someone else. It isn’t an unusual plot element in Shakespeare’s work. In fact there are quite a number of plays in which especially young women disguise as men for various reasons. But the number of characters changing identities to survive, because they don’t know differently or to be dealt out a fate they think they deserve is especially high in this play.
Masks weren’t just a thing back in Shakespeare’s time. I love the Marvel and DC comic worlds. Ever since Teresa made me watch Arrow for another art project I am an avid viewer. The very first thing we hear about the main character is:
“My name is Oliver Queen. For five years I was stranded on an island with only one goal – survive. Now I will fulfill my father’s dying wish – to use the list of names he left me and bring down those who are poisoning my city. To do this, I must become someone else. I must become something else.”
Oliver Queen – he dons on a mask (ok, at that point of time he paints on a mask) and pulls a hood deep into his face because he feels that he can’t be himself and be good enough to accomplish his goals. The person he is appears to him not to be adequate, to be lacking. He creates a persona that covers all his insecurities, that can embrace his dark parts, and that seems to be inhumanly strong. But this persona is also isolated, hunted even, and without character – 2 dimensional and exchangeable (though that trick kept Oliver Queen from prison early on).
We all have Oliver Queen in us. We pick up masks because we think who we are is not sufficient or not adequate or not wanted or anyone else would be better. We are even advised to fake it till we make it. The mask is our attempt to dip into the river Styx and rise from it invincible, a hero.
But just as Achilles had a heel, a mask will never cover it all. It’s part of the package of being born human. Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses: our unique personality and our (com)passion that is born from who we are. It’s what makes us different, thus vulnerable. But it also allows us to find likeminded people, connect, create, and come up with unique solutions.
A mask does not only take away our distinctiveness and polarization. Achilles wasn’t a pleasant character overall, but his belief in his invincibility though he knew he would die and die soon since he chose glory over a long life, made him careless and that’s what made it possible for Paris to kill him with a simple arrow to his heel. The same way a mask makes us careless. We become aloof. We dismiss others to the point where we hurt their feelings. We make bad choices that hunt us. We stop to care. Like Achilles we become personified grief, in others and for our death inside.
That we don’t need to be someone else or perfect to be even a superhero proves another character that made it from the comic pages to the big screen. Tony Stark never denied that he is Iron Man. And Oliver Queen seems slowly to make peace with the person he is as well. Three seasons in and he has found at least a group of people already for whom his mask isn’t necessary anymore:
“My name is Oliver Queen, after five years in hell, I have come home with only one goal – to save my city. Now others have joined my crusade. To them, I’m Oliver Queen. To the rest of Starling City, I’m someone else. I am something else.”
Back to Shakespeare and today’s play. It ends with all characters taking down their masks and admitting to who they always have been. And as far as tragedies go this is a happy ending. That’s maybe why some scholars call it a romance, one of Shakespeare’s late romances. Which play am I looking for today? If you know it send an email to email@example.com. For rules and more check here.