In honor of the release of the novel “Identity Theft,” which tells the story of a young employee who plays the role of his rock star boss in order to seduce a fan, I have compiled a list of some of the great impostors in literature. Impostors and mistaken identity have captured the imaginations of writers, readers and theater-goers for generations.
1. The Comedy of Errors- William Shakespeare (ca. 1590)
Mistaken identity drove the action in two of Shakespeare’s comedies. In The Comedy of Errors a pair of identical twins are separated at birth and by great coincidence the estranged twins each hire the second pair of twins to be their servants. Both sets of mismatched twins arrive in Ephesus on the same day causing all manner of confusion and rollicking farce. Shakespeare was not the first to write on this theme. His plot was borrowed and embellished from from the play The Menaechmi, written by the Roman dramatist, Plautus. In The Menaechmi only the masters were confused with one another, but Shakespeare one-upped his source by giving the identical twins identical servants who could also be confused with one another.
Shakespeare returned to the theme of separated twins in Twelfth Night. In this play the twins are male and female. They are separated in a shipwreck. The female twin, Viola, believes her brother is dead. So she disguises herself as a man, the obvious thing to do, and becomes employed as a servant to a duke. She falls for the Duke, but can’t tell him. The Duke is in love with a woman named Olivia, and he sends his man to court her. Olivia, instead falls in love with the messenger. It becomes even more confusing when Viola’s lost brother, Sebastian arrives and is confused for her male alter ego. All of this would have had an extra layer of humor for contemporary audiences because in Shakespeare’s day all roles were played by males. So Viola would have been a boy, pretending to be a girl, dressed as a boy.
Shakespeare also used mistaken identity to much more dramatic effect in Henry V. Before leading the men into a battle in which they are vastly outnumbered, the King goes out among the men in disguise and has the opportunity to hear what they really feel about the campaign and their king.
2. Tartuffe- Moliere (1664)
Tartuffe is actually subtitled “the impostor.” It is the story of a vagrant who poses as a pious man in order to gain entrance into the home of a prominent man and to break up his family and gain the estate. Thanks to Moliere’s play, the word “tartuffe” is used in France to denote a hypocrite who fakes religious piety. (It is reputed to be used this way in English as well, but I’ve never heard anyone actually use this word, have you?)
“Tis a mighty stroke at any vice to make it the laughing stock of everybody; for men will easily suffer reproof; but they can by no means endure mockery. They will consent to be wicked but not ridiculous,” Moliere once said.
If you like foreign language films, by the way, I would recommend a creative modern telling of the story, the 2007 film Moliere. The film imagines the playwright living a fictional scenario that resembles his famous play. He poses as a priest named Tartuffe and the events that follow inspire him to write a new kind of comedy.
3. The Government Inspector-Nikolai Gogol (1836)
In this play, corrupt officials in a provincial Russian town start to panic when they hear a government inspector is to arrive and report on their behavior. As they rush to cover up their mis-deeds, they learn that a stranger has recently arrived in town and assume that this is the dreaded inspector. The supposed inspector is actually a civil servant named Khlestakov. Initially he does not know why he is being invited to important people’s homes, being offered food, drinks and bribes and even the daughter of the mayor’s hand in marriage. The play ends when Khlestakov’s real identity is exposed and a letter arrives from the real inspector general, who wants a meeting with the mayor.
4. A Tale of Two Cities- Charles Dickens (1859)
If you know nothing else about Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, you probably know two lines, its opening “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Rarely has mistaken identity been so noble. Charles Daray is a good-natured aristocrat. He bears a striking physical resemblance to a barrister named Sydney Carton whose life has not amounted to much. Carton suffers from un-requited love for Darnay’s wife Lucie. It is the time of the French revolution, and as an aristocrat, Darnay is in danger. Lucie’s devoted pursuit of him puts her and her father at risk as well. Carton decides that the only way to save Lucie is to sacrifice himself and allow Darnay to marry her with a new identity. Carton visits Darnay in prison, drugs him and has an accomplice carry him out of prison so Carton can take his place at the guillotine. The words spoken by Carton as he goes to his death (quoted above) are some of the most famous in literature.
5. The Prince and the Pauper- Mark Twain (1881)
Tom Canty lives as a beggar in one of London’s poorest neighborhoods. He is beaten by his father if he does not come back with enough money. He escapes from this hard life by daydreams about the aristocracy. One day Tom wanders over to Westminster and spots Edward Tudor playing on the other side of the fence. When a soldier roughly pulls Tom away, Edward sees it and rebukes the soldier. He invites Tom into the palace. Each envies the life of the other. Tom would like to live a life of comfort and luxury, Edward would like to live a life unconstrained by upper-class social convention. They play dress up in each other’s clothes. A guard, mistaking Edward for the beggar, throws him out and the prince and the pauper change position. After a series of adventures with Tom learning to behave as someone of royal birth and Edward trying to convince the outside world that he is a prince and not a pauper, the tale ends happily. Just as Tom is about to be crowned king, Edward steps forward and Tom, feeling guilty for his charade, confirms his identity. Tom is made the “King’s Ward” and Edward, because he has had the experience of poverty, grows into a just ruler.
6. Cyrano De Bergerac-Edmond Rostand (1897)
Rostand’s 1897 play was written in verse. It was loosely based on a real person, but the love story it recounts is fiction. Cyrano is a gifted soldier with a keen wit an great charisma. He also has a huge nose. He worships the lovely Roxanne from afar certain she would reject someone with such a face. Roxanne is in love with the handsome Christian. Christian has a beautiful face, but he is lacking in verbal wit. Cyrano agrees to write letters to Roxanne on his behalf. The beautiful letters express Cyrano’s own love and they work. Roxanne falls in love– with Christian. When Steve Martin adapted this as a film comedy, he gave it a happy ending. Roxanne discovers the secret and realizes she was in love with Cyrano, not Christian all along. In the original, Roxanne only discovers the truth about the letters when Cyrano has been mortally wounded, and he denies having written them to his death.
7. The Importance of Being Earnest- Oscar Wilde (1895)
The Importance of Being Earnest, subtitled “A trivial comedy for serious people,” contains a rare double dip of mistaken identity when Jack, who has been posing as someone named Earnest for years discovers his real name actually was Earnest and therefore his pose has been a pose. Jack (or is it Ernest?) apologizes for this turn of events by saying, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”
8. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz-L.Frank Baum (1900)
Dorothy and her friends, the cowardly lion, the scarecrow and tin man, go on a long adventure to find a magical wizard who they are told has the power to grant all of their wishes. After getting on the wrong side of a wicked witch, battling wolves, crows sent to peck their eyes out and winged monkeys, they finally get an audience with the man himself only to discover that he is not a wizard at all but a guy from Nebraska who was blown off course in a hot air balloon. The ersatz wizard’s real name, incidentally, is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs. He doesn’t want to play the role of the Great and Powerful Oz any more. He just wants to go home to Nebraska and work in a circus. The moral of the story is not to put faith in powerful authority figures, but to trust that you have the power to make your own dreams come true. It is a thoroughly American tale.
9. Pygmalion-George Barnard Shaw (1913)
Professor Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can take a poor London flower girl, Eliza Doolitte, and pass her off as a society lady by teaching her proper diction and manners. Eliza successfully pulls off the act, passing as a swell at a garden party. But she is left wondering what is to become of her now that she does not entirely fit in with either class. The play was a commentary on the rigid British class system of the time. It was adapted into the musical play and film My Fair Lady.
10. Superman-Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (1938)
There are many more traditionally literary examples I could have included. In the 1930s no one yet thought to call a comic book a graphic novel. But the popular masked characters of the era represent, I believe, a cultural transition in our depiction of the hero from someone whose good deeds remain unrewarded and unknown (as in A Tale of Two Cities and Cyrano De Bergerac) to the modern hero who saves the world and is celebrated for it. In between we had, in the early 20th Century, the emergence of the masked hero who preformed good deeds using a secret identity. This allowed him to be both celebrated and anonymous. There was no greater example of this than Clark Kent/Superman.
Do you have a favorite literary example of mistaken identity? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.