I was very young when I had chance to see The Lion King on Broadway. When the actors first arrived on stage with their elaborate headpieces and masked faces, I remember how terrified I felt. Amidst my tears and desperate requests that my family leave the theater, my mother assured me that the masks were “just costumes” and that the people did not actually look similar to the characters that they played on stage. “It is just like dress up,” I remember her saying. Recently, when I read about Venetian masking and people’s lives surrounding the masks, I was surprised to discover that people actually assumed the roles connected with the masks that they wore. In fact, it was not until I participated in a masking activity myself when I truly appreciated stories such as Casanova’s and understood the chaos surrounding Carnival in Venice. By masking myself as different characters, one similar to my own and one quite different, I anticipated I would maintain a constant character, and was wholeheartedly surprised with myself when I assumed the roles of the characters behind the masks.
The first mask that I had the pleasure of wearing was elaborate, decorative, and looked as though it may have represented a noblewoman in Venice. I remember in my reading that individuals who were not considered nobility often dressed as nobles either to make fun of them or to have a sense of interpretive authority. While wearing the mask, I most definitely became more concerned with and aware of my appearance. I walked with an exaggerated air, moved more slowly, and held my head up to the ceiling, looking at few people as I passed. Although my intention was not to make fun of a particular class, simply by wearing a particular mask I found myself acting more pretentious, mean spirited, and attention-loving.
On the other hand, the second mask that I wore, which was small, simple, and multicolored, was something I would consider more similar to my own personality. Although I did not act, walk, or talk particularly differently than I would normally while wearing the mask, I was surprised by how different I still felt behind the mask. The mask reminded me of myself because it was funny and quirky, and, though I would say I have elements of those characteristics embedded in my own personality, the mask definitely amplified those characteristics within myself. I remember reading that Casanova “hated deceit,” and, because he wore masks to hide himself, I considered his words rather hypocritical. However, having tried masks on now, especially the one I thought was similar to my own personality, I understand why Casanova thought himself to be honest. Masks, I have found, were not only a chance for early Venetians to become someone new, but they also allowed people to be intensified versions of themselves.
Kids grow up hearing the phrase “Do not judge a book by its cover.” Interestingly enough, however, because of Venice’s intensely hierarchical structure, whether people had masks or not, they were not judged based on their true identities, but were more so evaluated socially on the basis of birth and family. The culture surrounding masking certainly highlighted a continued theme of judging people outwardly. In fact, as the readings pointed out, masking did not just take place during carnival. For six months each year, masking was normal. People tended to respect that the masked did not wish to be recognized as who they were underneath the masks, so a culture developed that centered on people recognizing people whom they knew solely by the characters that they assumed.
Once I became a person unlike myself during the masking process, both inwardly and outwardly, I imagined how useful masking would have been for women living in early Venice. If people like myself dressed as men, the culture of the times would have required that I be respected as a male figure. Similarly, when I walked past my classmates wearing masks, I was much more focused on the masks that they were wearing than the people I knew that they were behind the masks. In early Venice, it did not matter much who was behind the mask: a person’s mask determined his/her identity. For some, masks simply allowed a political outlet and an opportunity to be comical, while for others, masks were people’s chances to be temporarily freed from Venice’s patriarchal system.