Monica Donaggio, in her study of the Decameron, analyzes the role of the "mask" and the "disguise" in some of the novellas and concludes that these actions/symbols tell much about the character of the individual stories and the messages brought forth by the individual novellas.
She begins her discussion by explaining that the use of a mask allows a character the freedom to test things and to do things which he or she would otherwise not do. In the character's normal, daily life, such actions would have been impossible. Donaggio ties the use of masks into the medieval society in which the Decameron's stories are set, explaining that the mask allows for new experimentation with individuality and social roles otherwise forbidden by established social codes.
The idea of "putting oneself to the test/mettersi alla prova" is one of the main narrative situations in the Decameron. The character is able to use his or her disguise to accomplish something specific, but, as Donaggio carefully notes, when this is done, the character is able to return to his or her previous identity (which hasn't ever really been forgotten).
Donaggio cites numerous examples of masks/disguise used in Boccaccio's novellas. Of particular interest, for example, is the disguise used by the groom in the second Novella of the Third Day, told by Pampinea. The narrator claims that the groom's disguise as the king is one of the most impressive of all possible disguises. It is also one of the most "audacious" and "transgressive."
Donaggio recognizes that certain characters' disguises are essential to the plot of their particular novellas while other disguises are only marginal to the actual plot. She similarly recognizes the instances in which males dress as females and those in which females dress as males. To her, there is a definite stigma which comes with being a female in this type of society and she attempts to explain the reasons why, when a male is disguised as a female, it is a "comical" event, but when a female is disguised as a male, there is a completely different tone to the effect of the disguise. The first of her hypotheses is that there is a "status" which comes with gender in this society. When a male dresses as a female, he is "lowering" his status; when a female dresses as a male, she is "raising" hers.
The second of her hypotheses is that, when a male dresses as a female, he is abandoning all that is typically "male" and is taking on those typically female characteristics (voice, behavior, etc.). This might be related to ideas of castration/impotence as comic targets of jokes or as involved in the roles of comedy.
A third idea is that the movement from being a male to being a female tends to narrow and limit the possibilities and actions of the male, something considered both comedic and ridiculous.
Obviously, for a disguise to be effective, it must be one which allows the character to move about unknown amongst those other characters whom he/she knows and with whom he/she has contact. With a mask/disguise, the character is able then to acquire a "freedom of movement" not possible without the mask or disguise.
Donaggio finds, moreover, that there are characters who disguise themselves and emerge as either "winners" or "losers" in their novellas. She believes that the character who is able to be "completely active and autonomous" is the one who has mastered the use of the "weapon of disguise." She contrasts this type of character with those passive characters who emerge negatively from their experiences while masked or disguised. Donaggio concludes by highlighting the fact that a disguise may take different forms: false identities, unknown identities, exchanging identities with others, etc. She believes that the use of masks/disguise is something essentially "youthful," with those young and active being able to use disguise to their advantage. Disguise, for her, is one of the main keys to understanding the multifarious world of the Decameron.
(L.G.) Donaggio, Monica. "Il Travestimento nel Decameron," Studi sul Decameron. Firenze: Le Lettere, 1988.