Question: Twelfth Night is based on a series of mistaken identities and disguises of one sort or another. Identify as many of the disguises as you can, and explain how each of them functions in the plot development.
The play Twelfth Night brings out the themes of mistaken identity and disguise. This is typical of Shakespeare’s comedies including As you like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The term ‘mistaken identity’ refers to a situation where one person is thought to be another. That is, when an individual is ‘mixed up’ with another. In such situations confusion and complication are products of the ‘mix up’. Disguise can lead to mistaken identity as demonstrated in Twelfth Night. Disguise may be defined as hiding ones true identity and can be done by altering ones physical appearance.
The most obvious disguise presented in the play is the skillful transformation of Viola into Cesario. After being washed ashore on the alien coast of the fictional country Illyria, Viola becomes convinced that her twin brother Sebastian is dead. She learns that she is near the home of Olivia, a young countess who is also in mourning for her recently dead father and brother. Desperate to survive, Olivia disguises herself as a boy and becomes a servant of the Duke Orsino who sends ‘him’ to woo Olivia on his behalf. Olivia though, falls in love with Viola as a result of the male disguise. This brings Viola to say “My master loves her dearly; and I, poor monster, fond as much on him. And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.”(Act2, Scene2). This points to the unrealistic desires of a woman in love with another woman unknowingly. Such a situation may be considered as misdirected passion due to the fact that Olivia “dotes” on a mere image presented. This situation is obvious dramatic irony as, though Olivia doesn’t know that Cesario is really a woman, the audience knows.
Dramatic irony refers to a situation in a narrative or other literary work in which the author and the reader or audience are privy to knowledge which a character is unaware of. This disguise functions as a complicating agent and gives rise to the conflicts ahead. It also adds to the comedic plot but more so to the romantic plot. It adds to the comedic plot in that it leads us as readers to question the nature of love and can be seen a Shakespeare’s way of mocking love in a sense. It also adds to the romantic plot as, through Viola’s disguise, a kind of love triangle is formed. The basic structure of this love triangle is: Olivia is in love with Cesario who is really Viola and Viola in turn is in love with Orsino his master who is in love with Olivia. “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness”, the words of Viola cements the idea that disguise though not intended to harm anyone, turns out to be ‘wicked’, in that it misleads the unknowing. In Act 3 Scene 3 Viola hints at her true identity to Olivia when she says “I am not what I am “but the unsuspecting Olivia does not understand the true meaning of the statement.
Another example of disguise occurs through the letter written by Maria, in Olivia’s handwriting. The letter addressed to Malvolio instructed him to do things which Olivia would hate. The unknowing Malvolio falls for the trick and does exactly as the letter says causing him to be punished by the countess. This specific disguise functions as a comedic element but to some may evoke sympathy depending on how the reader views the character of Malvolio. This also is an example of dramatic irony as Malvolio does not know that it was Maria who wrote the letter. This causes confusion due to the fact that Olivia is surprised by the behavior of Malvolio and does not know of the letter. Malvolio too is confused at the response of Olivia to his actions because he believes it was her instructions.