Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mistaken Identity in Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night is one of William Shakespeare’s so-called transvestite comedies that features a female disguising herself as a young man. This concept might be difficult to grasp by today’s audience but during Shakespeare’s time it was not unusual for female roles to be played by young boys. Every character in the play is involved in a situation where they think one person is someone else. These situations lead to turmoil and humor in the play. The many instances of mistaken identity and uncertainty of gender in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night contribute to the theme of confusion in the play.

The first character in the play to introduce the theme of confusion is Viola. She is distraught after being separated from her twin brother, Sebastian, in a shipwreck. In hoping that he could still be alive, she is determined to support herself in an unfamiliar land by getting a job as a messenger in town. She says to the captain that rescued her, “conceal me what I am, and be my aid ... present me as [a male soprano] to him” (Shakespeare I.ii.4-5). Presenting her as a male soprano explains the high pitch of her voice. She decides to disguise herself as a young man named Cesario so she can work for Orsino, the duke of Illyra. Viola’s job is to be a messenger and after three days she becomes a favorite of Duke Orsino. He says to Cesario, “it shall become thee well to act my woes / She will attend it better in thy youth” (Shakespeare I.iv.6-7). The duke decides to send Cesario on the most important errand as messenger of his love letters to Olivia believing she will accept the letters from a youthful boy. This will eventually lead to trouble as a love triangle between Olivia, Orsino, and Viola is formed.

This love triangle becomes the main focus that the play will revolve around. Olivia falls in love with Cesario much like Orsino has fallen in love with Olivia. This is apparent when we compare what each one says about their sudden attraction. Duke Orsino says, “O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first / Methought she purged the air of pestilence / That instant was I turned into a hart” (Shakespeare I.i.18-0). Olivia says, “Even so quickly may one catch the plague? / Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections / With an invisible and subtle stealth / To creep in at mine eyes” (Shakespeare I.v. 8-86). They are both overwhelmed by the sickness of love, which can not be controlled. The problem is that they are not infatuated with each other in the same way. The duke’s love for Olivia is reciprocated by Olivia toward Cesario.

Another problem that arises is that Viola falls in love with Orsino while working with him for a few days. She can not do anything about it because Orsino thinks she is a male. This gender uncertainty allowed Viola to get a job within the walls of the house but does not allow her to follow her heart or her feelings for Orsino. Olivia has succumbed to love and has fallen for Cesario after a few speeches but she has fallen for a woman instead of a guy. This attraction allows us to see another way that gender uncertainty is woven through the play.

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The relationship between Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, and the man who cared for him, Antonio, can be viewed in different ways. Antonio could be just a good friend to Sebastian but it is more likely he is in love with him because of the other gender uncertainty relationships presented earlier in the play. Antonio divulges his feelings in the play with sayings such as, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant” and “I have many enemies in Orsino’s court / Else would I very shortly see thee there / But come what may, I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (Shakespeare II.i.1-,40-4). This shows the love that he feels toward Sebastian that goes further then just friendship. Antonio is willing to risk his life for Sebastian and travel with him to Orsino’s court. The relationship between the two is that of love from the viewpoint of Antonio.

The cases concerning mistaken identity become more relevant beginning in Act III, scene iv. Cesario is challenged to a duel by Sir Andrew who is infatuated with lady Olivia. Antonio enters the scene to see Cesario about to fight and believes it is his friend Sebastian. This leads him to try and take his place in the duel and eventually gets him arrested by the authorities. Antonio feels betrayed by Sebastian when he attempts to get his money back for bail. This situation of mistaken identity ends up making the authorities believe Antonio is insane as well as giving him the sense of betrayal.

Sebastian enters the stage and is mistaken as his twin sister Viola. He is immediately thrust into a duel with Sir Andrew and proposed to by Olivia. Olivia asks him to marry him thinking that he is Cesario. Sebastian says, “Or I am mad, or else this is a dream / Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep / If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep” (Shakespeare IV.i. 5-61). He is confused with the sudden duel and the marriage proposal but it seems he is not complaining. The mistaken identity and gender uncertainty is all explained in the last scene. Olivia finds out that she did not marry Cesario. Orsino finds out Cesario is really Viola and that she is in love with him. Antonio finds out that Sebastian did not really betray him with the authorities. Everyone has to look back at their past experiences to determine exactly how to deal with the confusion they felt throughout the play.

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