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Twelfth Night

by: William Shakespeare

Act I, scenes i–ii

Meanwhile, Viola’s decision to disguise herself as a young man in order to find a job seems somewhat improbable. Surely this elaborate ploy isn’t necessary; even if Orsino only hires young men, there must be ladies other than Olivia in Illyria who are hiring servants. But Viola’s act of disguising herself generates an endless number of interesting situations to advance the plot. Shakespeare’s comedies frequently rely on similar improbabilities, ranging from absurd coincidences to identical twins. We can interpret Viola’s disguise as something that makes the unprotected young woman feel safer in the strange land into which she has wandered. When she first describes her plan in this scene, she asks the ship’s captain to disguise her as a eunuch—a castrated man. This part of the plan is never mentioned again, and Shakespeare seems to have changed his mind or forgotten about it: Viola later presents herself as simply a delicate young man. Still, the idea of a eunuch is important to the play, since it stands as yet another symbol of gender uncertainty.

In noting the gender confusion that pervades Twelfth Night, it is important to realize that, for Shakespeare’s audiences, the idea of a girl successfully disguising herself as a boy wasn’t as ludicrous as it might seem to us. In Shakespeare’s day, all the parts in a play were acted by men: women weren’t allowed to perform on the English stage until the late 1600s, more than half a century after Shakespeare flourished. Thus, every acting company included several delicate young boys, who played the female characters. Renaissance audiences were open to the idea that a young man could convincingly disguise himself as a woman, and vice versa. Such fluidity in portraying characters of either gender adds an extra dimension to the complexity of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing characters.