Disguises and changes of clothing are central to the plot of Twelfth Night. Which characters in the play spend time in disguise, and how is this thematically important?
Many people in Twelfth Night assume a disguise of one kind or another. The most obvious example is Viola, who puts on the clothing of a man and makes everyone believe that she is a male. This disguise causes great sexual confusion, as a bizarre love triangle results in which Viola is in love with Orsino, who loves Olivia—who loves Cesario, the male identity that Viola assumes. Thus, by dressing his protagonist in male garments, Shakespeare shows how malleable and self-delusional human romantic attraction can be.
Another character in disguise is Malvolio, who dresses oddly (in crossed garters and yellow stockings) in the hope of winning Olivia. In his case, the change of clothing suggests his belief that altering his wardrobe can lead to an alteration of his social status. When he dreams of being Olivia’s husband, he imagines himself above all in a different set of clothes, suggesting that class and clothing are inextricably linked. Later, after Malvolio has been declared mad and has been confined to a dark room, Feste, pretending to be the fictional priest Sir Topas in order to deceive Malvolio, puts on a disguise—even though Malvolio will not be able to see him since the room is so dark. This scene is particularly suggestive: Feste’s desire to wear a disguise even though his victim won’t see it implies that the link between clothes and reality goes deeper than mere appearances. For Feste, at least, the disguise makes the man—in order to be Sir Topas, he must look like Sir Topas. Ultimately, then, Shakespeare raises questions about human identity and whether such classifications as gender and class status are fixed entities or can be changed with a simple shift of wardrobe.
Twelfth Night, the holiday after which the play is named, was celebrated as a festival in which everything was turned topsy-turvy, with traditional social roles and behavior temporarily suspended. Are things similarly turned upside down in Illyria?
One could argue that normal situations are turned upside down in Illyria in several ways. First, there is the prevalence of disguise and the ambiguity of gender roles. The central character in this regard is the protagonist, Viola. After she arrives on Illyrian shores, she takes on the disguise of a young man, thus at once concealing her identity and reversing her normal gender role. This reversal leads to a most confusing love life, in which she winds up loving a man and being loved by a woman who do not realize that she is a woman.
Meanwhile, the play also depicts attempts to alter the established systems of class and authority. Malvolio, for instance, dreams of marrying Olivia and gaining authority over his social superiors, such as Sir Toby. The servants, whom Malvolio does command, get authority over Malvolio himself by being able to lock him in the dark room as a madman. Meanwhile, Malvolio’s antagonist, Maria, succeeds where he fails by managing to marry Sir Toby and thereby rising from her common birth to a noble rank. Indeed, Malvolio’s difficulties seem to stem from his unwillingness to be abnormal enough. He dreams of escaping the rigid class system that makes him a servant, but otherwise he is a paragon of respectability and proper behavior. These qualities, in the topsy-turvy world of the play, cause his downfall, because they earn him the enmity of Sir Toby and Maria. Finally, all these events take place within a setting in which madness and anarchy are everywhere—Sir Toby’s drunkenness and disruptive behavior, Malvolio’s supposed insanity, Feste’s clowning, and the general perplexity caused by the doubling of Viola and Sebastian. All in all, the play is permeated with a sense of joyful confusion, in which nothing can be taken for granted.
How is romantic love depicted in the play? What points does Shakespeare seem to be making about romance?
Despite Twelfth Night’s comic action and happy ending, Shakespeare paints an ambiguous picture of romance and infatuation in the play. Love is generally represented as something sudden and irresistible, something that attacks its victim from the outside in a fashion similar to a disease. Like a disease, love is extremely difficult to get rid of or cure. People seem to suffer painfully from it—or at least they claim to suffer. Orsino describes it as an "appetite" that must be satisfied (I.i.1–3); Olivia calls love a "plague" (I.v.265); Viola sighs that "[m]y state is desperate for my master’s love" (II.ii.35). Because love makes those who suffer from it desperate, it has the potential to result in violence, as in Act V, scene i, when Orsino, thinking that Cesario is Olivia’s lover, threatens to kill him. At this point, the play is only a few delicate steps away from turning into a tragedy—a testament to how violent and terrible the power of love can be.
At the same time, however, Shakespeare subverts these images of love as a terrible disease or appetite, suggesting that it may not be as serious as characters like Olivia and Orsino think. Both of them tend to be melodramatic and self-centered, and both seem more interested in being in love than in any particular love interest. This egotism is apparent in how readily the two switch the objects of their affection near the play’s close: Orsino loses Olivia but happily takes up with Viola, while Olivia gladly exchanges a pretend man, Cesario, for a real one in Sebastian. The ease with which these supposedly lovesick characters jump from one love interest to another suggests that love may be more of a game than anything else—and that, like everything else in Twelfth Night, it should not be taken too seriously.
1. Discuss the role of mistaken identity in Twelfth Night. Who is mistaken for whom, and what do these mix-ups signify?
2. Discuss the role of the explicitly comic characters—Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, and Maria. What function do they serve? How is each one different from the others? How is Feste, in particular, different from Sir Toby and Sir Andrew?
3. What role does Malvolio serve in the play? Does his fate seem unjust? Is it out of place in a romantic comedy? If so, why might Shakespeare have included it?
4. Paying particular attention to the fate of Malvolio and Antonio, discuss how Shakespeare brings some ambiguous touches to the happy ending.
5. Compare Orsino and Olivia, and discuss how their attitudes about strong emotions are similar or different. What does Shakespeare suggest about the nature of love and other powerful feelings in his portrayal of these two characters?