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?
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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?
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