â€œSurprise!â€: the Role of Disguises in Twelfth Night
By Isabel Dresler, per. 2
The concept of disguise plays an important role in Shakespeareâ€™s play Twelfth
Night. For the characters it represents a gender change, a status change, or simply a change
of persona. Some characters are obvious about their disguise, and others wear them simply
to make themselves feel like theyâ€™re someone else. Viola, the protagonist and main
character in the play, falls under all of the different categories and is the most prominent
example of this theme â€“ and affects every character with the nuances of her assumed role
of Cesario, a servant to count Orsino.
Upon being washed up on the shores of Illyria, Viola believes that since her
brother is dead, she ought to (for some reason or another) don the garb of a male and go
to work for count Orsino, the local royal bachelor. He is smitten with Olivia, a
noblewoman in a neighboring castle, and ...view middle of the document...
(Drama drama drama.)
Violaâ€™s disguise gets her into even more trouble because Orsino then threatens to
kill Cesario for his impudence, saying â€œIâ€™ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,â€ and Viola
acquiesces meekly (V.i.128). â€œAnd I, most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest, a
thousand deaths would die,â€ she replies. This bizarre dialogue â€“ articulating Orsinoâ€™s
strange violence and Violaâ€™s apparent death wishâ€”recede into the background amid the
general rejoicing that follows, but they leave critics baffled. There is a possibility that
Shakespeare is suggesting that love is so close to madness that both Orsino and Viola can
easily tip over the edge into blood-drenched insanity, where one lover becomes a killer
and the other a sacrificial lamb.
However, when Viola sheds her disguise, the effect of her femininity isnâ€™t as
valuable Orsino continues to address his now apparently future wife by her assumed male
name, which hints at his ongoing attachment to Violaâ€™s masculine potential.
â€œOrsino: If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,
I shall have share in this most happy wrack.
[To Viola] Boy, thou hast said to me a
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
Viola: And all those sayings will I overswear,
And all those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbÃ¨d continent the fire
That severs day from night.
Orsino: Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy womanâ€™s weeds.â€
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (V.i.258â€“266)
Though he knows Viola is a woman, Orsino continues to recognize Cesario as a genuine
identity for Viola. His statement that in female garb Viola will be his queen does not
make it clear that he is asking Viola to renounce her assumed male identity foreverâ€¦ nor
is it clear whether Orsino is truly in love with Cesario or Viola.
As troublesome as the disguises in the play are, they do create most of the
excitement of the plot and are responsible for the major twists and turns of the charactersâ€™
drama. Viola does quite a good job of using hers to the advantage of her and the
bewilderment of the other members of the play, and everything turns out for the best in