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Suprise! The Role Of Disguises In Twelfth Night

696 words - 3 pages

“Surprise!”: the Role of Disguises in Twelfth Night
By Isabel Dresler, per. 2

The concept of disguise plays an important role in Shakespeare’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 they’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 – 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.)

Viola’s disguise gets her into even more trouble because Orsino then threatens to

kill Cesario for his impudence, saying “I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,” and Viola

acquiesces meekly (V.i.128). “And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest, a

thousand deaths would die,” she replies. This bizarre dialogue – articulating Orsino’s

strange violence and Viola’s apparent death wish—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 isn’t as

valuable Orsino continues to address his now apparently future wife by her assumed male

name, which hints at his ongoing attachment to Viola’s masculine potential.

“Orsino: 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
thousand times
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 orbèd continent the fire
That severs day from night.

Orsino: Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds.”
          (V.i.258–266)

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 forever… 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 characters’

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

the end.

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