Twelfth Night’s Protagonist: A Woman in Men’s Clothing

William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night revolves around the theme of deception.  Whether through deliberate trickery or unintentional confusion, every character either misleads or is misled in matters of identity and motivation.  The character most reluctantly entrenched in this practice is Viola, a woman who disguises herself as a man. From this position, she inadvertently effects the destinies of three other characters: Orsino, Olivia, and Sebastian.

After surviving a shipwreck and becoming stranded on the island of Illyria, Viola joins the court of the Duke Orsino under the false identity of Cesario the eunuch (I. iv. 11-12).  Her duties for Orsino include journeying to and from the manor of the fair Olivia to woo her in the Duke’s stead.  Unfortunately, instead of warming up to the Duke’s endeavors, Olivia falls in love with “Cesario” (I. v. 297-298).  Viola thus finds herself in the awkward dilemma of being fawned over by another woman while she herself has affections for the Duke in whose stead she is acting.  To make matters even more complicated, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian has secretly come to Illyria as well.  The two get mistaken for each other by the rest of the characters until they are seen together in the final act and Viola’s true identity is revealed.

All the confusion surrounding Viola stems from a simple misunderstanding of her own making: everyone thinks of her and treats her as a man.  First, Orsino remains oblivious to her affections and is obsessed with his own feelings towards Olivia.  He tells the disguised Viola, “If ever thou shalt love, / In the sweet pangs of it remember me” because he only sees her as a diligent young man (II. iv. 17-18).  For this reason, he sees no danger is sending “Cesario” as his proxy to Olivia.  Second, despite Viola’s adamant objections, Olivia only grows more infatuated with her, having fallen under the illusion that “Cesario” is merely the Duke’s loyal—albeit stubborn—proxy.  Olivia abandons her melancholy and pines for “Cesario” unashamedly with outbursts such as: “I love thee so…Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide” (III. i. 159-160).  Third, not even Viola’s own brother Sebastian recognizes her; he is more willing to believe that a stranger shares his face and demeanor than that he has been miraculously reunited with his twin sister (V. i. 237-242).  Their resemblance is so striking, that even Olivia herself cannot tell the difference, marrying Sebastian by mistake before discovering the truth.

Within the play’s fiction, Viola certainly acts and talks well enough like a man to pass for one, but she never thinks of herself as one.  Her feminine intentions and feelings both determine her actions and indirectly lead to her ultimate happiness.  Her love for Orsino continuously drives her to obey his wishes, even at the risk of interacting with Olivia (I. iv. 44-46).  Consequently, in the final act, Orsino understands that Viola’s obedience to him was borne out of love and he asks for her hand (V. i. 285-286).  Also throughout the play, Viola advises Olivia against entertaining her current passions and finding love elsewhere.  Upon finally discovering Viola’s identity after marrying Sebastian in place of “Cesario”, Olivia realizes that Viola meant no harm.  The two become not just in-laws but friends as implied by Olivia’s line: “A sister!  You are she” (V. i. 344).  Despite deceiving everyone around her by appearing as a man, Olivia wins the affections of the man he loves and the friendship of the woman who initially loved her by being true to herself as a woman.

~Mich Walter


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