Disguise in Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night is one of William Shakespeare's so-called transvestite comedies that features a female disguising herself as a young man. This concept might be difficult to grasp by today's audience but during Shakespeare's time it was not unusual for female roles to be played by young boys. Every character in the play is involved in a situation where they think one person is someone else. These situations lead to turmoil and humor in the play. The many instances of mistaken identity and uncertainty of gender in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night contribute to the theme of confusion in the play.

The first character in the play to introduce the theme of confusion is Viola. She is distraught after being separated from her twin brother, Sebastian, in a shipwreck. In hoping that he could still be alive, she is determined to support herself in an unfamiliar land by getting a job as a messenger in town. She says to the captain that rescued her, "conceal me what I am, and be my aid ... present me as [a male soprano] to him" (Shakespeare I.ii.49-52). Presenting her as a male soprano explains the high pitch of her voice. She decides to disguise herself as a young man named Cesario so she can work for Orsino, the duke of Illyra. Viola's job is to be a messenger and after three days she becomes a favorite of Duke Orsino. He says to Cesario, "it shall become thee well to act my woes / She will attend it better in thy youth" (Shakespeare I.iv.26-27). The duke decides to send Cesario on the most important errand as messenger of his love letters to Olivia believing she will accept the letters from a youthful boy. This will eventually lead to trouble as a love triangle between Olivia, Orsino, and Viola...
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