The Rejection of the Self in Twelfth Night

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The “dark side of life” that William Shakespeare exposes in his play, Twelfth Night, is the danger in the individual's willingness to abandon the intrinsic self as a means to better realize a goal. The characters Viola, Feste, and Malvolio, in assuming new persona's, engage in a metaphysical betrayal in which they deny the reality of their nature.

Viola's choice to serve Duke Orsino as a page in hopes of finding her brother is by no means unethical, and her efforts are ultimately successful, but she does develop a major existential crisis when she assumes the identity of Cesario. Upon agreeing to woo Olivia on Orsino's behalf, Viola realizes that her service has encountered a “barful strife” with her unexpected love for Orsino (1.4.41). Chiefly, she is unable to reveal her desires due to Cesario's inabilities to both accurately represent Viola and offer a genuine heterosexual intimacy. Moreover, the unknown whereabouts of Sebastian deter Viola from risking her position in Orsino's court. Viola's freedom has become chained to love and servitude, as her overarching goal, locating her brother, prevents her from acting in good faith to herself. Even Viola's disagreement with Orsino, in which she claims that “In faith, they [women] are as true of heart as we [men],” is accepted with a biased civility (2.4.106). Orsino, who harbors an omnipresent misogynistic attitude, would likely dismiss Viola's argument without consideration if it came from a woman. While her beliefs and story are authentic, the latter by a technicality, she can only present Cesario's opinions and charisma rather than her own. These unique circumstances do benefit Viola and allow her to develop a “brotherly love” that would be inherently impossible for a woman, and “Cesario” certainly enjoys an enhanced credibility towards Orsino, but maintaining this guise requires her to maintain a tragic duality. Viola is only able to end this internal conflict when she reunites with Sebastian, allowing her to...
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