Twelfth Night's Theme of Identity

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Identity is a common theme that threads through the Twelfth Night as well as other Shakespeare plays, such as the Comedy of Errors. And as with the Comedy of Errors, there are twins, people are mistaken for others, and there is always someone going through a test of sanity. Even the name Twelfth Night resonates a sense of miscommunication due to its reference to the twelfth night after Christmas. It is the day when everything is turned upside down and all sense of reality is suspended. This coincides with Shakespeare’s choice to make the play occasional. The plot itself flips certain character identities using disguises, indistinct gender roles, and the allure of class mobility. Disguise is the most obvious plot twist leading to misconceptions in addition to a love triangle. This is initiated by Viola’s idea to mask herself as a gentleman named Cesario. The situation focuses solely on the identity you portray to your environment which is not, in this case, the identity Viola has as her true self. One’s physical features can therefore hold a particular amount of weight in the identity you take in a society. It is this disguise that triggers the mayhem that happens in the main plot on this particular January 6th in the play. In a way it resembles the Comedy of Errors in that at the end of the play, Cesario and Sebastian look like twins and the characters think it is due to witchcraft. This gender switch reveals another take on identity- that of indistinct gender roles. In Shakespeare’s time the role of Viola would have been a male actor performing a females character who then pretends to be a man named Cesario. This flip-flop of gender roles creates an interesting exposure of how the audience perceives what is feminine and what is masculine. Is Cesario’s role a feminine male or a masculine woman? Sometimes not even Viola knows how to act in her male disguise, expressing words such as “My father had a daughter loved a man, as it might be, perhaps, were I a...
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