Twelfth Night

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Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed to an audience from different social classes and of varying levels of intellect. Hence his plays contain down-to-earth characters that appeal to the working classes, side-by-side with complexities of plot, which would satisfy the appetites of the aristocrats among the audience. However, his contemporary status is different, and Shakespeare’s plays have become a symbol of culture and education, being widely used as a subject for academic study and literary criticism. A close analysis of Twelfth Night, which is considered to be a reference to the twelfth night of the Christmas celebration, shows how Shakespeare is able to manipulate the form, structure, and language of a play in order to contribute to the meaning of it, which in the case of Twelfth Night is that of deception. Also, Shakespeare uses Twelfth Night to examine the patterns of love and courtship through the twisting of gender roles.

I found this play to be the most entertaining of those I have read because of the fact that it is completely different from that of any other Shakespeare play. This romance explores numerous themes of love; however, the most recurrent theme is that of deception. There are many characters in the novel that suffer from deception. But the most overt examples of disguise is through the character of Viola. I find that this is the origin of much of the deception in the play. Stranded in Illyria after a shipwreck, she dresses as a male in order to work as a Eunuch for the Duke Orsino. “Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him.” This is seen as the first accidental deception and is where the disguise forms the plot. Even though it wasn’t Viola’s intention to deceive people, the disguise that she puts on is what constructs the plot and the romantic deceptions with Olivia, Orsino and Cesario.

Another example of how disguise and deception is used within the play is seen among the relationship between Olivia and Cesario. Within the play Olivia is deceiving herself by thinking she can mourn for her brother and at the same time abjure the company of men. However, this sense of deception is gone when she shows interest in the young man at her gates. The young man is Viola who is disguised as a man, which in turns leads Olivia to fall in love with a man, who is in fact a woman. Shakespeare is creating a lot of confusion because in Elizabethan theatre, a man would play the role of a woman, which I will talk about later.

The play then moves on to examine patterns of love and courtship through the use of twisting gender roles. In Act 3, scene 1, Olivia displays the confusions created for the characters as she takes on the traditionally male role of a wooer in an attempt to win the disguised Viola, or Cesario. Olivia praises Cesario’s beauty and then addresses him with the belief that his ‘scorn’ only reveals his hidden love. However, only the surface of her problem is presented in her speech when she mistakenly interprets Cesario’s manner. The reality of Cesario’s gender, the active role Olivia takes in pursing him/her, and the duality of word meanings in this passage threaten to turn the traditional patriarchal concept of courtship upside down, or as Olivia would say, turn “night to noon.”

Perhaps the biggest upset to the traditional structure is the possibility that Olivia may be in love with a woman. Shakespeare allows you to excuse this by having Olivia be unaware that Cesario is actually female. Yet, Olivia’s attraction seems to stem exactly from the more feminine characteristics like Cesario’s ‘beautiful scorn’ and ‘angry lip.’ It is Olivia’s words that made think that Olivia knew Cesario was a female, yet choosing to love him/her anyway.

Olivia’s description of Cesario’s beauty, both here and upon their first encounter, praises typically femine qualities, but curiously doesn’t question Cesario’s gender. The comparison of love to guilt tempted me to wonder if Olivia was guilt about...
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