Twelfth Night: Themes of Mistaken Identity and Disguise

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Practice Essay
By: Nasharria Serinash
Date: December 21, 2012.
Question: Twelfth Night is based on a series of mistaken identities and disguises of one sort or another. Identify as many of the disguises as you can, and explain how each of them functions in the plot development.

The play Twelfth Night brings out the themes of mistaken identity and disguise. This is typical of Shakespeare’s comedies including As you like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The term ‘mistaken identity’ refers to a situation where one person is thought to be another. That is, when an individual is ‘mixed up’ with another. In such situations confusion and complication are products of the ‘mix up’. Disguise can lead to mistaken identity as demonstrated in Twelfth Night. Disguise may be defined as hiding ones true identity and can be done by altering ones physical appearance.

The most obvious disguise presented in the play is the skillful transformation of Viola into Cesario. After being washed ashore on the alien coast of the fictional country Illyria, Viola becomes convinced that her twin brother Sebastian is dead. She learns that she is near the home of Olivia, a young countess who is also in mourning for her recently dead father and brother. Desperate to survive, Olivia disguises herself as a boy and becomes a servant of the Duke Orsino who sends ‘him’ to woo Olivia on his behalf. Olivia though, falls in love with Viola as a result of the male disguise. This brings Viola to say “My master loves her dearly; and I, poor monster, fond as much on him. And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.”(Act2, Scene2). This points to the unrealistic desires of a woman in love with another woman unknowingly. Such a situation may be considered as misdirected passion due to the fact that Olivia “dotes” on a mere image presented. This situation is obvious dramatic irony as, though Olivia doesn’t know that Cesario is really a woman, the audience knows. Dramatic irony refers to a situation in a...
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