Unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each of the cross-dressing characters does so as the result of conscious decision (as opposed to magical influence) and in order to attain a goal. While there are certainly a number of disguises in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” there are different motivations for characters wearing them. For Viola, her reasons for dressing as a young man are clear since she wants to be able to make a living in the new land she has found herself inhabiting. Although it may be a bit farcical because she may have just as easily found employment without resorting to such extreme measures, she nonetheless is resolute in her decision to seek out Orsino. At the moment of her decision she boldly states, Viola fresh off the ship: “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / the form of my intent” (I.ii.49-51). It is important to note that she directly refers to her disguise as being related to intent and this intentional disguise is a theme that continues throughout “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare.
Viola’s choice of dressing as a young man, however, obviously complicates her pursuit of Orsino and although this is finally resolved at the end of “Twelfth Night”, her appearance actually dictates the reality of her love life. There is a sense of hopelessness in the battle between what one sees and what is truth and it is best summed at the climax of this identity conflict when Viola, realizing that Olivia loves her/him, says, “Poor lady, she were better love a dream” (II.ii.24). In some senses, this play is, much like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a dreamscape where nothing is what it seems to be, the only difference being the use or exclusion of magical influence. ”Twelfth Night” is a play in which reality does not often correspond to appearances and thus it is easy for the reader to begin to accept character’s decisions to take on disguises and for Malvolio to become enamored with the idea (the appearance) of the...
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