Twelfth Night: Disguise/Deception

Disguise is often presented as a cruel and painful practice. To what extent do you agree that disguise is used to create comic moments in twelfth night? Shakespeare incorporates the technique of disguise in the twelfth night to create comedic elements in the play; however some may argue that the concept of disguise is often cruel as it creates confusion and misconceptions that could lead to serious consequences. In Shakespearian times the role of women was restricted to usually their own homes and this was the case on the stage in Shakespeare’s plays.
All of the actors were men even in the women roles. This could be one of the first techniques of disguise that Shakespeare used that could portray comedy as a man in a feminine role is comedic however, it also puts across confusion especially in plays like the twelfth night where characters like Viola plays a role as a male persona. Viola is the main and obvious element of disguise in the twelfth night. She creates the comic aspect of the play as dramatic irony is depicted because none of the characters know that Cesario, the person who she has created through her disguise, is really a woman.
Her character creates a sort of love triangle between her, Olivia and Orsino but she can reveal nothing in fear of exposing her identity, “whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (Act 1 Scene 4). The cruel and painful practice is uncovered through this as Olivia doesn’t know that the person she is falling for is in fact a women and Viola can do nothing to let her know this, leading Olivia on into something that can’t happen. This is also the case with Viola as she can’t proclaim her love for Orsino.

Shakespeare creates torment mainly in the mind of Viola as the fate is ultimately in her hands but the disguise has restricted her. The constraint of her identity is a problem or arguably the comedic side of the twelfth night. In act 3 scene 4 Sir Toby create a duel between Sir Andrew and Viola against both their wills, “Sir Andrew and Viola draw their swords”. The disguise has gone against her as all the on looking characters believe that Sir Andrew is fighting a man when it is actually a woman which no one would consider fair, another example of where the hidden identity leads to a cruel practice.
The idea of Viola dressing up as a man in the first place could also be considered a cruel practice as it shows that she is aware that her being a women she may be disregarded socially which is why she takes on the disguise in the first place, this highlights the patriarchal society in Shakespearian times that reflects on the play. Malvolio is another character who takes on some sort of disguise in the hope of pleasing the supposed wishes of his lady Olivia, “I thank my stars, I am happy!
I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross gartered, even with the swiftness of putting on. Jove and my stars be praised! ” (Act 2 Scene 5). Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste all trick Malvolio into wearing the clothes that lady Olivia hates and Malvolio being naive and arrogant falls for this. The outcome was meant to be comedic for Maria and her friends and the audience also share the laughs simply because of foolishness of Malvolio and the new dress sense he takes.
The way in which this comedy came about however, came from a very malicious plan orchestrated by Maria as the idea of trickery was involved which caused Malvolio to believe that Lady Olivia loves him. The audience who also share the comedy can’t help but feel some sort of remorse for Malvolio. Malvolio putting on the cross gartered yellow socks lead him to being put away in the so called prison. Feste takes the role of Sir Topas the priest in order to trick Malvolio into thinking that he has gone insane, “Sir Topas the curate, who comes to visit Malvolio the lunatic” (Act 4 Scene 2).
The room in which Malvolio is locked into is dark so he couldn’t see if it were actually Sir Topas even though we know it isn’t. Feste didn’t have to take the disguise of Sir Topas but rather just sound like him, this shows the effect of a disguise as he chooses to dress like the priest to possibly get into character to portray the character more clearly. This is very cruel as Feste uses trickery and confusion to show Malvolio to be something he’s not and also make him believe that a Priest is consulting him.
Ultimately the technique of disguise is often used to create a hidden identity and confusion between characters, Shakespeare however, uses this technique to create comic elements as well. As brought up before we find that the sexual confusion love triangle between Olivia, Orsino and the Viola/Cesario character creates comedy. Olivia as we know falls for Cesario who’s a women, but we also find that Orsino may be attracted to Cesario in a way, in plain terms this is acceptable as she’s a women but he addresses her as a male which raises the question of what Shakespeare is trying to outline.
This is shown “That say thou art a man: Diana’s lip Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, And all is semblative a woman’s part” (Act 1 Scene 4). Shakespeare may be trying to achieve something more than comedy by saying that disguise may bring out other elements. The other aspect of comedy was explored when Malvolio was tricked by the letter into wearing the disguise which consequently caused the imprisonment of him, which could then be argued is a painful practice.
The disguise of Viola also causes the cruel treating of Antonio as he claims to have been with Viola/Cesario for 3 months and that they were together when they came to the town and Orsino and Viola clearly know that she has been working with Orsino, the confusion between Viola and Sebastian because of the disguise is evident; “Today, my lord and for three months before no int’rim, not a minute’s vacancy, both day and night did we keep company” (Act 5 Scene 1).
When all disguises from Viola’s to Feste’s and the reason behind Malvolio’s disguise is all revealed Shakespeare once again brings order after all had gone astray. There is no comic factor when all is exposed but there is in fact a sense of sorrow for Malvolio as everyone is happy apart from him. This could show that there is no positives in disguise and eventually it will lead to a cruel ending in this case Malvolio suffered the consequences.

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