“Surprise!”: the Role of Disguises in Twelfth Night
By Isabel Dresler, per. 2
The concept of disguise plays an important role in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth
Night. For the characters it represents a gender change, a status change, or simply a change
of persona. Some characters are obvious about their disguise, and others wear them simply
to make themselves feel like they’re someone else. Viola, the protagonist and main
character in the play, falls under all of the different categories and is the most prominent
example of this theme – and affects every character with the nuances of her assumed role
of Cesario, a servant to count Orsino.
Upon being washed up on the shores of Illyria, Viola believes that since her
brother is dead, she ought to (for some reason or another) don the garb of a male and go
to work for count Orsino, the local royal bachelor. He is smitten with Olivia, a
noblewoman in a neighboring castle, and sends viola, who is now “Cesario”, to profess
his love to her. However, this deal goes sour due to the fact that Olivia becomes
entranced with Cesario, who, as Viola keeps hinting to her, is “not as [she] thinks I am”.
Viola, as it turns out, is madly in love with Orsino and drops hints to him, as well, about
“prospective” lovers – which creates quite a pickle when Viola’s not-so-deceased twin
brother Sebastian enters the drama and marries Olivia, who thinks she married Cesario,
when Cesario is really Viola and in love with Orsino, who is furious at Cesario’s apparent
betrayal and engagement to the woman he’s been wooing. (Drama drama drama.)
Viola’s disguise gets her into even more trouble because Orsino then threatens to
kill Cesario for his impudence, saying “I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,” and Viola
acquiesces meekly (V.i.128). “And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest, a
thousand deaths would die,” she replies. This bizarre dialogue – articulating...