Disguises And Mistaken Identity In Twelfth Night

1555 words - 6 pages

Mistaken identity and disguise are important aspects of comedy in Twelfth Night that stand at the forefront of the play’s comedy. Not only are mistaken identities and disguise evident within the main plot of the play but also in various other situations. Sexual confusion amongst characters, subversion of gender roles and farcical elements through stagecraft all effectively contribute to the dramatic comedy genre. However, it can be suggested that certain elements of Twelfth Night are not interpreted to be purely comedic; Shakespeare has incorporated serious and controversial subjects such as the idea of genuine love, the patriarchy of the time and the cruel gulling of Malvolio. Therefore, disguise and mistaken identity are not solely for the purpose of comedy and it could be inferred that it even borders on the genre of tragedy.

Throughout Twelfth Night, disguise and mistaken identity works as a catalyst for confusion and disorder which consistently contributes towards the dramatic comic genre of the play. Many characters in Twelfth Night assume disguises, beginning with Viola, who disguises herself as a man in order to serve Orsino, the Duke. By dressing his protagonist in male garments, Shakespeare creates ongoing sexual confusion with characters, which include Olivia, Viola and Orsino, who create a ‘love triangle’ between them. Implicitly, there is homoerotic subtext here: Olivia is in love with a woman, despite believing her to be a man, and Orsino often comments on Cesario’s beauty, which implies that he is attracted to Viola even before her male disguise is removed. However, even subsequent to the revealing of Viola’s true identity, Orsino’s declares his love to Viola implying that he enjoys lengthening the pretence of Viola’s masculinity. In his final lines, Orsino declares, ‘Cesario, come – for so you shall be while you are a man’. Orsino continues to address Viola by her male name. Thus, it could be questioned whether Orsino is truly in love with Viola, or if he is more infatuated of her male facade. In an Elizabethan era, Sodomy was a capital offense; as a result this latent hint of homoeroticism may evoke surprise although may not have been taken seriously. Consequently, this may provoke incredulous laughter in the Elizabethan audience, an idea suggested by numerous modern day critics. This is closely related to the concept of incongruity theory of laughter, ‘the idea that we laugh at mismatched ideas or elements, the juxtaposition of incompatible things’. In this instance, Shakespeare is using mistaken identity to create sexual confusion amongst characters, which evoke humour. However, Shakespeare may possibly be trying to communicate a fundamental message about the true nature of love and whether genuine love should be deemed as wrong purely based on gender.

Similarly, this idea relates to the suggestion that Shakespeare may use mistaken identity and disguise to challenge society’s social norms and values in an Elizabethan...

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