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Essay On Irony In Twelfth Night

1895 words - 8 pages

    Realizing that her disguise has produced unexpected results, Viola makes an allusion to the Gordon knot in order to describe the perceived difficulty of extricating herself from the confusion. Viola, in the act of reinterpreting herself as a man for the main purpose of protection, has found herself the body from which other characters can derive their own interpretations.


            As I am man,

            My state is desperate for my master's love:

            As I am woman (now alas the day!)

            What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?

            O time, thou must untangle this, not I,

            It is too hard a knot for me t'untie. Viola.                                   



Just as easily as a soft "chev'ril glove" may be turned inside out, especially when it is pulled off to uncover the hand, Viola's position in the play, in relation to the other characters, can be seen as one that leads to a flexible play of ideas that reveal multiple meanings, contradictory or otherwise.


This essay will show how the ironic positions of the main characters, in relation to Viola, in Twelfth Night contribute and then undermine the comic theme of the play, and finally, with certain dramatic license, reinstate it, thus complicating positions of evaluation at certain points in the play.


            In Twelfth Night, one finds that the combined romantic and comic aspects of the main plot stem mainly from the theme of mistaken gender identity. In dealing with this theme, it is necessary to note that Viola's disguise as a man is assumed to be opaque by the audience so that the other characters in the play can be expected to react accordingly to Viola who is disguised as Cesario. Viola as Cesario is in an advantageous position. Stephen Greenblatt explains that "because women had less freedom of movement........a passage from male to female was coded ideologically as a descent from superior to inferior" (92). Viola's 'ascent', therefore, allows here to seek employment and protection from Orsino, as well as allow her the freedom of movement which gives the scope for Viola's interaction with the other characters. This freedom in movement is paralleled by a freedom to portray any chosen identity and this is what Viola does. She mimics Orsino in her rendition of the courtly lover when she meets Olivia, but because she is in fact a woman, and also, in a way, Olivia's rival in love, Viola puts up a resistance in her courtship speeches. For Viola, there is no real desire to please Olivia or to fear that she may be offended. She mixes her criticism of Olivia with her official "text" when she tells Olivia:


            Viola.  I see what you are, you are too proud:

            But if you were the devil, you are fair.

            My lord and master loves you: O, such...

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