The Function of Disguise in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night is based around disguise and
deception, both mental and physical. The deception leads to a lot of
misunderstanding and subsequently, a lot of humour.
The tale begins in Illyria with the Duke Orsino, who is suffering due
to his unrequited love for the Lady Olivia. The Lady is also suffering
from the recent loss of her brother and father, and currently wants
nothing to do with the equally mournful Duke.
A disguise is used for safety when a young character named Viola
becomes shipwrecked in Illyria. She has been warned of the dangers of
being alone in Illyria and so disguises herself as Cesario, a male
eunuch and goes to work for the Duke Orsino, whom she has heard well
The Duke accepts her service, under the impression that she is a he,
and wishes Cesario to attempt to woo the Lady Olivia, thinking she
will be taken in by his youthful looks. However, Viola has fallen in
love with the Duke Orsino,
'I'll do my best To woo your lady (Aside) Yet, a barful strife!
Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife'.
Unfortunately for Viola, the Lady Olivia is not interested in The
'Your lord does know my mind, I cannot love him'
and even worse for Viola, the Lady Olivia has taken a liking to her!
'I cannot love him; let him send no more - Unless perchance you come
to me again to tell me how he takes it'.
Viola now sees her disguise as something negative. She is in love with
the Duke but cannot tell him so outright but is reduced to dropping
hints, and she must now face the affections of another woman on
'Poor lady, she were better love a dream,
Disguise I see thou art a wickedness'
A disguise has caused Viola much trouble so far, although there is
great comic effect in watching Viola attempting to be something she's
Another factor that would have had great comical effect if the play
were being acted on stage, would be the fact that the actor playing
Viola would have been a man. In Shakespeare time women were not
allowed to act on stage and so a man, or more probably a teenager
who's voice had not yet broken, would be pretending to be a women, who
was pretending to be a man. This would have cause great hilarity among
I believe that Shakespeare was aware of the comic effect this would
cause and used it to its full advantage. If you were to see a
production of Twelfth Night at a theatre, you will see that they have
retained this use of all-male actors, which adds a whole new dimension
to the play.
Let us now look at another character, Marvolio, who puts on a mental
disguise to become someone he's not. He then goes on to wear a
physical one that gets him into trouble because of an illusion...