Summary: Twelfth Night: What Lies Beneath the Surface

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“If music be the food of love, play on,” which seems to be a key element of this play, is the first line we read. The rest of the play follows a similar theme, but it is not so simple as feeding one’s love and growing that love. Shakespeare has a way of complicating love and other emotions throughout his plays with betrayal, mistaken identities, gender-bending, trickery, word-play, and secrecy. We see this all throughout the play as he crafts the character identities that carry the plot and cause more comedy than what the main plot seems to accomplish.

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The most comical and ironic part of this play is Viola’s role as Cesario. Her efforts to conceal her identity as her brother end up not only being comical when Olivia unknowingly falls for a woman rather than a young man, but also ironic when Viola’s twin brother arrives to Illyria and they are constantly mistaken for each other. The mistaken identities cause problems and more comedy, like when Antonio gets in trouble with the Duke’s guards in order to defend who he believes is Sebastian and Viola does not know who Antonio is in order to help him in act three, or when Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and marries him instead in act four. Another element to Viola’s gender-bending disguise is the blurring of sexuality and gender roles. Not only does Olivia fall for Cesario who turns out to be Viola, but Duke Orsino and Viola plan to be married at the same time as Olivia and Sebastian while Viola is still dressed as a man. It is also important to note that the female characters are acted out by men in Shakespeare’s plays, so not only are the character’s sexualities and gender identities mixed up, but also the actors’; I think this representative of a comfortability with homosexuality and cross-dressing on both Shakespeare’s part and the audience’s part. This may also say something about the role of women at the time of the play: people would rather see men dressed as women, playing women’s romantic roles and showing affection with other men, than women acting out those parts. After all, Viola dresses as a man (her twin brother) in order to be respected and accepted by the Duke, as she says in act one, scene two, “I’ll serve this duke. / Though shalt present me as an eunuch to him. / It may be worth thy pains, for I can sing / And speak to him in many sorts of music / That will allow me very worth his service”. Overall, Viola’s role as Cesario drives the plot as she helps Duke Orsino woo Olivia, falls in love with Orsino in the process, and causes much confusion and comedy as the play comes to an end.

Another driving part of this plot is the character’s personalities. Duke Orsino is a selfish man who is used to getting his way. We can see that by the first scene, where he is complaining of not being able to pursue Olivia due to her mourning of both her father and brother. Throughout the play, he never stops finding ways to woo her, which why it is part of the plot to send Cesario/Viola with ‘his’ young looks to try his hand at reaching her. The fact that Duke Orsino is sending another person to do the work with Olivia shows how selfish he is, which is a major part of the play, but also shows that love in this play is not as simple as two people falling in love and having a relationship. After all, the play would have been quite different and would not have had the comical element of Cesario’s role with Olivia if the duke had found his own way to convince Olivia to love him back. Not that his plan to get to Olivia is not successful—she allows Cesario to enter her house because he is young and soft—but the result is not what the duke expected. He even has the gall to complain that, after all of Cesario’s hard work, Olivia still does not return his affections the way he wants her to. He calls women’s love shallow and fleeting, “No woman’s heart / So big, to hold so much. / They lack retention,”  but calls his own “. . . as hungry as the sea,”. The only point at which he truly stops to listen to or care about Olivia’s feelings is when Viola tells him her own struggles and pains from love through her disguise as Cesario, which may be the only reason he bothered to take it into consideration. Viola must navigate her role as a man very carefully in order to prove her point in this scene, where she almost outs herself by saying, “Ay, but I know–” out of passion for proving her point that women feel deeply as men do, but men are more concerned with showing their love rather than really feeling and understanding it. These two characters and their agendas have the largest role in driving the plot forward.

One important aspect of this play that should be noted is the role of Feste. There are several scenes in which he has positive interactions with the more “important” characters, such as Olivia, Cesario, and Orsino. Feste is not funny in the traditional sense of telling jokes, but as Cesario puts it, “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool / And to do that well craves a kind of wit,” and emphasizes that his work as the clown is an art form because he must read the person he is jesting and craft a joke based on who the person is. He makes Olivia laugh when she is mourning her brother and father, and he plays a song for Duke Orsino that makes his sour mood better. Although Malvolio tries to discredit him as a fool, but we can see that Feste is rather clever and important throughout the play.

This play is crafted to not only include multiple love triangles, but disguises, word-crafting, tricky plots, humor, and friendship. That is something to be appreciated about Shakespeare’s work; there is always something beneath the surface. Whether it is the actors themselves (men playing the part of women), women disguised as men (Viola and her Cesario character), a group of people rallying together to trick another person (Maria, Feste, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew tricking Malvolio), or a case of mistaken identity (Antonio defending Cesario rather than Sebastian and Olivia marrying Sebastian rather than Cesario), the plot is not always what it seems.

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