One of the central motifs of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is disguise and mistaken gender identity. In the beginning of the play, Viola states “I prithee, and I’ll pay thee bounteously, / Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / The form of my intent” (4). She is asking the sea captain to help disguise her as a man in order to work for Orsino, while Viola’s disguise could also be interpreted as a mechanism to make her feel safe in the unknown land that she has entered. When Viola first meets Orsino, she is introduced as Cesario to match her disguise as a teenage boy, though Orsino states “Diana’s lip / Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe / Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound; / And all is semblative a woman’s part” (9). While Orsino notices that Cesario’s features resemble those of a woman, he is fooled by Viola’s disguise. Maria is also fooled by Viola’s disguise when she tells Olivia that Cesario “is a fair young man, and well attended” (12). Malvolio states that Cesario is “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy…He is very well-favoured and he speaks very shrewishly; one would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him” (13). After talking with Cesario, Olivia states “I’ll be sworn thou art [a gentleman]; / Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit, / Do give thee five-fold blazon,” (17) also believing that Cesario is actually a man. Viola successfully fools everyone that she is a man in the first half of the play and even unintentionally causes Olivia to fall in love with Cesario.
During the time that Twelfth Night was originally performed, it was not unusual that a man could successfully disguise himself as a woman or vice versa. Only men were allowed to perform in England during the early 1600s, meaning that young boys would disguise themselves as women in order to play female characters on stage. Thus, the idea that a woman could successfully disguise herself as a man was not a ridiculous idea at the time when the play was written and first performed. This notion that women could easily disguise themselves as men and vice versa adds to the gender confusion that comprises Twelfth Night.
I was surprised that I was able to find a connection between Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and my service experience at Tunbridge, especially concerning gender confusion. Last semester, I volunteered with a special education class, which was composed of only eight or so students. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I was pretty convinced that one of the students was a girl when in fact the entire class was composed of boys. In my defense, this student had a very gender-neutral name, had his hair in braids that reached down his waist, had very feminine features, and, since he had not hit puberty yet, had a fairly high voice. On top of it all, the uniform at Tunbridge consists of athletic wear, meaning that girls and boys are almost identically dressed. Similarly to how Sir Andrew makes a fool of himself by repeatedly getting Maria’s name wrong when they are introduced by Sir Toby, I felt like a fool when I learned that this student was in fact a boy. While reading Twelfth Night, I noticed that the other characters describe Cesario as I would have described this student: in their cross-dressing and youthfulness, both Cesario and this student seemed girlish. In my reading and in my service experience, I learned that we can easily be fooled merely by the way that someone chooses to dress.