The Complexity of Identity
The festival of the Twelfth Night was a time when everything was turned upside-down and normal roles and behaviors were forgotten. In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, the characters’ very identities are questioned. The play asks the question of whether identity is transient. Maybe more importantly, it asks the question of whether it is it based on “nature or culture?” Twelfth Night suggests that identity is not always what a person is born as. The identity nature bestows on a person is not always who they truly are inside. Identity, especially gender identity, does not always fit into the neat box that culture prescribes.
At the very beginning of the play, Viola tells the Captain, “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid/ For such disguise as haply shall become/ The form of my intent” (1.2.53-55). She discusses disguise, or identity, as if she can shape it to her “intent.” She becomes an eunuch, which is fits her “true” identity as a woman. In fact, she never truly lies. When the Duke questions Cesario about who he/she loves, Viola answers that the person is “of you complexion” (2.4.26) and “about your years, my lord” (2.4.28). She plays her part so well that nobody ever questions whether she is a truly a man. In another play of Shakespeare’s, The Taming of the Shrew, he writes, “Was aptly fit, and naturally performed” (Ind.1.87). Maybe the fact that Viola so truly fits her role as a boy suggests that she is fulfilling her true nature. She has autonomy and abilities that were never afforded her as a woman. She is able to both advise the Duke and Olivia, as well as sometimes contradict them. At one moment, Viola even is able to make a stand for women. The only true difference between Viola and her brother is her sex. When her true identity is discovered, the Duke proclaims, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two person - / A natural perspective that is and is not” (5.1.211-212). Viola has able to play her part so well that it seems if that is who she is naturally supposed to be. In fact, at the end of the play Cesario never turns back into Viola. Perhaps this is implying that her identity is as clear cut as her being a woman.
Viola plays her part of a man so well that Olivia falls in love with her thinking that she is truly a man. Yet what she actually falls in love with is Viola’s speech about love (1.5.257-265). Olivia falls for the passion in Viola’s voice. Her love crosses the boundaries of gender. She falls in love with who Viola is as a person. Additionally, Olivia takes on the role of the aggressor, when previously she had been the mourner and maid. She is quickly transforming her identity to gain what she desires. She is taking on a more masculine position in the relationship, which mixes up what masculinity and femininity truly mean. It is also possible that Olivia is comfortable enough around Cesario that she is able to become the person that she truly is inside.
The Duke has a similar issue with his feelings for Cesario, except the gender she is portraying is not acceptable for him to fall for within the social constructs. There is no denying that the Duke has genuine feelings for Cesario: “I have unclasped/ To thee the book of my secret soul” (1.4.13-14). Later when the Duke believes that Cesario betrays him he questions if he should “Kill what I love?” (5.1.116) and he promises to “sacrifice the lamb that I do love/ To spite a raven’s heart within a dove” (5.1.127-128). It is as if he is more upset by Cesario’s betrayal and the possibility of him favoring Olivia than he is that Olivia loves someone else. Yet unlike Olivia who believes Cesario to be a boy, the Duke is unable to truly act on his feeling until Cesario’s “true” identity is revealed. When he discovers that Cesario is actually Viola, he immediately states. “I shall have to share in this most happy wrack./ Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times. Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.” In fact, he even still refers to Viola as a boy, as if her gender does not truly matter. This aspect of the play is part of the reason it controversial. The play suggests that love has no gender barriers; that true love is based on who the person is inside and not about his or her sex.
In the end, Sebastian states that Viola has “been mistook/ But nature to her bias drew in that/ You would have been contracted to a maid;/ Nor are you therein, by my life, deceived: You are betrothed both to a maid and man” (5.1.254-254). Sebastian is pointing out that nature fixed the predicament that they faced. It would have be “unnatural” for her to love a maid, so nature stepped in and brought the male version of her. The play ends in a socially acceptable way, with only heterosexual pairs. Yet as Sebastian clearly states that Olivia is “betrothed both to a maid and a man.” While this may be referring to his virginity, on a deeper level it might be referring to the fact that Viola and Sebastian are essentially the same people. The relationship of Viola and the Duke also remains in a state of question concerning the gender of Viola. The Duke states, “Cesario come -/ For so you shall be while you are a man/ But when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen” (5.1.378-382). Yet, as earlier mentioned, Viola never changes back into her female clothes. Like Sebastian, perhaps the play is subtly suggesting that Viola is both man and women. Also Orsino is suggesting that the gender does not truly matter to him, he fell in love with her as Cesario and will love her as Viola.
Lastly, the changing costumes in the play symbolize the ability to take on a new identity. A person can quickly discard an identity to fit the situation. Yet like the quote from The Taming of the Shrew states, “Was aptly fit, and naturally performed” (Ind.1.87), meaning that some roles, or costumes, fit better than others and therefore signify one’s true nature. Twelfth Night expands on this idea, suggesting that perhaps more than one costume can fit a person. In the case of Viola, both her costumes for man and women seem to be interchangeable. The same goes for Malvolio; although he claims to be a modest and Puritan of a man, in his fantasy he was dreaming of wearing a “velvet gown” (2.5.45) and a “rich jewel” (2.5.57). He later truly wears ridiculous garments in order to impress Olivia. For Malvolio, he might truly desire to wear more splendid clothes yet feels like he must conform to society or his beliefs. Or maybe is truly is both people, that there is in fact a middle ground. Clothes are often the constrictions of society. The more important message to be gleamed may be that it truly does not matter what one wears, or what society mandates. A person is a mixture of complexities. There is no set version of what masculinity should be and what femininity should be.
Twelfth Night breaks all of the social boundaries that are forced on people. This is dangerous because it destroys the foundations that society is based on. This might be the danger (in the minds of some) or the merit (in the minds of others) of theater. Theater is the physical symbolization that identity is not always what is being shown in clothes. A man can play an unbelievable convincing woman and vice versa. Also, an actor may wear many different costumes in one night and they all might fit who he or she is. Theater shows that identity is not a simple categorization but something that is complex and changing. The Twelfth Night shows the identity is simple and that is what makes life enjoyable.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Stephen Orgel. Penguin Books: New York, 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Edited by Jonathon Crewe. Penguin Books: New York, 1992.