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How does Shakespeare explore aspects of love, gender and identity in Twelfth Night?
“Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness”
Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s intricate exploration of complications of desire arising from disguise, and the various manifestations of love. The light-hearted exterior, incorporating in its subplot a comedy of manners, is intertwined with a suitably bleak examination of how self-knowledge can manipulate attitudes towards a character, and the manner in which we are all interchangeable figures.
Feste's final words cast light on one of the primary issues of the play: identity. "But that's all one, our play is done, / And we'll strive to please you every day”; Here Feste invites the audience to consider that it will be replaced at the next performance: just as one’s internal self can be lost by a disguise, and human qualities can change instantly.
Shakespeare metadramatically introduces the bleak concept that we, and our thoughts are merely surrogates, who can be transposed by our own will to be someone else, when he writes, “It’s all one”. The concept of the superficiality of an appearance is raised again when Viola arrives to woo Olivia: Despite the fact that she talks about the “unmatchable beauty” of Olivia, she is still forced to ask which of the two women present (Maria and Olivia) is the lady of the house. This indicates that Maria and Olivia are to others, exchangeable figures.
Look also at how Olivia and Viola are near anagrams of each other - this didn't slip in by mistake.
This is a theme that raises its head later in the play, when Maria claims that she “can write very like my lady Olivia” and that “on a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands”.
Leading from this point, Shakespeare explores the possibility that self-knowledge can directly manipulate one’s identity: this means that if we are aware of ourselves, and what others think of us, then the attitude of others will change accordingly. This is perhaps a slightly odd notion, yet it is illustrated in the play through the characters of Feste and Malvolio; one is aware of his identity, the other is very clearly not - as is shown by Malvolio’s failure to realise that others mock his self-love, because he does not acknowledge it, or accept it as a problem.
The very concept of identity is something that can be interpreted differently: Viola, by shedding her femininity, appears to be only changing her appearance. She even states, “And though that nature with a beauteous wall/ Doth oft close in pollution” indicating that one cannot judge by appearances - what is beneath the surface maybe tainted.
However, identity may be a far simpler notion than she believes: Shakespeare gives us reason to believe one’s identity includes only the mind and the appearance, as when both are changed, to others, the identity has changed. This is illustrated by Viola: once she has changed her appearance, she continues to say, “I well believe thou hast a mind that suits/ With this fair and outward character.” Although she is referring to someone else, she tells us that once the mind and appearance have been established, it is safe to judge a character, as she then asks him to “be my aid”.
The extent to which Viola has changed her identity becomes clear later in the play, when we see Viola has grown into her character. She reveals that her new identity has given her respect, strength and freedom - indeed, it is ironic that a symbolic constriction liberates her. At this point, it becomes clear her gender is not the only attribute that she has changed: in my opinion, Viola is, to a certain degree, no longer assuming a disguise, as such. Everyone (the characters) is made aware of her ‘mask’, and this has been almost accepted. However, although it seems as though she has reverted to her past identity, Orsino refers to her as “Boy” and “Cesario”.
She appears unwilling to return to her “maiden weeds”. In fact, these clothes are symbolic of her femininity - the fact that she needs these to be totally accepted indicates the manner in which the characters are tied down with conventional ideas about gender. I Believe that Shakespeare is challenging these conventions, as discussed later.
Having considered this, it is also important to recognise the extent to which identity is also flexible, as it a quality that can change depending on others’ perception of you.
Feste says, “Nothing that is so is so”, and even the subtitle of Twelfth Night is, “What you will”, indicating that the very name and meaning of the play, an important part of its identity, is subject to change. Shakespeare invites us to decide the identity of the play for ourselves - it is not a firm, unchangeable attribute, but something that is itself is a surrogate. Is Shakespeare discussing the very nature of reality? What is the link between signifier and signified? This theme crops up again in Richard II.
Although Viola’s love permeates gender boundaries, Olivia, Toby, Orsino, and Malvolio’s love interests lead them across class lines — another example of the ways in which standards are relaxed or social codes transgressed during Twelfth Night.
Olivia spurns the love of her social equal Orsino, and focuses her attention instead on Cesario. Sir Toby, although he is a knight, admires Maria rather than someone of a higher class, Orsino is fond of Cesario and Malvolio dreams of marrying Olivia. Significantly, it is only the steward’s love that is regarded as “illegitimate”. The upper-class individuals, such as Orsino are permitted to indulge their socially illicit desires.
Ultimately, I do not believe there is any difference between Orsino’s narcissistic withdrawal into his fantasies, and Malvolio’s narcissistic withdrawal into his dreams.
Shakespeare here has raised the issue of class, and its role in the manner in which others look upon you, and its role in forming your identity: from his ideas, I can conclude that a discrimination founded on class is, as Shakespeare suggests, wrongly ignored in society. Shakespeare’s disapproval is evident when we see the extent to which Malvolio is suffering, and when even Sir Toby condemns the “tomfoolery”.
Another main aspect of Twelfth Night is love, and its various manifestations. The very first line suggests that love will be the central theme; “If music be the food of love, play on.” says Orsino. Shakespeare first deals with the type of love bordering on obsession; Orsino, for example, places Olivia on a pedestal as an unattainable goddess.
The concept of love towards an icon, instead of an actual individual is brought up several times in the play, and is best illustrated by Viola when she says, “She sat like Patience on a Monument,/ Smiling at grief.”. The poetry is evident, but the words refer to an allegorical figure. Viola is personifying an abstract quality when she mentions the statue: she is suggesting her heart is petrified, and has been ‘turned to stone’ by her inability to express her love. However, at the same time she is illustrating the manner in which Orsino places Olivia on a pedestal, in the manner of a statue: it can be seen clearly, but when one attempts to touch it is stone.
This idea of placing all human desire on an icon, and a human icon at that is discussed in The Great Gatsby which shows the consequences of such idolatry.
Indeed, Olivia is even referred to as the “marble-breasted tyrant”. Viola’s beautiful poetry again depicts the obsessive love when she says, “Make me a willow cabin at you gate,/ And call upon my soul within the house;/...O you should not rest/ Between the elements of air and earth/ But you should pity me!”.
The poetry discusses love that results in a form of stalking: in one way, Viola’s words make the love appear deep and true, yet it is idealised, and unsexual - Orsino shows us that this type of love means that one is in love with the concept of love itself. This melancholic love arises from masculine ideology: women were (hard to obtain, as the case may be) possessions, and this convention is mocked by Shakespeare, perhaps speaking through Viola when she tells Orsino, “Too well what love women to men may owe./ In faith they are as true of heart as we”, in response to Orsino’s comment, “There is...no woman’s heart/ So big, to hold so much”.
Shakespeare also inserts several songs by Feste, one of which is “Come away, Death”. I think that here, he is parodying the capricious, unreal despair of Orsino, and the melancholic tone of Feste may have this amusing layer below the surface. In addition, Shakespeare gives Viola a strong, spirited, shown by her ability to smile “at grief” and sit “like patience on a monument”.
Viola’s love is also a representation of true love: she is self-sacrificing, willing to woo Olivia on behalf of Orsino despite loving him herself, and sincere. She is willing to die for Orsino, and unquestioningly obeys Orsino. Despite this, she fails to see the darker side of Orsino, and is blinded by her desire: this is one example of Shakespeare’s description of love as an illness.
He also refers to the quality as “pestilence”, “more sharp than filed steel”, “the plague” and Orsino claims “And my desires like fell and cruel hounds/ E’er since pursue me”. He enjoys the suffering associated with love (describing love as “sweet pangs”, a phrase that sums up his attitude), and most importantly, he is not aware that his shows of unrequited love are seen as farfetched and less effective then restrained emotion - he lacks the self-knowledge that was discussed earlier, and so is unable to see his own faults: in fact, Viola is the one who turns him away from self-deceiving love.
His destructive love is shown right at the beginning of the play, when Curio asks him, “Will you go hunt, my Lord?”. To this, Orsino replies, “Why so I do, the noblest that I have:/ O when mine eyes did see Olivia first,? Methought she purged the air of pestilence!/ that instant was I turn’d into a hart”. Orsino’s mention of the hart is a reference to the myth of the goddess Diana: the myth explains the manner in that self-willed destruction is sometimes inevitable, owing to human nature.
It is this inevitability that lends the tragic elements to Twelfth Night, and best illustrates the willed destruction that love can bring - this is discussed later, when I mention how Shakespeare describes love as an illness, and a spell, indicating a degree of helplessness.
Self love is personified by Malvolio, and Olivia sums up his attitude when she tells him, “O you are sick of self-love Malvolio”. His inability to acknowledge his own mask is discussed later.
The cross-dressing in Twelfth Night forces the audience to conceive ways in which sexual identity might be detached from personal identity; we are cut loose from our assumption that the two are embroiled, that the person is defined by his or her sex: gender can be considered a fluid quality in this play. I feel that this gender confusion is necessary to take Orsino out of his ‘gender dominated’ interpretation of love that is frozen in conventional sentiment meaning that he is unable to deal with the reality of other people's feelings - the best example of this is his claim that women are unable to love as much as he (“There is...no woman’s heart/ So big, to hold so much”).
In conclusion, the backbone of Twelfth Night appears to be the three issues of love, gender and identity: the latter raises the most interesting points: we as observers in life, or the characters, play an important role in our identities. We all wear masks for different circumstances, but it is not the donning of masks, but the self-knowledge that is important - we have a choice of either self-deception or self-knowledge.
The former lures us into a world of illusions, where we can ride our own hopes, while the latter allows us a quiet acceptance of the inevitable. The realm of irresponsibility that finally collapses turns itself and happiness into age, vice, and disillusionment.
We laugh at those who are unaware of their masks, and laugh with the characters who possess self-knowledge, conscious of their masks, notably Feste. Malvolio, however, remains incapable of self-knowledge and so leaves the play unforgiving, his final words being, “I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you!".
Shakespeare argues, I believe, that love is a broad term; one that encompasses pure desire, self-indulgence and obsession: however, the underlying theme is one of pain, and perhaps ironically, this is self-inflicted. Antonio comments, “A witchcraft drew me hither”, and as mentioned, most of the love discussed is described using malign imagery.
This distress may be a result of over indulgence - Orsino discusses love as an “appetite”, yet still asks for, “excess of it”, aware that it may turn on him. This notion of betrayal comes only a few lines later, when he unwittingly compares love to the sea: “O spirit of love! How quick and fresh art thou,/ That notwithstanding thy capacity/ Receiveth as the sea”. However, he fails to consciously recognise that the sea, at any point, can rush in, and swallow up those wallowing in its “sweet pangs”.
Patterns of syntax and sound in Viola's "willow cabin" speech - A great node which explains the speech from Twelfth Night very well.