Shakespeare’s twelfth night is inevitably marked with deep social insight. The differences in power, the paltry of gender and social identity are all equally put into question in this seemingly light hearted comedy.
The start of the play introduces us to the motive of our main character, Olivia and casts light unto the main problem that has to be resolved through the course of this play; the separation of twin brother and sister, who if not for their infallible discriminator “sex” would just as easily be put in each other’s shoes without triggering any significant event to throw the balance of our characters into confusion.
Indeed from the get-go the fact that Viola’s ‘gender-switch’ and Sebastian’s ‘character-switch’ did not shock anyone out of their sealed matrimonial bliss or the attainment of such a prospect seems rather foolhardy to miss and in considering the Bard’s infamous dramatic puppetry, they are such issues as we have to get to the bottom of, scraping a glimpse, if not an epiphany that would resurrect the act’s glamour from it’s ancient casket.
Assuredly, Sebastian, on receiving the news of his sister’s disappearance falls into the supposition that she is dead, and with little remorse kicks off with his pal Antonio to the arms of freedom, where no embrace shall feel the smother of bondage, where it between the closest relatives even. His sister, though, rises to the occasion and with undying hope declares her brother’s survival, and her quest to bring his authority into this expectation. Here, we see where the pall of gender lies. Though Sebastian and Viola are not of any distinguishing feature that might divide the cast’s opinions about their identity, Sebastian for one, thinks his sister is dead. This reflects the attitude of society towards the weaker sex, who cannot be expected to bring fortune to their aid much less entertain the notion of keeping life. Men, however, are the most capable of doing such and so, and in following this principle Viola disguises herself in manly attire and takes such a worthy title in hand or in name… The fact is, she turned man to suit a position she could not fill as a woman. Early on, we can thus put our hands on which of the twins was the reliable one in this sibling relationship.
Not to be hard on Sebastian, the reason for his inaversion to Viola’s advances towards him might just be his need for someone to replace what he has lost in his sister. More so, he doesn’t protest to Olivia even when he finds out she was bearing feelings for his sister; doesn’t shrink from a quarrel even when it rams him face-on. A man: through and through…
But when talking about Olivia, it is difficult to sympathize with what she has been through. She bore feeling for a poorer man and rejected Duke for all he was just to conform to the society’s value of male dominance over women. To neglect all what she has been blessed with, taking for granted the responsibility and ingrature, that comes along it and divert in affection to a random male who’s quality, in her flawless judgment, was much the same as her brother’s. Again, none of the characters seem to protest to the predicament they were forced into in this play which seriously makes me question: what were ye looking to get from all yer blunders?
Ay, the proposition is nigh. But all our characters just seem to get pulled into their quarters much as the position they put themselves into dictate in term and sequence. A good example to take would be Duke, who seems the only wise guy around. He doesn’t put himself into situations where he is forced to act out of necessity. Everything he takes is as half-hearted as he, and only at the provocation of one Viola does he get up from his seat and seek to prove himself to the world. Only he gets proofed himself: when confronted with the possibility that his loyal messenger was doing dibs behind his back with one Olivia, he issues the order of execution as per the noble must stake themselves.
All is well, though. Sebastian arrives. The conflict is resolved. Everything seems to make sense again. And Duke is inevitably forced by the situation that he invoked; or that which invoked itself unto him, to marry Viola.
Indeed the characters in this play are balanced by their relationships. The first and foremost cause was to gain stability while obliging the rules of higher society, which the playwright so successfully threads. The only thing that seemed to spark a glint of intelligence to the characters’ identity was the presence of one Fool, who is the only reason this whole play didn’t mentally incapacitate the audience.
Nevertheless, the play culminates with the return of reason (logic); though the governing dynamics are still the same threaded by higher powers, to an understanding of which I hope to bring the reader of my essay.
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