5. “Conceal what I am” Explore the theme of disguise and deception in “Twelfth Night”
William Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is based around disguise in the form of deception. In ‘Twelfth Night’, disguise takes many different shapes from physical to mental disguise. One of the major themes of ‘Twelfth Night’ is also misperception and deception. Yet, paradoxically along the way there are many problems, deceptions and illusions, providing a comment on human behaviour and creating comedy. In ‘Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare explores and illustrates the theme of deception and disguise with precise detail.
In ‘Twelfth Night’, it is evident that the fluctuation in attitude to the dual role and situation and tribulations imposed upon the character of Viola ends up in a better understanding of both sexes, and thus, allows Viola to have a better understanding for Orsino.
“Stand you awhile aloof. Cesario,
Thou know’st no less but all; I have unclasp’d
To thee the book even of my secret soul.”
Here it is apparent that after very little time Viola has won the trust of Orsino through her disguise and he seems to have decided that he can divulge more in Viola than in anyone else.
She decides to take on this identity because she has more liberty in society in her Cesario mask, which is obvious when Orsino readily accepts her. Orsino confides in Cesario the most intimate feelings of his ‘secret soul’ and grows accustomed to Cesario very quickly, whereas, in her female identity, it is clear that she would not enjoy such freedom.
I also think this is significant, as Shakespeare is conveying the impression that because Viola has disguised herself as a ‘eunuch’ she has more autonomy and less constraints; I think Shakespeare’s underlying and implicit message is that sometimes it is beneficial for women to dress as men to achieve freedom; therefore assuming a disguise is necessary.
The theme of deception is also evident immediately in the play. A supposedly ‘noble’ Duke Orsino is suffering due to his unrequited ‘love’ for the Lady Olivia.
” If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
There is a touch of unreality and deception here about Orsino’s distress, as if he unconsciously enjoying the situation he is in and so the audience is left to deduce whether or not Orsino is in self-deception.
Shakespeare hints here that Orsino’s love for Olivia is a hyperbolic, abstract love and one of self-indulgence as it is ‘high-fantastical’ and so he encourages the audience to look more intimately and interpret Orsino’s ‘spirit of love’ as one of self-delusion.
Orsino constantly reiterates how immense his ‘love’ is for Olivia, but it is easily seen as empty rhetoric. He is infatuated with the notion of love, and himself as the great, contemporary lover rather like Romeo from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Deception plays a role here because it is clear Orsino’s conception of himself is misplaced and so he is self-deceiving and also this highlights his egotistical nature.
Shakespeare also uses iambic pentameter here and this defines Orsino’s character to a certain degree. Iambic pentameter shows control and yet the emphasis here is on the instability and the intensity of his love for Olivia. This leads us to believe he is ‘in love with the notion of being in love’.
This oration by Orsino also tells us something about his character and mood: he is in love, but this does not bring him happiness, rather a profound melancholy.
His speech then turns to images of disease and death and it is excessively evident here that Orsino is misleading himself.
Orsino, here, has dramatised his passion and love for Olivia so much that he thinks he will die if she does not love him. It is clear he is deceiving himself and his situation can be interpreted as him being preoccupied with the sensation of love itself, feeding his emotions with music and elaborate poetic imagery. Shakespeare conveys Orsino’s ‘love-thoughts’ emotions for Olivia as passive, self-regarding and melancholic and Orsino as unrepresentative of his veritable feelings.
Shakespeare invites the audience to interpret Orsino’s ‘love-thoughts’, which ‘pursue’ him as artificial ones because of the way Orsino is portrayed.
“Be not amaz’d; right noble is his blood.
If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,
I shall have share in this most happy wreck.”
Orsino here demonstrates a rapid detachment from Olivia and instead switches his attentions to Viola. This extremely quick change of ‘love’ from Olivia to Viola confirms his superficiality and self-deceit.
The theme of disguise and deception is again present in the next scene where Olivia is in passionate mourning for her brother who ‘shortly died’. However, it is also clear that Olivia herself is in self-deceit. Her way of mourning involves her hiding behind a veil or disguising herself from the truth and refusing male company which is illustrated when she says like a ‘cloistress’ she will ‘veiled walk’ around with ‘eye-offending brine’. The mourning over her brother’s death is very dramatic, but she just lives the idea of mourning as she feels that this would do the death of her brother justice. She attempts to disguise all this under a veil, but to no triumph as her genuine personality shone through.
Olivia as part of her mourning vowed that no man would see her face “till seven years’ heat”. But regardless of this, falls in love with Cesario which shows that her resolution is short-lived and the audience is left to question her sincerity.
“Unless, perchance, you come to me again
To tell me how he takes it”.
Olivia is disguising her flirtatiousness towards Cesario by pretending that she only wants him to come back to bear news of Orsino’s reaction to her rejection. To further disguise her feelings, and deceive Malvolio, she tells a blatant lie to him, pretending Cesario left a ‘ring behind him’.
“She returns this ring to you, sir; you might have saved
Me my pains, to have taken it away yourself.”
Olivia uses deception to further her cause with Cesario and it is made inherent to him that she has fallen in love with his outward, disguised appearance. Also deception features here as, ironically, Olivia’s advance is just as deceitful as Viola’s mere presence.
It is clear to the audience that Olivia is deluding herself that she will be in deep mourning for her brother for ‘seven years’. Her first appearance, which ends with her falling for the disguised Viola, shows the shallowness of her real feelings of anguish. When Olivia, who is taken in by Cesario’s ‘youth’s perfections’, falls in love with Cesario she instantaneously forgets about mourning.
Olivia’s elaborate, grief-stricken gestures towards her dead brother are examples of dramatised and overly exaggerated displays of emotion. Her grief may well be genuine but her extravagant vow to mourn him for ‘seven years’, sprinkling her chamber with tears and wearing a veil are quite simply empty gestures.
On closer inspection one can also infer that Olivia is perhaps using her brothers death to conceal her aspirations for Cesario to remain close to her.
“I bade you never speak again of him;
But, would you undertake another suit,
I had rather hear you than solicit that
Than music from the spheres.”
It is made explicit to Cesario that she wants to be courted by him, which is comical to the audience as they know about Cesario’s masquerade, and this is another example of the way Cesario deceives through disguise.
Olivia has just lost her family, but her display of sorrow is very theatrical and self-deluding and seems to be full of barren gestures which say nothing about her true grief but merely disguise her true feelings and serve to self-deceive.
Another character that is guilty of self-deception is Olivia’s servant Malvolio. A scene, which prepares us for dramatic irony, is when Maria writes the letter to Malvolio, under the pretence that it is from Olivia. As the audience is aware of this deception it sets up the dramatic irony, because Malvolio himself is not aware of it when he finds and reads the letter.
Malvolio in his conceited role presents the possibilities of a very bland and critical existence, however when drugged with the mere possibilities of conceit, believing himself superior to others, he becomes the most absurd of all the characters and he reveals to us his disguised feelings.
“Go, hang yourselves all! You are idle shallow things;
I am not of your element; you shall know more hereafter.”
Malvolio has extreme ambitions and aspirations to advance in social class by marrying Olivia which the audience can clearly interpret as self-delusional.
Maria’s letter is only able to convince him that Olivia loves him because that is what he wants to believe. When the letter tells him to act proud and haughty, it only gives him permission to show how he already feels, as it appeals to his vanity.
This trick would not have worked if the letter had not been disguised as Olivia’s, however, it is also important to include that Malvolio’s disguised feelings and self-deception convince him of its authenticity. It is his capacity for self-deception and it is really Malvolio’s ‘self-love’ which makes him easy to trick.
Malvolio is also in disguise in the class system. He dresses in black and never laughs.
“My masters, are you mad? Or what are you? Have
you no wit, manners or honesty,”
This however, is merely a disguise that he assumes, that allows him to criticize others. Under this disguise Malvolio is full of self-importance he is also self-absorbed and extremely vain. He conceals his ‘puritan’ personality during this ‘gulling’ episode and puts on ‘yellow stockings’ and behaves uncharacteristically boldly. When he is on his own he reveals he often daydreams of ruling a thrifty and solemn household while he plays with ‘some rich jewel’, and that Olivia will marry him and as a result he will become ‘Count Malvolio’ her equal. This shows his embedded self-deception. It is also ironic that Malvolio is more successful at fooling himself than he is at deceiving others.
Malvolio is sure that some accident of luck has caused a man as fine as him to be born a servant rather than a master and that fortune will eventually correct that mistake.
“all that look on him love him.”
This reveals his arrogant nature and the fact that he is self-deceiving. Self-love is evident in many characters of the play, however, Malvolio’s self-love combined with his instinct for social climbing makes it more obtrusive. To conclude, Malvolio is self-deceived before he is deceived. Shakespeare makes this clear by exhibiting Malvolio’s vain glory just before he finds the forged letter: ‘To be Count Malvolio!’.
The physical disguise in ‘Twelfth Night’ brings to light those who have mental illusions as to who they are. Malvolio for example considers himself to be respected and is the first person to call other characters a ‘fool’ when in fact the audience think of him as a fool.
Deception and disguise also play a major role in the characters of Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Sir Toby often persuades Andrew to give him money or buy him drinks in return for allowing him access to Olivia, in order to court/woo her.
“Send for money, knight; if thou hast her not i’ th’ end, call me Cut.”
Andrew does not realise that Sir Toby is fooling him and using him to pay for his entertainment and so deception plays a part here because Sir Toby is deliberately deceiving and deluding Sir Andrew to exploit him.
It can also be argued that Sir Andrew is self-deceiving because he actually thinks that the rouge Sir Toby is his genuine friend, however, it is clear to the audience that his friendship with Sir Toby is feigned.
However, it is also clear that if Sir Toby did not encourage and prompt him, he would never have aspired.
‘No faith, I’ll not stay a jot longer.’
This is important because it shows that although Sir Andrew is deceived, and foolish, he is not self-deceived. This also proves that although he is foolish enough to dream of Olivia’s hand, he is scarcely hopeful which shows that, unlike Malvolio, he has a greater sense of reality and does not delude himself or disguise that he knows Olivia does not love him.
Another form of disguise, Shakespeare’s use of masks in the play, also contributes much to the disguise and deception in the play. These masks put characters in a form of ‘darkness of night,’ allowing them to become someone else.
Shakespeare uses masking imagery throughout the play. The perfect example of this can be seen in Feste the jester. Feste demonstrates masking imagery when he disguises himself as ‘Sir Topas’ and is sent to judge Malvolio’s state of mind.
“Sir Topas, never was man thus wronged. Good Sir
Topas, do not think I am mad: they have laid me
Here in hideous darkness.”
By adopting this disguise, Feste is able to expose Malvolio’s self-conceit and other faults and therefore he successfully reveals Malvolio’s hidden feelings by disguising himself. Also Feste, in the guise of the Fool, comes out with wise and intellectual comments contrary to his role.
Although characters wear masks, their true identities are always revealed. I interpret this as Shakespeare alluding to the fact that all disguises can be exposed. This statement is reinforced when Feste says:
‘Eyes show the days’.
Feste is able to penetrate all the masks of the others, and he succeeds in concealing his own which makes him a master and professional of disguise. Feste is an ‘allowed fool’ a professional jester who has to be quick witted and clever to make jokes and puns. He is not expected to be idiotic or simple-minded.
Viola, in her disguise as Cesario, is able to talk to her lover in a way that she could not do as a woman; she takes advantage of this situation and schools Orsino on the realities of love.
“She never told her love,…..
Feed on her damask cheek.”
Here Viola counters Orsino’s narcissism with her own sad story of concealed love. Shakespeare accentuates Orsino’s exaggerated, excessive idea of love, by showing alongside it the genuine love felt by Viola and therefore Orsino’s speech is undermined, as what he said is ironic. So, although Viola is disguising her feelings for Orsino, she does not deceive him and unreservedly hints that she has suppressed feelings for him.
Sebastian’s relationship with Antonio is one of disguise because Antonio implicitly reveals his ‘love’ for Sebastian but deceives him and perhaps self-deceives as being just friendship, as one can conjecture that he is gay.
“If you will not murder me for your love, let me be your servant”.
This suggests that Antonio has repressed homosexual feelings for Sebastian that he disguises by pretending to only be his close friend.
The play abounds in references to these different forms of disguise, to the gap between what appears to be true and what really is. Viola calls disguise a ‘wickedness/Wherein the pregnant enemy does much’ when she realises that Olivia has fallen in love with her persona as Cesario.
In the play’s moral scheme disguise or self-deception creates frustration and confusion. Antonio, for example, regrets the ‘devotion’, which Sebastian’s handsome features had inspired in him.
Word- play is also a form of disguise and the numerous puns in the play reflect this theme on a linguistic level.
The dramatic convention of disguise produces ambiguities of meaning and emotion throughout the play. So, to conclude, I would argue that in ‘Twelfth Night’ every character conceals and deceives, however, without doubt Viola’s concealment of her physical shape as a woman, and emotions for Orsino is essential to the plot and creates the comedy and confusion.
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