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Mistaken Identity in Twelfth Night

Shakespeare is wont to employ the tool of mistaken identity in his plays. Twelfth Night is one of his plays that best embody the effective use of mistaken identity. In the play, Sebastian was constantly being mistaken for his twin sister Viola who was pretending to be a man. The main mechanism by which mistaken identity was performed in the play was through the use of disguises involving the cross-dressing of characters, or of Viola to be specific. Cross-dressing gives Viola’s character the range of choices and actions available to a man.

At the same time, cross-dressing is also the reason for the case of mistaken identity that ensues at the latter part of the play. The setting of Twelfth Night is in the early days of English history. This is a time when men and women have strict dress codes. Men wear pants and women wear dresses or variations thereof. Any switching between the garments of the two is considered socially unacceptable. The garment one wears often bespeaks the powers one has in society. This is shown when Viola says, “Conceal me what I am; and be my aid for such disguise as, haply, shall become the form of my intent.

” (1. 2) Cross-dressing allows Viola to hide her identity as a woman and also allows her to take on the roles of a man in society. She needs the captain to help her because as a man, the captain will now what is customarily worn by males especially in Illyria. She then declares that the disguise is also the “form of my intent”. This means that by a change of clothing, Viola has taken on a new persona and gender. The act of cross-changing has allowed her to take on a different set of plans and a different course of action than that which was available to her as the woman, Viola.

Viola’s transformation from a woman to a man simply by a change of clothing was made possible by the fact that she looked like her twin brother. Sebastian affirms this when he states, “A lady, sir, though it was said she much resembled me” (2. 1) Because of the great similarity between Sebastian and Viola’s looks, cross-dressing transforms Viola into a man who very much resembles Sebastian. This is also confirmed when Viola states she imitated Sebastian’s way of dressing when she decided to cross-dress.

She remarks of her brother,“he went still in this ashion, colour, ornament, for him I imitate. ” (3. 4) Cross-changing also allowed Viola access to jobs only men would be able to fill in. “I’ll serve this duke; Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him” By allowing herself to be presented as a eunuch, she allows herself to be perceived and treated as a man – something already affirmed by her wardrobe. Only in this presentation of herself as a male would she be able to carry through her plans of serving the duke. A different set of clothes even transforms Viola in the eyes of women.

Olivia, who has sworn not to entertain any of those trying to woo her, quickly develops feelings for Viola who is pretending to be Cesario. Even aftet their first meeting, Olivia notes, “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit, Do give thee five-fold blazon. ” (1. 5) “O what a deal of scorn looks beautiful in the contempt and anger of his lip! ” (3. 1) She admires Viola’s attributes even though these are attributes of a woman. She even begins to experience emotions of love for Olivia. Had Olivia met Viola in a dress instead of the attire of a man, she would not have considered Viola remarkable.

The change in dress effectively disguised Viola and allowed her to be assessed by others differently. Viola’s transformation into a man with the use of a change in clothes is proven effective when Antonio mistakes her to be Sebastian. The scene where Antonio meets Viola is the first scene of mistaken identity in the play. Antonio rushes in to defend Viola, who is disguised as Cesario, in a duel. (3. 4) Even Viola is surprised by Antonio’s mistaken perception. She puzzles over the incidence and exclaims, “That I, dear brother, be now ta’en for you! ” (3. 4)

Sebastian, whose fashion style Viola imitated, is the one who experiences the most consequences from the case of mistaken identity. Viola, who pretended to be the man Cesario, caused a series of events to transpire in Illyria which affected Sebastian. Sebastian becomes entangled in the events simply because he resembles Cesario, or Viola in man’s clothes. Sebastian is mistakenly taken to be Cesario by the clown, by Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, and Fabian, and by Olivia. This results in Sebastian having to fight the duel meant for Cesario and even marrying Olivia who was supposedly in love with Cesario.

(5. 1; 5. 3) By a simple feat of cross-dressing, Viola has caused a ruckus in Illyria. With Sebastian’s arrival in the same land, numerous cases of mistaken identity occur. Viola is mistakenly accused by Olivia to be her husband and by Sir Andrew and Sir Toby to be the one they encountered in a duel even though it was Sebastian who did all these things. The entire first part of Act 5 becomes a case of finger-pointing, denial and accusations because both Sebastian and Viola have been mistaken for each other. This only emphasizes the important feature of cross-dressing in the story.

Simply by donning clothes that Sebastian would use, Viola was able to convince everyone she was a man. Even to the point of confusing people who had already seen the actual Sebastian. Even when Sebastian and Viola are seen together, she is still accepted to be a man. Antonio exclaims, “How have you made division of yourself? – An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin than these two creatures. Which is Sebastian? ” (5. 1) Viola’s transformation from woman to man was so complete that the people in Illyria could not tell her apart from Sebastian even when Sebastian, himself, was physically present.

Despite the change in clothes and the continued ploy of pretending to be a man, it is clear that Viola is still very much a woman. When asked by the Duke Orsino to woo Olivia for him, Viola comments on the side, “Yet, a barful strife! Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife. ” (2. 4) This shows that she has developed feelings for the Duke. She plans on making herself the Duke Orsino’s wife. In an exchange with the Duke regarding the one Viola loves she hints to him that it is in fact he. DUKE: What kind of woman is’t? VIOLA: Of your complexion. DUKE: She is not worth thee, then. What years, i’ faith?

VIOLA: About your years, my lord. (2. 4) This affirms that Viola has fallen in love with the Duke despite the fact that she is dressed and acting like a man when with him. She is still a woman who maintains attractions for the opposite sex despite the change in attire and demeanor. Although she has hidden her womanhood, she still has all the emotional aspects of a woman. Twelfth night and its very strong theme of mistaken identity is clearly founded on the utilization of cross-dressing. Cross-dressing established the new identity of Viola which also led to the confusion between her and her twin brother Sebastian.

A change in costume not only served to feed the fuel of mistaken identity but also allowed its resolution. With Viola’s promise to change back to her womanly garb, the Duke allows himself to love her and Olivia accepts her marriage to Sebastian. Even though cross-dressing did not change Viola’s personality and her treatment of those around her, it influenced those same people’s perception of her. Indeed, it leaves one to wonder whether the Duke and Olivia truly love Viola/Cesario or whether they were simply reacting to the man Viola’s costume projected.

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