“Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s more chaotic plays, with the events and themes tossing and turning like the boat Viola took to Illyria. Viola’s decision to dress as a eunuch is not inspired by love but by logic: “For such a disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke. Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him; It may be worth thy pains. For I can sing, And speak to him in many sorts of music That will allow me very worth his service” (I.iii.54-59). She figures that a male disguise would offer more work to her than her present female garments. She also can’t serve Olivia because it is said she refuses to speak with strangers. As the fictional Cesario, she goes to work for Duke Orsino and quickly becomes his favorite page. She also falls in love with the duke, who is convinced she is a man and has no mutual feelings. Under his command, she goes to deliver Orsino’s love messages to Olivia, but the noblewomen almost immediately falls in love with the disguise of Cesario, even after refusing to see any suitors. This causes some concern for Viola, who of course does not reciprocate and now finds herself in the strangest love triangle: she loves Orsino, who loves Olivio, who loves Cesario. The other two believe her to be a man, so she’s in the most uncomfortable position of power. This love triangle shows how Shakespeare has perfected how to structural use disguise for a good comedic plot, and beyond that, more truths are exposed in Viola’s deceit. Her situation is similar to Rosalind’s, when Phebe falls in love with Ganymede because of how well Rosalind chides.
The purpose of the event goes beyond the comedy of a women falling in love with a false man; Phebe reveals this when expressing her feelings for Ganymede: “Think not I love him, though I ask for him; ‘Tis but a peevish boy; yet he talks well. But what care I for words? Yet words do well When he that speaks them please those that hear. It is a pretty youth. Not very pretty. But sure he’s proud. And yet his pride becomes him” (III.v.109-114). She is not as attracted to the face she sees as she is the voice that speaks and the mind behind it, meaning her infatuation is very much real even though it is for a woman. If she knew the truth she would be less inclined to those feelings, but that would impede the honesty of her being. Phebe truly loves the kind of person Ganymede, not knowing that his true person is female. But that reveals people’s capacity for love unrestricted by gender. Olivia further shows this through her genuine infatuation with Cesario. Kimbrough has much to say on the topic concerning the relationship between men and women in the plays: “Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s ‘furthest venture into androgyny.’ Viola, who is far more troubled by the ‘sex of her sex’ than is Rosalind, must learn that androgyny is ‘not a physical state, but a state of mind.’ Assisted in this because she is a twin, Viola through her disguise makes Orsino more ‘confessional,’ freeing her as a ‘prisoner of gender,’ and teaching us that ‘many apparent differences between men and women are dissolvable” (Kimbrough 30).
Viola “dissolves” the differences between men and women by showing that women are capable of doing tasks that men are known for, including woo women. Rosalind does this as well, but Kimbrough claims Viola to be a stronger model because of her male twin. She shared a womb with a brother and because of their similar features is able to pass as a male page and cause trouble, until Sebastian shows up to rescue her from the love triangle and marry Olivia in place of the fictional Cesario. Sebastian concludes the message that Viola proposes: men and women are equal. Olivia falls in love with the visage and persona of Cesario, who in truth is a women, but she is still satisfied when a real man who matches her face (and arguably personality) appears to consummate the marriage. The twins represent the same person, the opposing genders symbolically canceling each other out in Cesario, who is (not accidently) a eunuch. This concept fits into the nature of “Twelfth Night,” as the Lord of Misrule flips gender on its head. Shakespeare has achieved the truth about gender that all his cross-dressing antics were attempting to find. By covering up their gender, the characters revealed that all of our true selves are without gender. This fits into the paradigm of Shakespeare using deceit to reveal truth.
Deceit is also used in “The Winter’s Tale” to influence events, but in a way unique from the disguises of the previous plays. King Leontes goes mad and has his pregnant wife locked up in prison after she gives birth to a daughter that he suspects is the product of infidelity. Paulina enters to announce that Hermione has died in prison, and Leontes grieves. Sixteen years later, after all the events of the play, the ensemble collects around a finished statue of Hermione. Before the unveiling, Paulina comments on how lifelike it is: “As she lived peerless So her dead likeness I do well believe Excels whatever yet you looked upon, Or hand of man hath done; therefore I keep it Lonely, apart. But here it is; prepare To see the life as lively mocked, as ever Still sleep mocked death: behold, and say ‘tis well” (V.iii.14-20). The language here foreshadows the reveal that comes soon after: Hermione is alive, and we assume she’s been hidden away by Paulina for the sixteen years of the play. The statue is “life as lively mocked, as ever still sleep mocked death,” which compares how identical sleep is to death and how identical the statue is to the dead Hermione. It isn’t a real statue; the true mockery is that she feigned death and was spirited away. Death is the disguise Hermione uses in The Winter’s Tale to avoid her husband’s wrath, and she only returns when Perdita is reunited with her family. Paulina’s last words are “Our Perdita is found” (V.iii.121) before her first words are spoken, which includes “Where hast thou been preserved? Where lived? How found Thy father’s court? For thou shalt heat that I, Knowing by Paulina that the oracle Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved Myself to see the issue” (V.iii.123-128). Hermione says that she preserved her own life in the hopes that she would see her living daughter again as the oracle predicted. The queen doesn’t do anything to influence the return of her lost daughter, but her disappearance does punish for her husband, whose is responsible for the entire conflict. Her charade of faking death is similar to Falstaff’s feigning death at the end of Henry IV, Part 1. He employs the trick to avoid actual death at the hands of his enemies, and Hermione also saves her life by mocking its end. The disguise of death is used to preserve life in both cases, but with entirely different purposes. Falstaff is a coward and an egoist who claims that to truly die would be make one a mockery of a man because his perfect state is living. “Counterfeit? I lie; I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed” (V.iv.114-119). His use of counterfeit reveals his personal truth about life and how best to live it. He fakes dying because he believes the man who preserves his own life at all costs, even going so far as you fake death, is living his life perfectly. This contrasts to Hermione, who saved her own life and lifted the disguise once she could complete her family. They are contrasting examples of how counterfeiting death can save one’s life for selfish and selfless reasons.
Hermione brings the happy ending of the play, while Falstaff is exposed as a fraud when he tries to take credit for killing Hotspur. Each gets their just deserts for their use of death, which speaks to the gravity of their actions. Death is not to be mocked, except for the most righteous of reasons, and Hermione’s was far more holy than Falstaff’s. Shakespeare used this kind of deceit very early in Henry IV, Part 1 and developed it to become a major positive catharsis later in his career with The Winter’s Tale. The truth of living brings joy to a grieving family, rather than to a fat old man trying to save his own skin.
Trickery is an essential device in a comedy, where misunderstanding fuels humor. A prolonged disguise provides a terrific fulcrum for a comedic play, and when that disguise crosses barriers between class and gender, it reveals something about how society views those concepts. People are still people, regardless of financial standing or assigned gender, but those biases create expectations that audiences hold when viewing them on a stage. Shakespeare has utilized those expectations in his work, when he introduces a character that plays upon these assumptions for his/her personal gain, he is exposing how people can be manipulated by their own biases. We are victims of a society that enforces those beliefs, and these characters are rebelling against that by merely jumping the line. Rather than Portia, Rosalind and Viola fooling the audience, we have already fooled ourselves into believing the fallacy of the gender binary. Hal remains the same person, but by consorting in a tavern with drunks, we immediately form assumptions about him. Theatre itself is a deceit, and all the characters are disguises that actors put on to fool the audience into learning some great truth. Young boys playing women speaks volumes about societal gender roles, but Shakespeare takes it further with his characters. The metaphysical layers of truth delve deep as disguised are mixed and deceit reveals truth. Shakespeare puts the world on a stage and reveals that androgyny and classless judgment are the greatest version humanity can reach for. Death gives way to life, and love (true, genderless love) can heal all.
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