In William Shakespeare’s comedic play, “Twelfth Night”, a recurring theme is deception. The characters in the play used deception for a variety of purposes. Viola’s use of deception involves her disguising herself as a man in order to obtain a job with the Duke of Illyria, Orsino. On the other hand, Maria, Olivia’s servant, writes a letter to Malvolio in Olivia’s handwriting to make Malvolio act foolishly because of his love for Olivia. While some use deception as a means of survival, others use deception to trick others and make them act foolishly.
The first example of deception in this play was when Viola decides to disguise herself as a man. Viola barely escapes a shipwreck along with her twin brother Sebastian. Separated in this terrible disaster each twin believes the other has died in the wreck. The captain of the shipwrecked vessel advises Viola to go and find a job with the Duke Orsino since she has no family or way to support herself. Viola must disguise herself as a man in order to get a job and survive. “For such 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” (1.2 lines 50-55). Viola, under the name Cesario, receives the job with Orsino at his house.
Viola as Cesario becomes a messenger for Orsino. Viola carries love letters to Orsino’s love Olivia who wouldn’t accept the letters until Viola brought them to her. Viola later realizes that Olivia is in love with her as Cesario and also that she herself is in love with Orsino and that Orsino is still in love with Olivia. At a loss within the situation, Viola doesn’t know what to do about the mess she has created. She feels pity for Olivia and herself with the statement “Poor lady, she were better love a dream” (2.2. 25)! Viola’s use of deception causes a cross gender love triangle with which she can not deal.
Another example of deception is when Maria, Olivia’s servant writes a letter to Malvolio, Olivia’s head servant and Maria’s coworker. Maria deceives Malvolio by writing in Olivia’s handwriting. In the letter she says that Olivia loves men in yellow stockings. “Remember who commended thy yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered” (2.5. 143-145). Maria knows that Malvolio will follow this ridiculous deed because of this love for his lady Olivia. Sir Toby Belch says, “He shall think by the letters that thou wilt drop that they come from my niece, and that she’s in love with him” (2.3. 154-156). Maria places the letter in her garden where Malvolio will definitely find it. Thinking Olivia will fall in love with him because of his clothing, Malvolio dress up in yellow stockings and goes to see Olivia. When Olivia sees Malvolio and the way he is acting, she isolates him for fear that he is insane.
Shakespeare’s use of cross dressing and deceitfulness extends beyond the actual writings in the plays and goes onto the stage. Women were not allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s time. “…all the great women’s roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, from Juliet and Lady Macbeth to the duchess of Malfi, were written to be performed by trained adolescent boys” (Norton 1043). These adolescent boys were very convincing women on stage, possibly because of their smaller build and higher-pitched tone of voice.
The role of Viola in Twelfth Night was particularly difficult. “The comedy depends upon an actor’s ability to transform himself, through costume, voice and gesture, into a young noblewoman, Viola, who transforms herself, through costume, voice and gesture, into a young man, Cesario” (Norton 1043). Shakespeare used deception throughout this writing and some others but also in reality through the performances of the plays.
Even from the beginning of time with Adam, Eve and the serpent, deception has been used. Everyone has tried to deceive someone in their lifetime whether it be through a Halloween costume or to make yourself appear better. Deception is used for a variety of reasons today just as in the play. Some people are forced to use deception as a necessity while others find humor and entertainment in it. Whatever the motive, deception will continue to be a recurring them in all mankind; one with which we can all identify.