Twelfth Night's Theme of Identity

Identity is a common theme that threads through the Twelfth Night as well as other Shakespeare plays, such as the Comedy of Errors. And as with the Comedy of Errors, there are twins, people are mistaken for others, and there is always someone going through a test of sanity. Even the name Twelfth Night resonates a sense of miscommunication due to its reference to the twelfth night after Christmas. It is the day when everything is turned upside down and all sense of reality is suspended.

This coincides with Shakespeare’s choice to make the play occasional.

The plot itself flips certain character identities using disguises, indistinct gender roles, and the allure of class mobility. Disguise is the most obvious plot twist leading to misconceptions in addition to a love triangle. This is initiated by Viola’s idea to mask herself as a gentleman named Cesario. The situation focuses solely on the identity you portray to your environment which is not, in this case, the identity Viola has as her true self.

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One’s physical features can therefore hold a particular amount of weight in the identity you take in a society.

It is this disguise that triggers the mayhem that happens in the main plot on this particular January 6th in the play. In a way it resembles the Comedy of Errors in that at the end of the play, Cesario and Sebastian look like twins and the characters think it is due to witchcraft. This gender switch reveals another take on identity- that of indistinct gender roles.

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In Shakespeare’s time the role of Viola would have been a male actor performing a females character who then pretends to be a man named Cesario.

This flip-flop of gender roles creates an interesting exposure of how the audience perceives what is feminine and what is masculine. Is Cesario’s role a feminine male or a masculine woman? Sometimes not even Viola knows how to act in her male disguise, expressing words such as “My father had a daughter loved a man, as it might be, perhaps, were I a woman I should your lordship” (2. 4. 106). It is hard to keep her true identity from leaking out of her disguise, especially when she loves the Duke so passionately. Some question that within these indistinct gender roles lies a sense of homoeroticism.

This is a question to Antonio’s love for Sebastian and whether it is a relationship that exceeds friendship. However, this is a contemporary view and one that would not have even been considered in the Elizabethan era. Yet as decades pass, our own societal identities change as a group, most of the time becoming more open to certain concepts. So reading this play exposes how an audience today perceives what a feminine or masculine identity is, which is extremely different than what it was when Twelfth Night was written.

It was not intended by Shakespeare to add an extra twist yet as the play passes from generation to generation, those perceived gender identities add more depth to the plot. Lastly, I believe the allure of class mobility is the most important aspect of this performance and is perfectly portrayed by the subplot character of Malvolio. This character is a man who dreams of raising his status in the world by marrying Olivia. Due to his arrogance and insufferable personality, Maria, Toby and Andrew play a joke on him by leading him to believe that match was possible.

This situation reveals Malvolio’s personal mistake in mixing up his desire or ambition with his true identity. Of course this vision is a pretense without likelihood yet he is full of indulgent conceit and the peccadillo thoughts of wanting to marry his mistress. Malvolio’s character is very important because it offers a subplot of someone with a false identity and the road to ruin he is therefore led on. Malvolio may have mixed up his delusion with his identity yet I find it interesting that at a time when everyone around him challenges his sanity, he clings desperately to that true self and true identity.

This is an interesting point that when we really hit rock bottom, we really get a perspective of what our true identity is, stripped of any conceited desires that once clouded our judgment. Perhaps the key to surviving January 6th and keep from losing your sanity in a tumble of twisted chaos is to stick to your true self. The only exception being if you are of the upper class because money and stature provide a free pass for any wrong doings. I believe it was the upper class that actually initiated the subplot debacle with Malvolio and his search for a new identity.

Because in fact, the only time “what you will” is mentioned in the play is said to Malvolio by Olivia. When speaking of sending away more of Orsino’s men she says, “Go you, Malvolio. If it be a suit from the count, I am sick, or not at home. What you will, to dismiss it” (1. 5. 93). Giving him this influence encourages the formation of a comedic opportunity for the upper class characters while leading to an individual calamity for Malvolio (Cahill 2). So one could argue Olivia’s offer set the dominos in place and Maria was simply the one who knocked them down.

There are, therefore, two different rules guiding the separate classes. The main story line follows the recognized nobility soaking in their emotional liberty existing in a fanciful, whimsical Illyria. While this occurs, the subplot follows Elizabethan social norms historically set in the late 16th century. In this manner the rules that the main characters follow aren’t the same as those characters such as Malvolio have to adhere to (Cahill 2). As mentioned in class, Shakespeare was deeply against those who tried to change social class, an opinion that shows not only in this play.

It is not surprising considering the “Elizabethan England was a society acutely aware of the possibility of upward mobility” (“Twelfth Night: 1601 and All That” 1). There was a lost sense of bourgeoisie as people were soon able to buy land and status when it was supposed to be inherited. Laws were then placed on clothing that could only be worn by a certain social ranking which explains why Malvolio was condemned so harshly when wearing the yellow stockings (“Twelfth Night: 1601 and All That” 1). Malvolio is locked away for seeming to be crazy for pretending to be of a higher class in his dress.

However, at the end of the play no one shames Viola for dressing as a gentleman named Cesario. Instead it is a seemingly happy ending for everyone but Malvolio. This leads me to believe his purpose is to be the reminder that there will always be a character that must be subject to ridicule or disdain (Cahill 3). The false identity offered through a disguise, the perceived identity offered through the audience’s outlook, and the illusion of a more powerful identity involving the upward movement of class are the three aspects of the theme identity in the Twelfth Night.

Using these facets, the play is set up to become a comedy based on misconceptions and confusion. However, one should mention that just as there was the addition to the play with a sense of identity through the audience’s change in opinion on gender roles, there is also something lost. This aspect of shame in trying to move up in society provides so much humor in a setting such as this because the stakes are high and it is an illegal act. The absurd view of a servant in nobility clothing would have emitted surprise and laughter through any audience in the Elizabethan era.

Yet all of this is lost as we reach the 21st Century. Now the audience lives in a time when people can where generally anything they want; people who are no longer strapped to laws guiding your status, title, and dress. So although we dove into the theme of identity and the three key aspects of it that push this play into a comedic plot, half of the planned humor is no longer interpreted. But whether or not this play is as comedic as it once was, at least Twelfth Night lives up to it’s name as a day when everything is turned upside down and all sense of reality is suspended.

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Twelfth Night's Theme of Identity. (2016, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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