Many of the problems and confusions in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” are the result of gender bending episodes, many of which involve disguise and deceit of one form or another. In the most prominent examples of disguise and appearance versus reality in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare,appearances hide an important reality and sometimes actually hinder a character from developing or attaining his or her desire. Certainly, Viola in “Twelfth Night” by Shakespeare is the clearest example since her love for Orsino must go unrecognized until the appearance is exchanged for reality.
Furthermore, the problems associated with deceit and reality create tension in “Twelfth Night” by Shakespeare, especially in the case of Malvolio. In addition to these more explicit examples of appearances not matching reality, there are other aspects to the play that are not entirely clear in terms of gender. For example, the typical love relationships in “Twelfth Night” by Shakespeare, especially between men, are often confused and somewhat ambiguous. Although by the end of “Twelfth Night” by Shakespeare, the reader is assured by the marriages and heterosexual unions of the central characters, one cannot completely ignore the larger implications and suggestions made such episodes of gender bending. The comedic nature of Twelfth Night is produced as a result of these mix-ups and without them, this could easily have been a tragedy in which frustrated lovers were scorned and siblings were lost and mourned for years.
The action of “Twelfth Night” by Shakespeare is driven by Viola’s decision to voluntarily conceal her identity and go to work as a servant for the lovesick Orsino instead of Olivia. In one of the important quotes from Twelfth Night by Shakespeare She tells the Captain that she wishes to become a eunuch and begs him to, “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / The form of my intent” (I.ii.51-53). This disguise and gender confusion early in the play serves Viola quite well in the beginning, especially since she is a young woman alone in a strange city. With this vulnerability removed, she is now free to seek employment although she does not figure it will cause her as much trouble as it does. In the case of Viola/Cesario the appearance constitutes the reality for other characters, but of course, not for herself. As her love for her master grows, she finds herself wishing for the reality but is now so embroiled in events that she cannot turn back. She expresses her tension when she states, “O time, thou must untangle this, not I. / It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie” (II.ii.38-39) but realizes that she cannot, at this point at least, reveal her identity—the reality behind the appearance. There is a sense of hopelessness in the battle between what one sees and what is truth and it is best summed at the climax of this identity conflict when Viola, realizing that Olivia loves her/him, says, “Poor lady, she were better love a dream” (II.ii.24). In other words, the dream is the appearance while the reality is unattainable because of it. It is only through another case of mistaken identity (the arrival of her brother) that she allowed to shed the appearance and engage in the reality.
Through means of deceit, appearances and reality are confused as well in Twelfth Night. This is most obvious in the case of the trick played upon Malvolio. Interestingly, he is a character that is not necessarily likable, especially when we first encounter him, but at least he is one of the few that does not seem to have any kind of disguise other than the fact that his simple background does not match up with the grand vision he has of being “Count Malvolio.” Despite his outward participation in creating an appearance to replace reality, he still is a victim of this paradigm in his own thoughts. He has an enormous ego that allows him to look only at the outward appearances rather than into the deeper truth or reality and gladly takes on another appearance to satisfy the conditions set forth to (supposedly) make his wish reality. Malvolio grows into the role of the love object (which can be seen as a disguise of sorts) and wears the yellow stockings because he has been misled. His behavior echoes the words of Orsino, who laments, “So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical” (I.i.14-15). In this line, Orsino is stating that “fancy” or romantic love is fantastical and not associated with reality. Whether it is Malvolio acting as a fool for love or Orsino who wishes only to lay about all day thinking about his Olivia in the beginning, the two themes are clear—love itself is the ultimate form appearances trumping reality and appearances, when taken too lightly, begin dictating reality.
Appearances versus reality are also an issue for the reader of Twelfth Night as well as the characters. The play opens with a character deciding to take on another gender appearance and although there are characters who never take a formal disguise, gender identities and love interests still seem less than traditional throughout the play. For example, while it is almost expected that Viola/Cesario might have an inclination to love her master, it twists the situation later when the reader begins to see that perhaps Orsino might have a love interest in his boy servant. Even after Viola’s true appearance and reality is exposed and confirmed, Orsino still has a strange attachment to the idea of being more in love with the boy rather than the female behind him. At one point near the end, Orsino says, “Cesario, come— / For so you shall be while you are a man; / but when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen” (V.i.372-375) and this demonstrates that there is still an interchangeable nature to the gender and thus the reality over appearance in this situation. A similar example of unexpected love crossing gender lines can also be seen in the case of Antonio who follows Sebastian, not necessarily out of some sense of manly duty it seems, but rather because of “desire/ More sharp than filed steel” (III.iii.4-5). While none of these less traditional gender pairings are ever confirmed by the ending, they give the play an even more confusing quality and bring the question of what appearances versus reality really means in any case.
In sum, it seems as though Shakespeare wishes audiences to consider the true nature of reality when a multitude of appearances can have an effect on our perception of it. Also, by presenting the issue of appearances versus reality in so many contexts (cross-dressing, outright trickery, mistaken identity, and ambiguous love pairings) the reader is made to understand that appearances can sometimes be of little or no value. If all of the characters had been more in tune with reality rather than centering on their own and other characters’ appearances, one can easily assume this wouldn’t make such a grand comedy.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : The Role of Disguises in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Appearances versus Reality in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night Perceptions of Race in Othello by Shakespeare Renaissance Ideas as Reflected in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Prejudice in Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice Disguises and Reality in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night The Significance of the Play Within a Play Structure of A Midsummer Night’s Dream