One way in which Shakespeare makes use of mistaken identities is to show that people are not always what they appear to be. Viola illustrates this point by discussing the illusion of appearances in the very first scene in which we meet her. In Act 1, Scene 2, Viola reflects on the fact that the character of the sea captain who rescued her is just as "fair," or good and noble, as his looks are fair, as apparently he is a rather handsome man. We see her compare his fairness in character to his fairness in looks in her lines:
There is a fair behavior in thee, captain;
And though that nature with a beauteous wall
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
I will believe thou hast a mind that suits
With this thy fair and outward character. (I.ii.50-54)
These lines are also important because they express her understanding that looks can be deceiving, and that someone can be something completely different on the inside than they appear to be on the outside, which is a dominant theme in the play.
We especially see the illusion of appearances portrayed when Sebastian is mistaken for his sister who is pretending to be a manservant named Cesario. It's very apparent that both Sebastian and Viola have very different character traits. For one thing, when Viola as Cesario converses with Feste in Act 3, Scene 1, she is very congenial with him. They exchange witty retorts, and she remarks about how good Feste is at his job as a fool. However, when Sebastian encounters Feste in Act 4, Scene 1, whom Feste mistakes for Cesario, Sebastian doesn't give Feste the same congenial treatment. Instead, he becomes annoyed by Feste, even calling him a "foolish fellow" to which Feste retorts that Sebastian "will prove a cockney," meaning "clueless person" (eNotes, IV.i.2, 12). Sebastian even proves to have a temper. While Viola says she hates violence and prefers peace, Sebastian readily strikes Sir Andrew. Sebastian even severely hurts both Sir Andrew and Sir Toby a second time in the final act. If we can believe Sirs Andrew and Toby, the second time Sebastian struck them was apparently unprovoked, showing us that, unlike his sister, he has a much more aggressive temper, and even though he and Viola look alike, inside they are very different. Yet, Olivia feels she is in love with Sebastian merely because he looks like Cesario, who is really his sister Viola. Olivia will probably eventually be disappointed to learn that their characters are really very different. Hence, Shakespeare gives both Viola and Sebastian opposing character traits, plus mistakes their identities, to show just how deceptive looks can be.
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Mistaken Identity William Shakespeare, in his well-known comedy Twelfth Night, creates a plot that revolves around mistaken identity and deception. Mistaken identity, along with disguises, rules the play and affects the lives of several of the characters. Shakespeare’s techniques involve mistaken identity to bring humor, mystery, and complication to the play. Many characters in Twelfth Night assume disguises, beginning with Viola who is disguised as a eunuch, Maria who writes a letter to Malvolio as Olivia, and then the mix-up between Sebastian and Viola are revealed.
The instances of mistaken identity are related to many disguises in the play. Viola, who puts on male attire, begins to have everyone believe that she is a man. By dressing up in male garments, she wants to be taken as a eunuch. Viola assumes the name Cesario. While talking with the captain, Viola begins to realize that Olivia also lost her brother and is grieving just as Viola is for her brother. Viola decides to go to Duke Orsino’s palace to be able to reach Olivia, the Duke’s love.
Viola is going to use the Duke to try to speak with Olivia about their devastating events with their brothers’ deaths. Viola is going to try to be a servant for Duke Orsino which is the reason for disguising herself as a eunuch. In talking with the captain, he says to her, “Be you his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be. When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see” (Shakespeare 13). Through Viola’s change in identity, this situation creates a conflict through the characters. Viola falls in love with Orsino but cannot tell him because he thinks she is a man.
While the love of Orsion, Olivia, falls madly in love with Viola. Olivia is now in love with a woman, and Orsino often remarks on Cesario’s beauty, suggesting that he is attracted to Viola even before her male disguise is removed. Olivia’s head servant Malvolio, a narcisstic character thinks that Olivia is in love with him. His self obsession leads him to these conclusions along with the misleading from Maria and other servants. The conspirators know of Malvolio and his self love and are not fond of him because of their past experiences.
Maria and the conspirators decide to mislead Malvolio into thinking that Olivia is in love with him. Maria decides to lead him on by writing a letter, but means to be from Olivia. This love letter is meant to instruct Malvolio to do actions that Olivia despises. Maria is able to mislead Malvolio because she has the same print and seal as Olivia. Shakespeare is able to trick the characters and create many portrayals of them. The mistaken identity in this play is related to the prevalence of disguises in the play as Viola’s male clothing leads to her being mistaken for her brother Sebastian.
Sebastian is mistaken for Viola (or rather, Cesario) by Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, and then by Olivia, who quickly marries him. Meanwhile, Antonio mistakes Viola for Sebastian and thinks that his friend has betrayed him when Viola claims not to know him. While Viola is in a sword fight against Sir Andrew, Antonio is trying to be a loyal friend by taking the place of Viola, who he thinks is Sebastian. Antonio is not liked by Orsino’s court, so he is then arrested and taken away. While this is happening, Antonio asks Viola for his purse back, which he gives to Sebastian.
Viola becomes extremely confused and claimed not having his purse and being a close friend of his. Antonio takes this as deception and thinks that Sebastian, who is really Viola, is a coward. These cases of mistaken identity, common in Shakespeare’s comedies, create the tangled situation that can be resolved only when Viola and Sebastian appear together, helping everyone to understand what has happened. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare uses mistaken identity by disguising Viola as a eunuch, having Malvolio think Olivia wrote the letter, and Viola and Sebastian being each other.
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These cases of mistaken identity, common in Shakespeare’s comedies, create many tangled situations that can be resolved in the end of the play with Sebastian and Viola being revealed and Fabian putting in place all the confusion. Shakespeare’s writing uses mystery, confusion and humor. All these mistaken identities are all for the humor of the play. His creativity is shown through the several disguises and portrayals of the characters. This play shows that if you are true to yourself and others, you will live an easier, more truthful life. “No mask like open truth to cover lies, as to go naked is the best disguise” (Congreve 291).
Author: Brandon Johnson
Mistaken Identity for Twelfth Night
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