Masking And Role Play In Twelfth Night In Relation To The Questions Of Gender Identity And The Nature Of The Self

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Write an essay as an answer to the following question:

‘I am not what I am’. Discuss masking and role play in Twelfth Night in relation to the questions of gender identity and the nature of the self which the play raises.

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‘I am not what I am’, Viola cries, as she tries unsuccessfully to distance herself from the ‘fair’ Countess Olivia. Viola’s ‘disguise’ affects all the characters on the ‘Isle of Illyria’, transforming it into a topsy-turvy world of ambiguity. In Illyria, the social norms are not ‘what you should’, but ‘what you will’.

‘I am not what I play’, Viola declares. However, as the play progresses, we note that all of the main characters in Twelfth Night adopt certain masks and facades, perform ‘roles’ and master the art of deception.

The gap between identity and self is experienced by many characters in Twelfth Night who all play parts and take on roles which are not actually them. In this way, the play’s sub-title, ‘What You Will’, serves to reinforce the idea that, in Illyria, ‘anything goes’. Shakespeare, ultimately, questions whether one’s identity and the labels used in society back then – as well as in today’s society – like gender and social status, are set or are able to be altered by masks or other items of ‘disguise’.

Throughout Twelfth Night, we see many conflicts between appearance and reality. Through her expression, ‘I am not what I am’, Viola alludes to the disparity between her real self and the part that she is playing, hinting that her true self is secret and unknown. The rules that are accepted to govern relationships between men and women or between persons of the same sex are all contradicted in Twelfth Night. Viola is conflicted with her identity as Cesario and, by introducing this new character, she has unwittingly become the centre of attraction of Olivia while, in parallel, having to cope with her own desire for Orsino. There is a conflict between her gender identity as a male or female and is evident when she speaks of Olivia, ‘Poor lady, she were better love a dream! Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness’.

Viola’s disguise may suggest that women’s roles are overly dependent on gender convention and social rules, and that genuine affection cannot flourish in such artificial conditions. By being a man with Orsino, Viola is, paradoxically, able to get to know him on more equal terms and, in so doing, be sure of her love for him. By dressing Viola in male clothes, therefore, Shakespeare demonstrates how fluid, even self-delusional, human interaction can be.

While Olivia remains unattainable for Orsino, we can see that his relationship with Cesario develops as a result of the freedom offered by her concealment. Orsino says, ‘Cesario come, For so you shall be while you are a man…’. Orsino continues to address Viola as his male page in the closing remarks, referring to her ‘masculine usurped attire’, her ‘woman’s weeds’ and ‘maid’s garments’.

Another aspect of the nature of the self that the audience may find intriguing was the reunification of the twins: Viola and Sebastian. We read that the twins are so alike that they are like a ‘division’ of one – ‘An apple cleft in twain’ – and it appears that their reunion is representative of the reuniting of a single-self, rather than two people meeting up after a long period of absence. It is as if Shakespeare is suggesting that they are actually two sides – feminine and masculine – of the same self. Viola also identifies this divided-self condition in Olivia; ‘you do think you are not what you are’.

In Illyria, the social norms are not ‘what you should’, but ‘what you will’ and, even at the play’s end, it would appear that Shakespeare wanted to prolong this prevailing ambiguity, in keeping with the play’s almost ‘chaotic’ nature. We can see this by his refusal to disclose Viola as feminine, even at the play’s conclusion, when the return of her woman’s clothes is repeatedly referred to, but never actually occurs.

Twelfth Night is a play of gender ambiguity and mistaken identity. One might even wonder if Shakespeare had always intended – through having a double title to the play (’Twelfth Night, or What You Will’) – to highlight the theme of doubling or duplication. ‘I am not what I am’ is a paradox and an antithesis, representing the conflict of those who lead double lives, deliberately separating the public and private self.


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