An Imitation of IgnoranceThe play Twelfth Night encapsulates what it meant to be a man and women throughoutthe 16th century. The roles of each gender were set in stone, and one could notpublicly cross over under any circumstances. During Shakespearean times women werenot even allowed to portray themselves on stage, men played their roles instead. Inmy opinion Shakespeare uses the play to show the hypocrisy of the status quo thatheld people from expressing their true identity. Twelfth Night demonstrates thatprofessions should not be given on a gender basis, skill should be the onlyconsideration. During the play one sees that only through imitation of anothergender can a person reverse the roles, which they are bonded to. In Twelfth Nightimitation of another gender is done both out of necessity, and for revenge. InTwelfth Night one’s sexual preference was not a reason for gender reversal.
Viola/Cesario who has just lost her brother in a shipwreck feels that she needs todress as a man to survive on the island of Illyria. “And what should I do inIllyria? My brother he is in Elysium. Perchance his not drown’d what you think.
” Viola changes her name to Cesario and begins her new life as a man. Viola/Cesariocrosses the boundaries and becomes Orsino’s best servant. This portrayal of a womansuccessfully imitating a man is an obvious denouncement of the so-called gender rolesof the Elizabethan era. Throughout the play imitation is used for revenge and playsan integral role in the lives of a few supporting characters. In this scenario it isused to deceive Malvolio, a pompous servant, to teach him a lesson in his relationswith other people. Shakespeare makes it clear that deception, when used forentertainment, can be very destructive.
Twelfth Night deals with problems that occur when somebody is forced to imitateanother sex, or another person. “Pray God defend me! A little thing would make metell them how much I lack of a man.” These problems are demonstrated through sexualtension between almost all of the characters. The characters seem to accomplish mostof their set goals, but somehow something impedes them from flawless imitation.Viola/Cesario is distressed and has no idea how to live without a proper income. Shelives in a society that only allows men to work certain types of jobs.
Theseprofessions are the ones that bring in most of the money. For this reason she beginsto imitate a man, and goes by the name Cesario. Her profession was to be a servantto the Duke Orsino. “I’ll serve this Duke; Thou shalt present me as an eunuch tohim, it may be worth thy pains; for I can sing and speak to him in many sorts ofmusic that will allow me very worth his service.” The captain that saved her agreedto tutor her in manhood, and she fully comprehended what it is to be a man duringthese times. She picked up her profession extremely quickly. Her imitation did havelimitations however.
She ran into problems due to sexual urges and these proved tobe insurmountable. Viola/Cesario fell in love with her master, and could not find away to properly inform him of her true identity. The second problem she encounteredwas Olivia, a rich countess, ends up falling in love with her. Viola/Cesario did notknow how to handle these certain situations as a man so she dealt with them as awoman. This becomes evident due to an incident were she almost kisses Orsino; and shedoes not make it clear to Olivia why somebody would not want to kiss her, a beautifulwoman. Throughout the play Shakespeare enlightens his audience by showing alienation, whichoccurs when somebody is forced to imitate a person who they are not. Viola/Cesarionot only alienates Olivia and Orsino, but she also isolates herself from feelingsthat are undefeatable. This causes the characters to be in a confused state and eachbegins to question their sexuality.
Olivia considers herself an attractive woman,and many men have always pursued her. Olivia, however, has never felt the samepassionate attraction towards another man. She finally meets a man, or so shethinks, and he is not drawn to her.
This leaves her to question if she will everfind true love. “Yet come again; for thou perhaps mayst move that heart which nowabhors, to like his love.” Through this ordeal Orsino also becomes confused by hissexuality. He sees past Viola/Cesario clothing and falls in love with her. After afew moments were Viola/Cesario and Orsino are very close he comes to realize that itwould not be morally right to have sexual passion for another man.
He slowly movesaway and begins to question his feelings. When all is resolved true feelings arefinally brought to light, and the characters see both their fates had true love inthe future. It is unfortunate though that heartache was due to a simple societalstructure that holds no basis in the world.Malvolio, a servant of Olivia, is also hurt by an imitation.
Contrary toViola/Cesario’s imitation this one was not done out of necessity. The imitation isexecuted by acquaintances of Malvolio that seek revenge at the way he had beentreating them. Feste the jester, Maria, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Toby’sfriend Sir Andrew Aguecheek–who scheme to undermine the high-minded, pompousMalvolio. Malvolio is tricked into believing Olivia is in love with him because of aletter that said just that. Malvolio believes the imitation letter, and hischaracter suddenly changes from arrogant to joyful. “Sad lady? I could be sad.
Thisdoes make some obstruction in the blood, this cross-gartering, but as the true sonnetis Please one, and please all.'” Shakespeare placed this sub-plot to show theaudience how detrimental trickery can be when it is used with love. When Malvoliodiscovers the evil trick he is distraught, and heartbroken. “Madam, you have done mewrong, notorious wrong.” From Malvolio’s case one begins to remember instances wherethey have used trickery or imitation for revenge upon another person. Malvolio’scharacter shows the damage that can occur to ones’ psyche. Shakespeare makes it clearthat love is extremely volatile and should not be toiled with.
One leaves the theatreremembering previous situations where similar methods were used; hoping that they hadnot caused damage comparable to that of Malvolio’s.Shakespeare delves into waters that were untested throughout the Elizabethan era. Heasks the audience to see if there is any basis for specific gender roles. Theaudience is never surprised throughout the whole play, and the tone of each of thecharacters does not fluctuate.
Even when Orsino finds out his best servant is aman. One must not only look at the tone of the characters, the tone of the audienceis important as well. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a presentation ofTwelfth Night at the University of Wisconsin this past year.
Many of the socialissues concerning Twelfth Night (Homophobia, cross-dressing) still remain prevalentin our society today. During scenes involving homosexual contact, the audience didnot seem stunned. The audience appeared to accept that Viola/Cesario was actually awoman, and the love that encapsulated Orsino and Olivia was blind to gender. Theaudience also completely disregarded gender, and agreed with Shakespeare that truelove draws no boundaries. One also became aware that Viola/Cesario could perform thetasks that were asked of her.
She even proved to do her job exceptionally and becameOrsino’s best servant. The performance attacked those who are ignorant enough tohold opinions that hinder the advancements of both homosexuals and women. By usingsubtle examples of political viewpoints, Shakespeare addresses issues that areimportant to everyday society.
He acknowledges the fact Elizabethan society prohibitshim from making blatant statements, which go against the moral majority. Shakespeareshows his mastery of the English language by eluding these rules and attacking thesubconscious of the audience. One leaves the theatre with a lingering feeling ofguilt, which one cannot be understand at the time. The feeling is comprehended at alater time and one begins to question stereotypes, which are dominant in societytoday.