An Imitation of Ignorance
The play Twelfth Night encapsulates what it meant to be a man and women throughout
the 16th century. The roles of each gender were set in stone, and one could not
publicly cross over under any circumstances. During Shakespearean times women were
not even allowed to portray themselves on stage, men played their roles instead. In
my opinion Shakespeare uses the play to show the hypocrisy of the status quo that
held people from expressing their true identity. Twelfth Night demonstrates that
professions should not be given on a gender basis, skill should be the only
consideration. During the play one sees that only through imitation of another
gender can a person reverse the roles, which they are bonded to. In Twelfth Night
imitation of another gender is done both out of necessity, and for revenge. In
Twelfth 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 to
dress as a man to survive on the island of Illyria. “And what should I do in
Illyria? 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/Cesario
crosses the boundaries and becomes Orsino’s best servant. This portrayal of a woman
successfully imitating a man is an obvious denouncement of the so-called gender roles
of the Elizabethan era. Throughout the play imitation is used for revenge and plays
an integral role in the lives of a few supporting characters. In this scenario it is
used to deceive Malvolio, a pompous servant, to teach him a lesson in his relations
with other people. Shakespeare makes it clear that deception, when used for
entertainment, can be very destructive.
Twelfth Night deals with problems that occur when somebody is forced to imitate
another sex, or another person. “Pray God defend me! A little thing would make me
tell them how much I lack of a man.” These problems are demonstrated through sexual
tension between almost all of the characters. The characters seem to accomplish most
of 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. She
lives in a society that only allows men to work certain types of jobs. These
professions are the ones that bring in most of the money. For this reason she begins
to imitate a man, and goes by the name Cesario. Her profession was to be a servant
to the Duke Orsino. “I’ll serve this Duke; Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to
him, it may be worth thy pains; for I can sing and speak to him in many sorts of
music that will allow me very worth his service.” The captain that saved her agreed
to tutor her in manhood, and she fully comprehended what it is to be a man during
these times. She picked up her profession extremely quickly. Her imitation did have
limitations however. She ran into problems due to sexual urges and these proved to
be insurmountable. Viola/Cesario fell in love with her master, and could not find a
way to properly inform him of her true identity. The second problem she encountered
was Olivia, a rich countess, ends up falling in love with her. Viola/Cesario did not
know how to handle these certain situations as a man so she dealt with them as a
woman. This becomes evident due to an incident were she almost kisses Orsino; and she
does not make it clear to Olivia why somebody would not want to kiss her, a beautiful
woman.
Throughout the play Shakespeare enlightens his audience by showing alienation, which
occurs when somebody is forced to imitate a person who they are not. Viola/Cesario
not only alienates Olivia and Orsino, but she also isolates herself from feelings
that are undefeatable. This causes the characters to be in a confused state and each
begins to question their sexuality. Olivia considers herself an attractive woman,
and many men have always pursued her. Olivia, however, has never felt the same
passionate attraction towards another man. She finally meets a man, or so she
thinks, and he is not drawn to her. This leaves her to question if she will ever
find true love. “Yet come again; for thou perhaps mayst move that heart which now
abhors, to like his love.” Through this ordeal Orsino also becomes confused by his
sexuality. He sees past Viola/Cesario clothing and falls in love with her. After a
few moments were Viola/Cesario and Orsino are very close he comes to realize that it
would not be morally right to have sexual passion for another man. He slowly moves
away and begins to question his feelings. When all is resolved true feelings are
finally brought to light, and the characters see both their fates had true love in
the future. It is unfortunate though that heartache was due to a simple societal
structure that holds no basis in the world.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!


order now

Malvolio, a servant of Olivia, is also hurt by an imitation. Contrary to
Viola/Cesario’s imitation this one was not done out of necessity. The imitation is
executed by acquaintances of Malvolio that seek revenge at the way he had been
treating them. Feste the jester, Maria, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Toby’s
friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek–who scheme to undermine the high-minded, pompous
Malvolio. Malvolio is tricked into believing Olivia is in love with him because of a
letter that said just that. Malvolio believes the imitation letter, and his
character suddenly changes from arrogant to joyful. “Sad lady? I could be sad. This
does make some obstruction in the blood, this cross-gartering, but as the true sonnet
is Please one, and please all.'” Shakespeare placed this sub-plot to show the
audience how detrimental trickery can be when it is used with love. When Malvolio
discovers the evil trick he is distraught, and heartbroken. “Madam, you have done me
wrong, notorious wrong.” From Malvolio’s case one begins to remember instances where
they have used trickery or imitation for revenge upon another person. Malvolio’s
character shows the damage that can occur to ones’ psyche. Shakespeare makes it clear
that love is extremely volatile and should not be toiled with. One leaves the theatre
remembering previous situations where similar methods were used; hoping that they had
not caused damage comparable to that of Malvolio’s.

Shakespeare delves into waters that were untested throughout the Elizabethan era. He
asks the audience to see if there is any basis for specific gender roles. The
audience is never surprised throughout the whole play, and the tone of each of the
characters does not fluctuate. Even when Orsino finds out his best servant is a
man. One must not only look at the tone of the characters, the tone of the audience
is important as well. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a presentation of
Twelfth Night at the University of Wisconsin this past year. Many of the social
issues concerning Twelfth Night (Homophobia, cross-dressing) still remain prevalent
in our society today. During scenes involving homosexual contact, the audience did
not seem stunned. The audience appeared to accept that Viola/Cesario was actually a
woman, and the love that encapsulated Orsino and Olivia was blind to gender. The
audience also completely disregarded gender, and agreed with Shakespeare that true
love draws no boundaries. One also became aware that Viola/Cesario could perform the
tasks that were asked of her. She even proved to do her job exceptionally and became
Orsino’s best servant. The performance attacked those who are ignorant enough to
hold opinions that hinder the advancements of both homosexuals and women. By using
subtle examples of political viewpoints, Shakespeare addresses issues that are
important to everyday society. He acknowledges the fact Elizabethan society prohibits
him from making blatant statements, which go against the moral majority. Shakespeare
shows his mastery of the English language by eluding these rules and attacking the
subconscious of the audience. One leaves the theatre with a lingering feeling of
guilt, which one cannot be understand at the time. The feeling is comprehended at a
later time and one begins to question stereotypes, which are dominant in society
today.

Author