Disguises and Mistaken Identity in Twelfth Night

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Mistaken identity and disguise are important aspects of comedy in Twelfth Night that stand at the forefront of the play’s comedy. Not only are mistaken identities and disguise evident within the main plot of the play but also in various other situations. Sexual confusion amongst characters, subversion of gender roles and farcical elements through stagecraft all effectively contribute to the dramatic comedy genre. However, it can be suggested that certain elements of Twelfth Night are not interpreted to be purely comedic; Shakespeare has incorporated serious and controversial subjects such as the idea of genuine love, the patriarchy of the time and the cruel gulling of Malvolio. Therefore, disguise and mistaken identity are not solely for the purpose of comedy and it could be inferred that it even borders on the genre of tragedy.

Throughout Twelfth Night, disguise and mistaken identity works as a catalyst for confusion and disorder which consistently contributes towards the dramatic comic genre of the play. Many characters in Twelfth Night assume disguises, beginning with Viola, who disguises herself as a man in order to serve Orsino, the Duke. By dressing his protagonist in male garments, Shakespeare creates ongoing sexual confusion with characters, which include Olivia, Viola and Orsino, who create a ‘love triangle’ between them. Implicitly, there is homoerotic subtext here: Olivia is in love with a woman, despite believing her to be a man, and Orsino often comments on Cesario’s beauty, which implies that he is attracted to Viola even before her male disguise is removed. However, even subsequent to the revealing of Viola’s true identity, Orsino’s declares his love to Viola implying that he enjoys lengthening the pretence of Vio...

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...disguise to add comic effect by encouraging humour of an audience via the ‘theories of laughter’. Comic effect is accurately demonstrated by Shakespeare’s incorporation of confusion, disorder and farce. However, it can be concluded that Shakespeare’s use of mistaken identity and disguise was for the purpose of more than just for comic effect, but to highlight the audience more serious topics and challenge social norms and values of the period. Ironically, it can be inferred that Shakespeare has masked his underlying purpose of mistaken identity and disguise with comedy.

Works Cited

Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night: A comedy of misreadings – Jerome Monahan, English review 1996

A Holiday Humour - Shakespeare’s comedies and Bakhtin’s carnival


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