Blida Department of English: Free Stand to Stand Free
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Disguise in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

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Disguise in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Post by sabine on Wed Feb 22, 2012 7:52 pm

Hey mates! I think that diguise in Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night served Viola for acting freely in her society and for protecting herself. Here are my argument.
Do you agree with my stand? or disagree? (for both cases WHY?). In fact I had done this work in a class presentation today Razz

Many twentieth century literary critics used a thematic approach to study Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night among whom is the Polish critic Jan Kott. This critic focused in particular on the theme of disguise. In his essay Shakespeare’s Bitter Arcadia (1966), he claimed that: “disguise had its justification in prevailing customs”. Jan Kott thinks that disguise could bring freedom, since during Shakespeare’s time customs limited what women were allowed to do. For instance, they were not permitted to travel alone. For Jan Kott, disguising as a man, Viola will successfully break the barriers that Elizabethan society had forced upon her sex. Therefore, she becomes a liberated individual. Viola disguised as a man, Cesario, felt that she was free and could do whatever she wants. This is shown in her speech with the captain about serving the duke Orsino in scene one, act two:
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

If Viola did not disguise, she would never be able to act in such a manner i.e. to sing and speak to a stranger, Orsino, in many sorts of music.
Viola’s main aim was to find her lost brother Sebastian. Disguise served her for both acting freely and protecting herself. The fact that Viola is a woman, alone, without protection and in Illyria which is a strange land for her; Viola chooses disguise as a kind of self- preservation. Her fear of being lonely appears when she told the captain, in act one scene two, that: “And what should I do in Illyria? /My brother he is in Elysium.”(24)

So, dressing as a man would ensure her safety and freedom as well.

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Re: Disguise in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

Post by sassy86 on Wed Feb 22, 2012 9:04 pm

Hi Sabine Smile That's such an important issue to discuss! Thanks a lot dear for initiating this debate.

Well I believe that Jan Kott's argument IS undeniably relevent to some extent. Of course Shakespeare used the theme of disguise to 'allow' certain 'violations' of the Elizabethan social beliefs concerning gender issues, notably the 'space' choosed for both men and women and therefore exploring those boundaries and limits between the two worlds (feminine vs. masculine).

BUT, (and because there is always a 'but' in every interpretation), I think that there is more than this. I cannot in any way be possibly satisfied with an interpretation which sees that Shakespeare used disguise merely for making his plot adhere to social dogmas. I don't think Shakespeare made Viola disguise into a man just to give her a sense of 'freedom and safety' during the Elizabethan age.

I see more behind this disguise. I believe that Shakespeare used disguise to raise some important questions (which are very 'premature' for his age as he always did in his plays) concerning human nature. He is merely telling us that : “there is always some masculinity in women as there might always be some feminity in men”. I’ll explain this strange idea: How can you ever conceive the idea that Viola is disguised as a man and she is not discovered!? How come Orsino feels so at ease with her and speak to her about the most intimate subjects being sure he was talking to a man (though she is a woman)? Don’t you think that Viola has some masculinity and virility in her which makes her disguise a successful one??? Don’t you think that Orsino has got a deep attraction to that feminity of Viola (hidden under that masculine disguise)???

Don’t you remember that irony Shakespeare uses in the play when Orsino was referring to some of Cesario’s (who happens to be Viola disguised in the play) physical features as being very feminine. Don’t you think that Orsino is in fact at ease with that feminity of Cesario??!!

Besides, when it comes to Olivia who falls in love with Cesario (ignoring she was in fact in love with a woman disguised into a man), don’t you find her attraction to Cesario very suspect??!! Is Olivia attracted to the masculine aspect of Viola (the disguise itself), or to the feminity of Viola???
Is she in love with the woman who is disguised into a man, or with the masculinity of this woman who successfully disguises into a man??

These arguments of course are not mine. I don’t really remember but I think I read it long time ago in an essay somewhere.

I don’t know if my ideas are clear enough. I know disguise is very complicated to analyze. I remember I've read a book which talked about how complicated it might have been for the audience during the first performance of Twelfth Night on stage to understand this disguise. I don’t know if you know about this but during the Elizabethan age, women were not allowed to perform on stage. So when there was a feminine role, it would be an actor disguised into a woman who would perform the role. So, i can imagine how hard it was for the audience at that time to see a man disguised in a woman who herself is disguised into a man! (I.e: Viola disguised) Such a mental pressure on the audience's imagination!

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