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Twins and Identity

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!”



In Shakespeare’s plays, twins are often confused for one another, leading to confusion and comedy. In The Comedy of Errors, there are two sets of twins who are confused for each other, increasing the chaos. The notion of twins is connected to identity. The twins have the same names and are from different locations—Dromio of Syracuse and Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus. They are regularly mistaken for each other, even by those closest to them—wives, servants, masters. They appear to be interchangeable rather than distinct individuals, and their identities are mirrored. Dromio of Ephesus observes, “Methinks you are my glass, and not my brother. / I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth.” (5.1.421)

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare explores the idea of twins and identity in different ways. The most critical difference is that Viola and Sebastian are not the same gender, which means Viola must consciously make herself appear as Sebastian. She sets out deliberately to deceive Orsino into thinking she is a man. She deliberately deceives Olivia as well. This leads to confusion when Olivia falls in love with and eventually marries “Cesario” and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew fight with “Cesario.” Identity is complicated because Olivia falls in love with one Cesario and marries another—one is Viola and the other Sebastian. In fact, there is no Cesario. Viola’s identity is shifted by a decision she makes and an action she takes—she turns herself into someone else.


The issue of identity is resolved at the end of the play when Viola and Sebastian appear together. Orsino declares: “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!” The splitting of the one identity into two people occurs at the end of the play, and somehow everything is resolved. Olivia is happy to be married to Sebastian, whom she has known only moments. Orsino is happy to be married to Viola, who has been deceiving him their entire relationship. Once identity is settled, the world rights itself.


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