Early on in Twelfth Night, Viola finds herself shipwrecked in a new land, with her brother apparently drowned. She hopes to join the household of Lady Olivia, but the lady will admit no one. Seeing no other options, Viola decides to “conceal me what I am” and dress as a young man. This will allow her to work for Duke Orsino. Only the Captain knows her true identity, and he promises to keep her secret. This decision to dress as a man sets in motion the romantic misadventures that mark the play.
Cross-dressing was an object of visual fascination for the Elizabethan audience. They viewed the character in disguise as caught between two categories: both male and female. This created a sense of spectacle—the person could either remain at once both genders and neither gender or could progress toward resolution.
A woman caught cross-dressing was forced to stand in the pillory in the man’s attire, creating a kind of stage designed to emphasize her shame.
Shakespeare played with the idea of cross-dressing. All parts in the plays were played by male actors— the part of Viola would have been played by a boy dressing as a girl. That “girl” would then deliberately dress as a “boy.” Men’s and women’s clothing was very different in Shakespeare’s time, so a person’s gender would be easily and immediately obvious to others. The audience would know Viola is really a woman, but the other characters in the play—most obviously Olivia and Orsino—would not. Of course, the audience would also know that the actor playing the part was really a boy. These layers allow Shakespeare to question the importance of gender and identity in humorous ways.
In most of Shakespeare’s plays that include cross-dressing, such as As You Like It, there is a companion who understands, helps, and supports the character. In Twelfth Night, however, Viola is alone. Once agreeing to help her, the captain disappears. Those few comments Viola makes about her plans are made to the audience. We become part of her disguise. Also unusual is Shakespeare’s decision to have Viola remain in male clothing most of the play. She does not return to her “woman’s weeds” before the play is over, so the audience does not see her “resolve” her identity.
Do you think Viola feels freed or trapped by wearing men’s clothes?
In what ways does Cesario provide a freedom that Viola would not otherwise experience? On the other hand, how does her disguise hide her deepest truths?