I found it interesting that Viola, who would be played probably by a man, indeed a eunuch, chooses to act the part of a man, a eunuch, throughout Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. Having an actor act the part of an actor draws our attention to the fact that we are watching (or reading in our case) theatre. Theatre, an art form closely related to literature, holds a mirror up to human nature, allowing the audience to ask questions of themselves, each other, society, etc. Shakespeare’s choice to use a man to act like a woman who is acting like a man causes confusion, and therefore asks questions about appearance, reality and gender roles, both in Shakespeare’s time and in our own.
When Viola first decides to act the part of a eunuch, she says to the captain,
There is a fair behavior in thee, captain,
And though that nature with a beauteous wall
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
I will believe thou hast a mind that suits
With this thy fair and outward character. (I.II.43-47)
Although she speaks about the captain not herself, there is an interesting point that she makes about one’s appearances. Calling the captain’s behavior toward her “fair,” Viola explains that “oft” one’s “polluted nature” is hidden by such a “fair” exterior. She chooses to trust the captain, to believe that his “outward character suits” his true “nature;” but, the words remain. In the next consecutive line, Viola begins to ask the captain to help her hide her interior behind the “wall” of a eunuch. This is not an accident, Shakespeare points out the tension that exists between appearance and reality in Viola’s choice, but also in society.
Viola’s duty, given to her by her love, Orsino, is to convince Olivia to love Orsino, who deeply lover her. Viola’s first words to Olivia herself are,
Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty—I
Pray you, tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I
Never saw her. (I.V.161-163)
I found this to be such an odd sentence since she showers Olivia with praise, speaking of her “unmatchable beauty,” but then says she has “never seen” Olivia, who is currently wearing a veil to cover her face. Clearly, Viola’s words are an act, a memorized script; she even says, “I can say little more than I have studied, and that ques-/tion’s out of my part” (I.V.169-170). Revealing to Olivia that she is merely playing a part, Orsino’s part, Viola admits that her words are not her own and furthermore that although she may not be covering her face as Olivia is doing, she cannot be seen either. Olivia asks Viola if she is a “comedian” (I.V.173), to which Viola responds, “No, my profound heart, and yet, by the very fangs of/malice I swear I am not that I play” (I.V.174-175). By saying, “I am not that I play,” Viola holds a mirror up to Olivia, asking her if she is what she plays or if she, too, although not in men’s clothing, is playing a role and hiding the “nature” within. Olivia has decided to swear off men in mourning of her father and brother, but comes across selfishly, scorning Orsino and wallowing in self-pity. Shakespeare wisely uses Viola’s role to expose Olivia to the harsh truths of reality to contrast the appearances she is clinging to. Holding a mirror up to Olivia holds one up to the audience as well, causing questions of society then and now. Where is the line between complying with societal norms pragmatically and playing a part? What is the difference between the genders, not in appearance, but in the reality Shakespeare is so keen to point out? At what point are our identities decided by appearances and roles instead of our own true “natures”? Twelfth Night doesn’t answer the questions, but merely asks them of us, challenging norms across generations.