Truth is hard to come by in many of the works we’ve read so far. There is often a particular attention to the discrepancy between what appears to be and what is—Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night or, What You Will,” is no different. We’re presented with a host of characters who aren’t what they appear to be, the most prominent of which is Cesario, Violet’s male alter-ego, in a sense.
Her ambivalent role between man and woman—enabled by the constant references to her similar appearance to his twin brother, as well as mention of her as a eunuch—is strange. The fact that she is actually mistaken for her twin brother is stranger. And the fact that both a woman and a man—Olivia and the Duke—become so amorously attached to her guise is perhaps the strangest bit of all. It allows for the comedy of the play, but it also, I’m sure, leaves many readers a bit unsure or uneasy.
Perhaps the reason behind this uneasiness is threefold: the all-around deception involved in Violet’s ruse, the flexible gender role of a woman, and the insinuation of homoeroticism. What Violet appears to be—a man, Cesario—is clearly apart from the truth of what she is—a young woman. We are lead to believe that her lies are for self-preservation, but I can’t help but see this as a bit of a stretch. Huck Finn and Jim had to lie for their safety’s sake; Violet, it seems, is lying out of vanity: “O that I served [Olivia],/And might not be delivered to the world,/Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,/What my estate is!” (p. 3).
This guise also brings into question the idea of gender roles, much like we had seen in Lysistrata. Clearly, the idea of a woman posing as a man is comedic; but it also brings into question the idea of a women being genuinely in a man’s position. We don’t see Violet doing anything particularly manly in the play, but the very fact that everyone has confused her with her brother begs the question of difference between man and woman.
Finally, Violet’s trick also leads to the insinuation of homosexuality. I think this is unavoidable in her ruse. Olivia is in love with Cesario, who is really a woman. Violet, pretending to be a man, is in love with the Duke. When Cesario is revealed to be Violet in disguise, the Duke suddenly realizes how affectionate he is for this Cesario/Violet hybrid. In the end, I don’t think the reader is quite sure who the Duke loves. He proclaims to the still in-disguise Violet: “Your master quits you; and for your service done him,/[…]/And since you call’d me master for so long,/Here is my hand: you shall from this time be/Your master’s mistress” (p. 69). The Duke somehow seems to justify his sudden love for Violet with the loyal time Cesario has spent with him as a man.
Truth is clearly not a commodity known well to the characters of “Twelfth Night”—no one seems to be at all troubled by the elaborate ruse Violet has constructed. But this trouble of truth is not the most provocative aspect of the play. Rather, the idea of a woman acting as a man and attracting the love of both a man and a woman, seems to be the more sensational, ban-able aspect of this play.