Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Art and Culture Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown'd: what think you, sailors? (1.2.2)
Twelfth Night is full of literary references, including allusions to Shakespeare's own dramatic works. For example, the play's shipwreck plot involving the separation of twins echoes the plot of Shakespeare's earlier play, The Comedy of Errors, in which the identical Antipholus brothers are separated at sea and eventually reunited. This idea, however, was borrowed from other writers like Plautus. Does this mean you can't understand or enjoy Twelfth Night if you haven't read all this other stuff? No way – you can totally master the play without being a Plautus expert. It's just good to keep in mind that Shakespeare is working within, borrowing from, and constantly revising a pretty rich literary tradition.
prithee, and I'll pay thee bounteously,
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
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. (1.2.10)
Viola's disguise draws our attention to the circumstances of Shakespeare's transvestite stage. "Viola's" role was played by a boy actor, cross-dressed as a young woman, who disguises herself as a boy, "Cesario." We can never know how each member of Shakespeare's audience responded to this, but we can certainly think about how we interpret this transvestite comedy, which challenges us to rethink our ideas about what it means to be "feminine" or "masculine."
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How will this fadge? my master loves her dearly;
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him; (2.2.3)
When Viola learns that Olivia is in love with "Cesario," she blames her "disguise," as though the act of cross-dressing is solely to blame for Olivia's attraction to her. It's a bit peculiar that Shakespeare (whose livelihood as a theatrical professional depends on the conventions of a transvestite stage) would put such words in the mouth of his heroine. It's especially peculiar given that harsh critics of the theater claimed that cross-dressing was a wicked and dangerous activity because it made it impossible to distinguish between men and women. Does Viola's speech mean the play is apologetic for portraying cross-dressed performances? Well, even though Viola might feel bad about the problems her disguise causes Olivia, we're leaning toward "no," especially given the fact that play goes out of its way to leave Viola on stage in her man-clothes at the end of the play.
History Snack: Under "Historical Documents," we've provided you with a link to Philip Stubbes's anti-theater rant in The Anatomy of Abuses (1583), but, just for fun, we thought we'd give you a little sneak preview of what 16th century Puritans thought about cross-dressing. Note Stubbes's use of the term "monster," which Viola echoes in her speech (above): "Our apparel was given as a sign distinctive, to discern betwixt sex and sex, and therefore one to wear the apparel of another sex, is […] to adulterate the verity of his own kind […] these women [who cross-dress] may not improperly be called Hermaphroditi, that is Monsters of both kinds, half women, half men." Where does Stubbes get this idea? From Deuteronomy 22:5. Here's the passage from the 1560 Geneva Bible: "The woman shal not weare that which perteineth unto the man, nether shal a man put on womans raiment: for all that do so, are abominacion unto the Lord thy God."