Study Guide

Twelfth Night, or What You Will What's Up with the Ending?

By William Shakespeare

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What's Up with the Ending?

Remember when we said Twelfth Night (all Shakespeare comedies, really) works toward a "tidy" ending where social order is restored and couples are paired off into heterosexual twosies so they can make lots of babies and live happily ever after? Well, did we mention that, after Viola says, "Surprise, everybody! I'm not really 'Cesario,' I'm a girl!", Shakespeare leaves Viola in her man-pants? We did? OK. Did we mention that even after Duke Orsino and Viola get engaged Orsino still calls Viola "boy" and "Cesario"? We did? OK. Great. Did we talk about what that does to the nice, "tidy" ending? We didn't? Alrighty, we're happy to oblige but first, a little recap:

Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
Give me thy hand;
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.
(5.1.279-280; 285-286)

OK, clearly Duke Orsino needs some time to adjust to the fact that his trusty "boy" servant, who has been going on and on about how much "he" loves the Duke, is really Viola. This is probably why he calls Viola "boy" and is so anxious to see his soon to be bride in her girl clothes.

Problem is, the sea captain (remember him from Act 1?) is holding Viola's dress for her and darn it all if that rascally Malvolio isn't keeping the sea captain prisoner. We have no idea why. Maybe Malvolio caught the captain having fun or something. The point is that it's an awfully convenient way for Shakespeare to keep his leading lady dressed like a boy on stage. (Fun fact: Viola is the only Shakespeare heroine who never changes out of her man disguise.)

So what? Well, we think this is a pretty cool way for Shakespeare to resist the generic conventions of comedy (which say that social order can get scrambled up throughout the play but must, must, must be put back in its place by the end). It's also a terrific way to resist social conventions. Up until the very end, Shakespeare uses the cross-dressed Viola to point to the slipperiness of gender (what we think of as "masculinity" and "femininity") and to thumb his nose at Puritan critics who insisted that cross-dressing turned people into ambiguous "monsters" who were neither men nor women. (Remember, the play was written for an all-male acting company. Viola's role would have been played by a boy actor.)

Like it or not, Viola is just going to have stay in her trousers. No problemo, says the Duke. Someone can track down Malvolio and the captain so Viola can change and then get married. Until then, we can still party:

Meantime, sweet sister [Olivia]
We will not part from hence.—Cesario, come,
For so you shall be, while you are a man.
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen.

Say what? Why does Duke Orsino still call Viola "Cesario"? He knows who she is, even if she still looks like a boy. What's going on here? Well, there are lots of ways to interpret this passage, but here's what we would say if you asked us. We don't know why Duke Orsino says what he does. (He's still confused? He doesn't quite want to see "Cesario" to go? Something else?)

But, we do think that his speech raises an important question. As Duke Orsino takes his fiancée by the hand and says "Cesario, come," the audience is left to wonder if Orsino is attracted to "Cesario" or Viola. The meaning of Duke Orsino's words is just as ambiguous as "Cesario"/ Viola's costume and gender. Of course, you can argue either way – Orsino loves Viola, or Orsino loves "Cesario." You can argue what you will.

For those of you who want to argue that the Duke is attracted to both Viola and "Cesario," we say go for it and, while you're at it, check out an earlier moment from Act 1, Scene 4, where Orsino gives a very erotic and interesting description of the gender ambiguous "Cesario." (We talk about the passage in detail under "Quotes" for the theme of Gender.)

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