Study Guide

Twelfth Night, or What You Will Lies and Deceit

By William Shakespeare

Lies and Deceit

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. (1.2.50-54)

As Viola determines to disguise her identity by cross-dressing as a boy servant ("Cesario"), she considers the sea captain's trustworthiness. This passage is interesting for the way Viola describes the way some people can seem "fair" in their outward behavior and demeanor while concealing, like a "beauteous wall," an inner nature that may be "pollut[ed]." Viola's speech sets the tone for a play intent on thinking about whether or not what's outside matches what's on the inside.

Methinks I feel this youth's perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.— (1.5.302-304)

Olivia's use of the term "stealth" (the action of theft, plunder, or underhanded deception) is interesting because it suggests that falling in love makes one a kind of victim. In this way, Olivia suggests that "Cesario" has robbed her of something (her heart, her well being, etc.). The audience is also aware that Viola's deceptive disguise plays an important role in Olivia's physical attraction to "Cesario's" "tongue, face, limbs," etc., which gives new meaning to the concept of "Cesario's" "stealth," or underhandedness.

But I perceive in you so excellent  
a touch of modesty, that you will not extort
from me what I am willing to keep in. Therefore it
charges me in manners the rather to express myself.
You must know of me, then, Antonio, my name
is Sebastian, which I called Roderigo. (2.1.11-16)

Here, we learn that Sebastian has kept his name and personal background hidden from his new friend, Antonio. It's not exactly clear why Sebastian would lie to the man who saved his life by calling himself "Roderigo." Sebastian's language in this passage suggests that he thinks of his identity as a very personal and intimate secret that is to be guarded and protected from those who would "extort" it from him. But why? Is it a defense mechanism that allows Sebastian to keep his fears about his lost twin a secret? Something else? What do you think?

A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument (2.4.122-126)

In this passage "Cesario" speaks to Duke Orsino of "his" "father's daughter" (Viola), who kept her love a secret. "Cesario's" language is interesting here, as "he" suggests that secrets can eat away at, or "feed on," the person who keeps them hidden. The simile (a secret is like a worm eating a flower bud) also resonates with the play's portrayal of the relationship between love and food and love and disease or injury. Check out our thoughts on the theme of "Love" if you want to make some comparisons.

I am not what I am. (3.1.148)

"Cesario's" cryptic statement to Olivia, who has fallen in love with "him," is both revealing and concealing. Olivia has no idea that "Cesario" is really Viola in disguise. The audience, however, knows that "Cesario" is not what "he" appears to be. "Cesario" suggests that "he" is neither a boy nor an appropriate object for Olivia to love.

By innocence I swear, and by my youth,
I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,
And that no woman has, nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone. (3.1.165-168)

"Cesario's" insistence on singularity – "he" has "one heart, one bosom and one truth" ("he's" in love with and devoted to Orsino only) is striking in this passage, especially given the fact that "Cesario's" cryptic words hold double meaning. This, of course, also draws out attention to the doubleness of Viola's disguised identity.

Well, I'll put it on, and I will dissemble myself in
't, and I would I were the first that ever dissembled
in such a gown. (4.2.4-6)

Feste's light-hearted crack about wearing a curate's costume to trick Malvolio suggests that, like everyone else, clergymen and other moral officials can be fraudulent. The point is that putting on an official costume doesn't necessarily make one virtuous.

FESTE, as Sir Topas
Maintain no words with him, good
fellow. As Feste. Who, I, sir? Not I, sir! God buy 
you, good Sir Topas. As Sir Topas. Marry, amen.
As Feste. I will, sir, I will. (4.2.104-107)

This scene can sometimes be confusing for readers because it's hard to tell from the play script that Feste switches back and forth between his own voice and the voice of "Sir Topas" during the prank on Malvolio. Feste's ability to "do voices" (like Robin Williams or Jim Carey) requires a ton of skill. Disguising one's voice is never easy but carrying on a dialogue singlehandedly requires even more artistic chops. Want more than our appreciation of this character? OK. Feste's "Sir Topas" dialogue demonstrates that spoken language is not unlike costume when it comes to disguising one's identity. How we dress, pose and speak all play a role in how other people perceive us.

O, welcome, father.
Father, I charge thee, by thy reverence
Here to unfold (though lately we intended
To keep in darkness what occasion now
Reveals before 'tis ripe) what thou dost know
Hath newly passed between this youth and me. (5.1.158-163)

Here, Olivia asks the priest to confirm her marriage to the person she believes she married. (She has married Sebastian but thinks she wed "Cesario.") What interests us here is the language Olivia uses to describe the secret wedding that wasn't supposed to be revealed until later. She speaks of the secret as though it is an "[un]ripe" fruit or vegetable that must come to light prematurely. We can't help but notice that Olivia uses the same concept of ripeness as she did back in Act 3, Scene 1, when she promised not to sleep with the too young "Cesario" because his "youth" had not yet "come to harvest" (he had not yet reached puberty). You can also compare this passage to our discussion of 1.5.7 (under the theme of "Gender"), where Malvolio compares "Cesario" to an unripe peapod.

Alas, Malvolio, this is not my writing,
Though, I confess, much like the character.
But out of question, 'tis Maria's hand. (5.1.367-369)

Malvolio is easily duped into believing Maria's forged letter was penned by Olivia. Here, Olivia's revelation that the letter is a forgery alerts us to the fact that Malvolio is a bad reader. He not only fails to recognize the writing is not Olivia's, he also reads into the letter when he interprets it to be about him, despite the fact that his name is never mentioned.