Shakespeare and Mistaken Identity Struggles
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During the era of Shakespeare, often, his plays exposed controversial topics in casual ways masked with humor and entertainment. Within his time of popularity, Queen Elizabeth allowed theater and drama to flourish. Yet, she forbade political and religious topics to be a subject of conversation on stage (Stigler). However, ‘mistaken identity’- a heated political topic in today’s day in age- is addressed in several of his works, and especially his play Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Over the years, many scholars and historians have researched William Shakespeare in many different lights. Did Shakespeare even write all his plays, if any? Did he even exist, hence there are hardly any records of his life prior to the release of his writings? Was he even British? Was he educated? Was he a humanist? And lastly, did Shakespeare use the concept of ‘mistaken identity’ in his work, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, to subtly reveal the struggle of gender identity within himself?
During the Elizabethan Era there were restrictions on who could participate in plays, more specifically women, as it was viewed as an atrocity. Today, one might view that social structure as patriarchal, but Shakespeare used that to his advantage. Regardless the gender of a character a male had to play the role. Using gender swaps in his plays, Shakespeare finely executed this strategy to add humor and depth in his plots to intrigue audiences. Although there are other Shakespeare plays that involve gender swaps and ‘mistaken identity’, specifically, in Twelfth Night, or What You Will a young female, Viola, disguises herself as a male, Cesario, and gets involved in a love triangle with another man and woman, Orsino and Olivia. While writing the storyline for this play it is possible that Shakespeare is testing the waters of his gender identity and living vicariously through the character of Viola and her alter ego, Cesario, as she grappled with the situation of everyone thinking she is someone she’s not. It is also possible that he is living through the lives of all the actors who would play this role as they would be males playing the part of a female disguised as another male. “As gender theory becomes more prevalent in academic discourse, many academics have begun to examine what romantic and sexual relationships in literature reveal about the way women and men relate to each other and how this relates to the formation and evolution of identity” (Crawley 1).
Many of Shakespeare’s works revolve around a complex dynamic of relationships between men and women. It is because of these complex relationships that it be further considered that Shakespeare struggled with finding his identity by reflecting his thoughts and emotions in his plays. Take note that in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Orsino expresses to Cesario no woman could ever love him with as much passion and to the same capacity as he loves Olivia.
VIOLA: Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for you love as great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia. You cannot love her.
You tell her so. Must she not then be answered?
ORSINO: There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart. No woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention. (Shakespeare 2.4.86-93).
It’s possible that while writing this conversation, Shakespeare saw himself through the eyes of Viola and wanted to show how differently men and women would interact with him if he were perceived as a woman and not a man in real life. If he saw himself in Viola it raises more questions as to how he perceived others and whether or not he questioned their gender identity as well.
He uses the idea of perceived identity to fuel the plot of this play and to generate conflict between men and women and who they really are. Since only the audience knows Cesario’s true self the claim could be made that Shakespeare saw himself as the audience which further pursues the idea of using this work to express how he saw himself and wanted to present himself to others. The secretive details surrounding Viola’s life may be Shakespeare’s way of revealing what he was hiding in parts of his own life and choosing to write about it in fashion as his own disguise.
There is a theme of underlying humor throughout Twelfth Night, or What You Will, specifically the plot where a prank is played on Malvolio.
MARIA: And on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.
SIR TOBY: What wilt thou do?
MARIA: I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of love, wherein by the color of his beard, the shape of his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his eye, forehead, and complexion, he shall find himself most feelingly personated. I can write very like my lady, your niece. On a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands.
SIR TOBY: Excellent, I smell a device (Shakespeare 2.3.140-149).
While this may seem like a small side plot that doesn’t directly relate with the main storyline in the play, today it could be compared to the mistake of misusing a preferred pronoun of those who identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth. Maria writes a letter pretending to be Olivia professing her love for Malvolio and in return he is to perform ludicrous acts to prove his reciprocation of her love. Malvolio appalls Olivia with the instructions he is given because they are not gestures she likes, even though he believes she told him to do them. The consequences of mistaking Maria’s letter for Olivia’s, dressing up in ridiculous clothing, and acting strangely can all be observed as an outlet for Shakespeare’s feelings of not being recognized for who he truly wants to be. Even though this is not directly a physical ‘mistaken identity’, the deception behind the prank has the same outcome. Although this idea is way ahead of his time Shakespeare foreshadowed the future when it came to crossdressing, gender swapping, and ‘mistaken identities’ between men and women.
During this time period plays were a form of entertainment and even the comedies resisted to go against the social norms, but Shakespeare challenged that in some light. Being that females in this era were not treated the same way as men it was certainly unacceptable for them to go against social constructs, such as crossdressing. “Though there is evidence that women acted in street performances, and in other notorious venues, all commercial acting companies of the time were made up entirely of men and it was illegal for women to act on stage professionally until 1661” (Lucas). Since men were the only ones allowed to act, crossdressing among males was popular in theater. While women of this era were faced with inequality in real life, in some of Shakespeare’s plays his female characters crossdressing as men allowed for at least fictitious equal rights to that of males during this time. This leads to the belief that Shakespeare not only felt it was more acceptable to write these kinds of roles and characters, since males were actually playing these roles, but also that he was forced to write these works as his only appropriate form of expression. “Although generally a crossdressed man was more acceptable than a crossdressed woman, in Shakespeare’s comedies we seldom encounter men in women’s clothes” (Johnova 66).
In act 1, scene 4 of Twelfth Night, or What You Will Orsino tells Cesario he should deliver his love messages to Olivia for him because he resembles a woman:
Dear lad, believe it.
For they shall yet belie thy happy years
That say thou art a man. Diana’s lip
Is not smoother and rubious. Thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound.
And all is semblative a woman’s part. (1.4 28-33).
One may not think Shakespeare resembles a woman based on the Chandos portrait of him from the early 1600s, but in his own eyes a female may be what he felt he looked like or resembled in other ways. The irony in the play is that the audience obviously knows Cesario is in fact Viola, a woman. Shakespeare may have intentionally done this to prove that the ‘mistaken identity’ of Viola posing as Cesario changes the way she is treated. Meaning that if Viola revealed her true self Orsino would have never let her into his court, let alone be entitled to a job of importance for him. Shakespeare could have felt this was important to factor in because he saw Viola as a reflection of himself in the way she delivered her presence as Cesario. It is important to note that the reason Orsino wants Cesario to deliver the messages for him is because he thinks Olivia will be more comfortable engaging in a conversation, with the topic of romance at hand, with a feminine looking man. As stated before, Shakespeare could be using the details of Cesario’s looks to describe how he wishes to be perceived through the eyes of others.
Despite the controversial questions surrounding William Shakespeare’s life, there is no one conclusion to how he viewed himself for he could be the only one to answer that. There is no proven indication that he struggled with finding his gender identity but there is evidence to be pondered about ‘mistaken identity’ in Twelfth Night, or What You Will, among some other works of his, that support this thesis. Given the background of his era with regards to how women were treated, the rules and regulations of theatrical displays, and social constructs it should be highly considered that the use of ‘mistaken identity’ in his works portrays the gender hierarchy from his life. Specifically, in Twelfth Night, or What You Will the consequences of ‘mistaken identity’ are detrimental even for a comedy with a light-hearted ending. As the audience knows the true identities of all the characters in the play, Shakespeare knows the true identity of himself even if he was struggling. Today in society, ‘mistaken identity’ and the research around gender identity is continuing to grow but it is not far off from the time Shakespeare wrote his plays and can continue to be a reference of ‘what is, always has been’.