The Rejection of the Self in Twelfth Night Essay
The Rejection of the Self in Twelfth Night
The “dark side of life” that William Shakespeare exposes in his play, Twelfth Night, is the danger in the individual’s willingness to abandon the intrinsic self as a means to better realize a goal. The characters Viola, Feste, and Malvolio, in assuming new persona’s, engage in a metaphysical betrayal in which they deny the reality of their nature. Viola’s choice to serve Duke Orsino as a page in hopes of finding her brother is by no means unethical, and her efforts are ultimately successful, but she does develop a major existential crisis when she assumes the identity of Cesario.
Upon agreeing to woo Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, Viola realizes that her service has encountered a “barful strife” with her unexpected love for Orsino (1. 4. 41). Chiefly, she is unable to reveal her desires due to Cesario’s inabilities to both accurately represent Viola and offer a genuine heterosexual intimacy. Moreover, the unknown whereabouts of Sebastian deter Viola from risking her position in Orsino’s court. Viola’s freedom has become chained to love and servitude, as her overarching goal, locating her brother, prevents her from acting in good faith to herself.
Even Viola’s disagreement with Orsino, in which she claims that “In faith, they [women] are as true of heart as we [men],” is accepted with a biased civility (2. 4. 106). Orsino, who harbors an omnipresent misogynistic attitude, would likely dismiss Viola’s argument without consideration if it came from a woman. While her beliefs and story are authentic, the latter by a technicality, she can only present Cesario’s opinions and charisma rather than her own.
These unique circumstances do benefit Viola and allow her to develop a “brotherly love” that would be inherently impossible for a woman, and “Cesario” certainly enjoys an enhanced credibility towards Orsino, but maintaining this guise requires her to maintain a tragic duality. Viola is only able to end this internal conflict when she reunites with Sebastian, allowing her to finally retire Cesario and present her true self.
Her character suggests that no matter how noble a cause, attending to the interests of two selves ruins the integrity of the individual. Feste, who Viola labels as “wise enough to play the fool,” willingly accepts his role despite an unusual degree of intelligence (3. 1. 59). While he is only expected to have worth as an entertainer, he demonstrates his capacities as a sage when he labels Olivia “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your [her] / brother’s soul being in heaven” (1. 5. 64-65).
His sound reasoning demonstrates a clear mastery of logos, a characteristic unnecessary to the effectiveness of a clown. However, the more notable implication is that Feste is able to see through Olivia’s false pretenses. He continually regards her as foolish, noting the clear error in her logic. By identifying her mourning as an empty gesture, given that Olivia presumes her brother to be resting peacefully, the audience is permitted and even encouraged to view her as a fool consumed by self-imposed misery.
Whether Olivia accepts the label is therefore irrelevant and not his function as a literary device. Feste again proves his omniscience when he tells Viola “Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard! ”, indicating that he is hardly deceived by her disguise (3. 1. 43-44). While this observation has little significance independently, the failure of others, particularly Olivia and Orsino, to see through the illusion of “Cesario” suggests a large population of true fools.
Though he is never expected to be understood seriously by other characters, his apparent omniscience allows him to function as a critic of the play’s tension between the natural self and the projected self. Ironically, Feste is only able to freely utilize this wisdom as the court jester. He must forever deny his true nature for the sake of being able to provide insight for the audience, which ensures that his character forbids his existence as a true individual.
Malvolio is arguably the worst offender when considering his inability to accept his inadequacies and subsequent self-delusion to marry Olivia for political gain. When Malvolio discovers Maria’s letter, purportedly a love letter written by Olivia, he allows his fantasies to dictate his interpretation of any contingencies. Upon deciding that the letter is addressed to him, despite “… no consonancy in the sequel / that suffers under probation “A” should follow but “O” does,” Malvolio blindly chooses to follow the letter’s instructions (2. 5. 123-25).
At no point does he exhibit any skepticism towards the legitimacy of the letter, choosing not to doubt its source, claims, and questionable method of delivery. Malvolio is likely too enamored with the glorious prospect of his future as a count, and his high self-esteem disallows him from believing that the letter is a prank or intended for another. By creating a correlation of similarities with Olivia’s handwriting to suggest the causation of her authorship, Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian are able to exploit Malvolio’s inflated ego without difficulty.
But Malvolio’s deception should still be regarded as his own as he relies on a priori reasoning, seeking only evidence supporting his initial assumptions. This mentality proves incredibly dangerous as Malvolio absorbs himself in behavior he believes is expected of noblemen, namely to “Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants” as Maria’s letter instructs (3. 4. 68-69). The prank helps Malvolio validate the evolution of his already distorted values, which exacerbates his already poor social standing among Olivia’s workforce.
When he dons his yellow stockings and treats other servants with excessive impudence, he is completely oblivious to his faults and believes that “Nothing that can / be can come between me and the full prospect of / my [his] hopes” (3. 4. 79-81). Although Malvolio is never faced with an identity crisis, his condition is exponentially worse because he has completely abandoned reality to live with false hopes. Malvolio cannot accept the impossibility of a relationship with Olivia, which eventually leads him to distrust Olivia.
When Viola tells Malvolio “Such as we are made of, such we be,” she references a Humanistic belief that the individual must exist in relation to the natural self (2. 2. 33). Twelfth Night chronicles several characters who become unfaithful to themselves, effectively rejecting what they are “made of. ” Viola, as Cesario, is unable to profess her love, Feste can only use his intelligence for amusement of others, and Malvolio’s false grandeur drives him to insanity. While Twelfth Night is certainly entitled to its merits as a comedy, its resounding metaphysical message is remarkably grim.
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