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    The Levels of Deception in Twelfth Night Essay

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    Twelfth Night is a play that depends on deceptions. Without deception none of the plays major storylines could exist in the way that they do. As might be expected, the deceptions fall into different types of deception, and also many different levels. These can be described as levels of importance- some involving whole plots and some only a few minor events- and levels of how obvious each deception is. The deceptions come in many different guises, including deliberate deception, self-deception and others.

    Deliberate deception is crucial to the plot. One aspect of this is the element of disguise. This can be divided into literal disguise, in the form of characters altering their appearance, and the fa�ade which characters present to the world in order to seem different to how they really are.

    Probably the most important and far reaching deception in the play is Viola’s disguise as a man, ‘Cesario’. This has many consequences for herself and others. She first disguises herself for protection in a foreign land, she wishes the sea captain to help her dress as a man so that she can find employment. The consequences of this are central to the play. If Viola had not perpetuated this deception she would not have met Orsino, and similarly Olivia and Sebastian may never have married. Viola’s disguise is of a high level, relating equally to its important consequences, how obvious and comical it is to the audience, and also that it is complicated and difficult to maintain, as Viola not only has to disguise her sex but also her origins of social class.

    Feste disguises himself in order to fool Malvolio, using the comical elements of literal disguise. As Sir Toby Belch says:

    “put on this gown and this beard;

    make him believe thou art Sir Topas the curate”

    Apart from the immediately obvious deception seen here, this disguise is interesting in a number of ways. Shakespeare’s use of the name ‘Topas’ is important, as the semi-precious stone topas was renowned for its ability to cure madness. Members of Shakespeare’s audience may have known this, and would find it humorous related to the fact that Malvolio was said to be mad. It is odd that this disguise at first seems unnecessary. Malvolio is locked in a dark room and cannot see Feste. However its purpose is to create comedy for the audience. This disguise is quite cruel in the way that it deceives Malvolio, but it is actually seen as funny by the audience and by other characters. Shakespeare clearly intends this comical aspect with Feste as; living up to the role of ‘licensed fool’, all that he says is designed to be amusing:

    Malvolio: “…good Sir Topas, go to my lady-”

    Feste: “Out, hyperbolical fiend…talkest thou of nothing but ladies?”

    Feste is completely aware of what Malvolio means at this point and throughout the scene, but Shakespeare chooses for him to deliberately misunderstand, resulting in a wonderful comedic situation for the audience.

    Many characters in the play disguise their true emotions, personality and ‘identity’ without physically wearing a disguise. A prime example of this is Feste. He is

    perceived to be a ‘fool’, which is actually his occupation. Nonetheless throughout the play he shows his intelligence in the comments he makes and his insights. He has some wise thoughts, for example, on the question of virtue:

    “Anything that’s mended, is but patched: virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin; and sin that amends is but patched with virtue.”

    This is not the type of comment that a foolish person would be expected to make; and so we see clearly that the title ‘fool’ is only a front, and that Feste’s true character is very different. Feste is also shown as highly perceptive, for example when he says to Maria “if Sir Toby would leave drinking, thou wert as witty a piece of Eve’s flesh as any in Illyria.” this is an accurate foretelling of the marriage between Maria and Sir Toby that takes place. Shakespeare makes reference to the Biblical account of creation to suggest Maria’s femininity. Comments made by Feste throughout the play show the audience that the original image Shakespeare creates for him by remarks such as Olivia’s “Take the fool away” are misleading. Feste, despite the act that he puts on, is obviously not a fool.

    Others who are not what they appear to be include Olivia who is not as sincere in her mourning as she would seem, and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew who are certainly not as staid and responsible as their elevated rank might indicate.

    Many of the plays deceptions are brought about by liars and lying. One obvious example of this is the gulling of Malvolio by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Fabian and Maria. In revenge for his ‘puritanical’ attitudes they decide to trick him using a love letter written by Maria, which appears to come from Olivia. The plotters are eager to accept this out of their dislike for Malvolio and to humiliate him. They look forward to the enjoyment and comedy this deception will cause:

    Sir Andrew: “Oh, ’twill be admirable!”

    Maria: “Sport royal, I warrant you”

    This shows a great contrast to the complicated and upsetting results, which Viola had realised earlier are a result of her own deception:

    “Oh time thou must untangle this, not I!

    It is too hard a knot for me t’untie”

    Here Shakespeare’s rhyming couplet concludes a particular thought, and indeed the scene. The metaphor, comparing deception to a knot, is very effective as a knot contains different strands which, having become entangled and intertwined; will be very hard to undo. This is very similar to a definition of deception.

    Sir Toby lies to Sir Andrew at various points in the play. One example of this deception of Sir Andrew is found when Sir Toby and Fabian amuse themselves by carrying lies between Sir Andrew and ‘Cesario’ at the occasion of their ‘duel’:

    Sir Toby: “Fabian can scarce hold him yonder”…

    Sir Andrew: “Let him let the matter slip and I’ll give him my horse”…

    Sir Toby: (to ‘Cesario’) “There’s no remedy, sir, he will fight with you for’s oath’s


    Shakespeare creates dramatic irony with the first line of this dialogue as the audience realise that the only reason Fabian can ‘scarce hold’ ‘Cesario’ is because he is so desperate to get away! This also contains a hint that the ‘friendship’ between Sir Andrew and Sir Toby is a deception in itself as Sir Toby does not hesitate to use Sir Andrew for entertainment in much the same way as he earlier used Malvolio.

    There are also hints given that Sir Toby only wants Sir Andrew around for his money; he says, “I have been dear to him, lad, some two thousand strong or so”. This

    is one of the deepest levels of deception in the play. If it is true then the entire friendship of these two characters is based on a deception. This is a serious issue, which contrasts with the comic theme of the play. This deception is never actually specified, only hinted at.

    Characters in Twelfth Night often deceive other people, but they are just as likely to deceive or delude themselves. Malvolio is a great sufferer of this. He believes himself to be universally popular. Aptly noted by Olivia:

    “O, you are sick of self love Malvolio”

    His extreme egotism provides comedy for the audience, and a ground for his deception over the letter, as he also believes mistakenly that Olivia loves him and may marry him. This shows once again his deceptively high opinion of himself; that he thinks he may marry into the upper echelons of society despite being only a steward. His belief of Olivia’s love for him, even before he has the letter leaves him vulnerable to be deceived by Maria’s letter, as he does not find it surprising that Olivia would be in love with him.

    Orsino also suffers from self-deception. He has convinced himself that he is in love with Olivia, but we see that this cannot be true. As soon as he discovers that ‘Cesario’ is in fact a woman, Viola, he falls in love with her:

    “But when in other habits you are seen-

    Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen”

    Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of ‘mistress’ and ‘queen’ highlights Orsino’s previously elaborate, superficial emotions. Therefore it seems that previously he had been more in love with the idea of love rather than in love with one particular woman, he appears to have simply settled on Olivia as the best candidate at the time. We can, in fact, see his self-indulgent attitude towards love in the first few lines of the play:

    “If music be the food of love, play on,

    Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

    The appetite may sicken and so die”

    Shakespeare uses food imagery to great effect here; the atmosphere of love and excess of love, which is particular to Orsino throughout the play, is set and we get an idea that not all is well in his love as he apparently wishes to be rid of it. The idea is given that if Orsino has too much music he will become sick of it, and if music feeds his love then he will become sick of love itself. This appears to be what he wants. Orsino is melodramatic and emotionally self-indulgent. Despite his words he appears to enjoy the part of the unrequited lover, and plays it very well.

    A very short while after entering Orsino’s service, Viola finds herself in love with him. As she is meant to be a male servant she has to hide this love. However she does not do this by outright lies, but rather by twisting the truth, or telling half-truths. An example of this can be found where Viola is describing the person she loves to Orsino:

    Orsino: “What kind of a woman is’t?”

    Viola: “Of your complexion”

    Viola is neither lying nor telling the whole truth. She is deceiving Orsino despite the fact that she is not lying to him- and she is keeping her secret whilst also disclosing it. Orsino does not notice or suspect Viola, simply because to him she is a man. Later Viola comes even closer to revealing the truth to Orsino:

    “My father had a daughter loved a man-

    As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,

    I should your lordship”

    Shakespeare’s use of language is masterful here. Viola’s first line is strictly truthful, and of course refers to her, but put in such a way that only the audience with their prior knowledge of Viola’s gender fully understand it. The next two lines are also accurate, although she speaks of them as possibilities while we know them to be actualities. It is unnecessary for Viola to endanger herself in this way and so it would seem that at least a part of her actually wants Orsino to know the truth.

    In stark contrast to these other deceptions Shakespeare also shows that it is possible to deceive without ever saying a word. Sebastian does not lie to Olivia, or disguise himself, and yet he does deceive her: while Olivia is addressing him as Cesario and talking to him as if they have been quite intimate, Sebastian never implies that he does not know what she is talking about. Olivia says to him:

    “Be not offended, dear Cesario”

    As Sebastian is obviously aware that he is not Cesario it would seem that the honest approach would be to disillusion Olivia. However he does not do so, and in fact when Olivia invites him into her house he agrees- despite the fact that he is aware that she believes him to be someone else. He is portrayed to be somewhat of an opportunist.

    Deception is used extensively in Twelfth Night to create comedy. However Shakespeare also uses deception to explore and expose much of the darker side of human nature; a comment on people’s often highly selfish desires. Many, if not all, the main characters of the play appear to be motivated by their own self centred wishes. One example of this is Orsino who is very self-indulgent, as we see from the plays opening:

    “If music be the food of love, play on,

    Give me excess of it”

    Orsino is looking simply for self-gratification. He is not motivated by any better feelings towards anyone or anything else.

    Olivia is also seeking only to please herself by remaining in mourning. Feste demonstrates that she really has nothing to feel miserable about:

    “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brothers soul, being in heaven.”

    Yet Olivia continues to mourn, while it suits her, and when a better alternative presents itself, she stops. The act of mourning, which would appear to be a loving, selfless act is no less self-indulgent than Orsino’s excesses.

    Other characters who demonstrate this less than admirable quality include Sebastian when he accepts Olivia’s invitation, and Malvolio who selfishly wants higher social status. Sir Toby also lives his life purely for his own pleasure, with alcohol, mischief and enjoyment all forming large parts.

    Twelfth Night therefore depends upon deception; without deception there would be no play. This is the obvious conclusion to be drawn. However, to state a definite hierarchy of deception would be impossible, as the deceptions are linked, intertwined and interdependent. Many of them relate to the main plot involving Olivia, Orsino, Viola and Sebastian whilst a substantial number of others contribute to the subplot of the gulling of Malvolio. Each ‘minor’ deception subtly helps lead to the conclusion of the play, and each is therefore important. The most important deception is Viola’s disguise as ‘Cesario’, but after this it becomes harder to distinguish a hierarchy. It is

    important to realise that there is more to ‘Twelfth Night’ than originally meets the eye. What is indeed a very comical play also conveys a serious message about human nature, shown through the excesses of its main characters and their deceit. Shakespeare causes the majority of his characters to become deceived but perhaps he also deceives his audience into thinking that the play is merely ‘for fun’. The conclusion to be drawn is that deception is the heart of the play, in all its aspects.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    The Levels of Deception in Twelfth Night Essay. (2017, Oct 29). Retrieved from

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