Throughout “Twelfth Night” there is much foolery, fantasy and mistaken identity. These incidents have made the play more fun, interesting and surprising and have certainly given the play a few twists.
Olivia and Viola-Cesario (I, v)
The first and most important case of mistaken identity in my opinion, began in Act 1, scene 5, in Olivia’s household. Viola-Cesario was sent by Orsino to try and “woo” Olivia for him but Viola, in love with Orsino herself, knew that she would not want to do this: “I’ll do my best to woo your lady. Yet a barful strife! Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.” (I, iv, l. 39-41). The two got on well although there was much verbal fencing, but by the time Viola-Cesario had left, Olivia feared she had fallen in love with “him”. We learn this from Olivia’s words after Viola-Cesario’s departure:
“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in mine eyes. Well, let it be.” (I, v, l. 250-3)
So, complications were forming already in just the first act: Olivia had fallen in love with the disguised woman, viola; Viola was in love with Orsino, who believed her to be a man; and Orsino was in love with Olivia, who despised him. A love triangle full of complications, lies and mistaken identity had formed.
This incident leads to become the main source of many problems (and humour) to come. Some of which include the duel between Sir Andrew and Viola-Cesario and the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother.
Overall, this case of mistaken identity leads to many humorous predicaments and in my opinion it is the most important one: it complicates and adds twists to the plot throughout the play, not to mention the humour it brings.
Malvolio and Olivia (II, V)
A rather amusing case of mistaken identity began in Olivia’s garden. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Fabian and Maria had written a letter made to look like it was from Olivia, declaring love for someone and saying she liked a list of things that in reality Olivia hated. They placed it where Malvolio would pick it up, knowing he would believe it to be about him, and watched from behind a bush as Malvolio read it aloud. The letter is very clever and Shakespeare even managed to include a crude joke:
“By my life, this is my lady’s hand: these be her c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s.” (II, v, l. 72-3).
Malvolio read on to discover that Olivia “liked” yellow stockings (a colour she hated) with cross-gartering. He was also told to treat his fellow workers as inferiors to him and to smile jokily all day, a mood that Olivia was not in with the death of her brother.
Malvolio then doing as “Olivia” had said, came before her looking ridiculous and hinting that he knew of the letter: “this cross-gartering… If it please the eye of one, it’s with me… I think we do know the sweet Roman hand.” (III, iv, l. 20-6). Malvolio continued to hint and recite quotes from her letter for some time, making a complete fool out of himself.
When Sir Toby entered, Malvolio was rude to him as the letter instructed, but he was accused of being possessed and was told he was mad: “La you, and you speak ill of the devil, how he takes it at the heart! Pray God he be not bewitched!” (III, iv, l. 87-8). Later, Malvolio was imprisoned and tormented by the mocking Sir Toby and Feste as if he were mad.
Overall, this instance of mistaken identity includes many scenes of comedy and supplies good entertainment for the audience. It was not fun for poor Malvolio, but he was none the wiser of the joke being played on him and I think it was quite satisfying as a reader or viewer of the play to see him make a fool out of himself.
Viola and Antonio (III, iv)
Another interesting case of mistaken identity began in the middle of Sir Andrew and Viola-Cesario’s duel – a branch from the Olivia and Viola mistaken identity.
Sir Andrew was on the verge of leaving Illyria because his desire to “woo” Olivia was not getting anywhere as she was paying more attention to Viola-Cesario. So, with some persuasion from Sir Toby he challenged Viola-Cesario to a duel and so win Olivia’s affection by his bravery. Of course Sir Toby took over and exaggerated the facts so when the duel came neither of them wanted to fight and they were both terrified of one another. Sir Andrew even tried to bribe Viola: “Let him let the matter slip, and I’ll give him my horse, Grey Capilet.” (III, iv, l. 242).
But when the duel came, Antonio, mistaking Viola for her twin brother Sebastian, intervened: “Put up your sword! If this young gentleman have done offence, I take the fault on me.” (III, iv, l. 264-5). This of course baffled everyone, especially Viola as she had never seen the man before. But at this point two officers arrived to arrest Antonio for his doings at sea and he asked “Sebastian” for the money he had lent him. Viola said that she had no idea who he was and Antonio, still believing her to be Sebastian, rightfully got very angry and upset:
“Will you deny me now?
Is’t possible that my deserts to you
Can lack persuasion? Do not tempt my misery.”
(III, iv, l. 298-300).
And later: “Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there’s no blemish but the mind:
None can be called deformed but the unkind.”
(III, iv, l. 317-9).
This case of mistaken identity caused hurt feelings and confusion to those involved. Unlike the other cases, it is not humorous and few events branch from it. The incident is an interesting and more serious part of the play, which involves another mistake over Viola’s identity.
As a final summary, I think mistaken identity is a very important aspect of Twelfth Night: it provides humour, complications and interesting twists to the play. As a reader or viewer of Twelfth Night it is very enjoyable to know the thoughts of each character while they go around not knowing the truth and making mistakes. In some ways Twelfth Night is almost like a pantomime: the mistaken identity supplies a fantastical, foolish and humorous mood to the play.