Deception, Delusion and the Danger of Half-Perceived Truths

June 10, 2022 by Essay Writer

It has often been said that “the clothes make the man.” It could never seem truer than in Twelfth Night where disguises and mistaken identities run the gamut of use. The identity of people, things and ideas are swept away under the facade of something more convenient for the given time or occasion. Viola’s disguise, Maria’s ploy, Feste’s folly and even love fall beneath a mask at the time which most perfectly complicates things nearly beyond salvation. The entanglements raise questions of the nature of reality that only Shakespeare himself can answer.The play begins with Viola discussing the plausibility and necessity of assuming a disguise during her time in Illyria. To her captain she says, “… Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent,” thus instructing him in her plan to disguise herself. She goes on to say that she shall assume the form of an eunuch, and it is revealed much later in the play that it is actually the guise of her twin brother, Sebastian, at this early point assumed dead, that she chooses. This introduces from the very beginning the importance of disguises and misleading – right alongside the difficult there is in maintaining the misdirection in the face of verity. When she discovers that the very woman her temporary master is asking her to woo for him falls for her male persona, she says, “Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness wherein the pregnant enemy does much.” She begins to feel the pressure most acutely even before that: she confesses obscurely to Olivia in admitting that “by the very fangs of malice” she is not that she plays. A juxtaposition between the goodly ease of assuming a disguise and the unpleasant mistruths of maintaining it is effectively posed.A proverb in vogue in England at the time Twelfth Night was written becomes a part of the clown’s lines: “Cucullus non facit monachum.” Translated, it means “the cowl does not make the monk” and is understood to mean “the clothes do not make the man” contemporarily. Though this would seem to be in keeping with the compromising situation Viola has been put herein by assuming a disguise, it is later shown that the opposite is true. Quite ironically, it is Feste himself who makes the contradictory assertion: “I would not be in some of your coats for two pence.” The following dialogue expresses it best:MARIA: Nay, I prithee, put on this gown and this beard; make him believe thou art Sir Topas the curate: do it quickly; I’ll call Sir Toby the whilst.CLOWN: 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. I am not tall enough to become the function well, nor lean enough to be thought a good student; but to be said an honest man and a good housekeeper goes as fairly as to say a careful man and a great scholar.He seems to say that he cannot fully become the position until he dons the clothing that would outwardly signify him to be a member of that class. At the same time, he restates his prior statement regarding the monk by adding that he is not “tall enough to become the function well, nor lean enough to be though a good student,” which can be taken to mean that even when dressed as such it is not the clothing that makes him what he wishes to become. It is the coats and clothing worn that form the ideas of the person, as the final scene with Sebastian and Viola in the same room together for the first time shows, but it is truly what is inside (even if that “inside” is merely beneath the misleading articles of clothing) that makes the person; as Viola herself says early on in the play, “For such as we are made of, such we be.”The subplot with Maria, Sir Toby, Feste and Malvolio (and, partially, Sir Andrew) is perhaps the greatest tribute to the theme of deception. Malvolio is described by Olivia as being “sick of self-love”; Maria uses it against him, explaining “… it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him,” a state further encouraged by courtly etiquette that denies free reign of speech for her to say as much directly to him. In Act II, Sc. V, Malvolio discovers the fruit of the scheming trio’s labors: the letter, written by Maria, that dupes Malvolio into believing that his mistress does indeed love him. As people are wont to do, Malvolio takes each “clue” he’s received to be full and irrefutable proof that what is writ is the truth, never allowing the uncertainties to resolve themselves into something to the contrary. Maria, Sir Toby and Feste play no part in enlightening him, and indeed Malvolio sits in the darkness of ignorance both literally and figuratively at the end of it. His ignorance is a result of deception and his own unwillingness to face the light of the truth. In much literature, darkness symbolizes evil; in Twelfth Night, Malvolio demonstrates this. His half-complete version of the truth, shaped by the deceptive subplot, becomes a case of delusion to the extreme that is resolved only through the vague promise of revenge the character exit’s the play on. In another plot of deception, Sir Toby and Maria cheat Sir Andrew out of his money by fooling him into believing that they are his friends, when truly it is only his money they are after. There are constant references to Sir Andrew being only as good as his purse; they suffer his idiocies for his money, and he (though perhaps unknowingly) suffers their use for friendship.Many essays could be written on the fool Feste’s character alone: he is at once a paradox, and, throughout, an ironic source of direct information. Though he plays the fool, he is often the most perceptive of any of the characters. Viola even notices this (though only once he has revealed to her subtly that he has discovered her disguise): “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool.” His sarcastic wit serves as a comic foil to the seriousness of Sebastian (however much the latter doesn’t appreciate the former), the distracted passion of Orsino, the nervous eagerness of Viola and the jesting and fooling that genuinely exist in Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria. Shakespeare constantly writes in the dialogues bits about “folly” and “fooling,” things that would suggest that Feste is the lesser of the group. In reality, he is the one that holds his head throughout, never falls prey to passion or deception, and ends the play with a song that, true enough, speaks to the play of the day and to the end and resolution of it, when all delusions, deceptions and half-truths are rectified appropriately.

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