The Factors of Mistaken Identities in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Mistaken identity, dramatic irony and disguise serve a large role in making this play, Twelfth Night comedic. Malvolio is convinced Olivia is in love with him because of Maria’s letter. Sir Andrew is completely oblivious to the fact that Sir Toby Belch is befriending him to use him for his wealth. As Viola decides to disguise herself as a young man to keep safe, the potential for mistaken identity arises between her and her twin brother Sebastian. Meaning to embarrass and fool Malvolio, Maria, with the help of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew, writes a mysterious love letter to Malvolio.
“I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of live, 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.” (II, iii, 137-142) Maria explains the plan of the letters to Sir Toby and Sir Andrew and discusses how much Malvolio will look like an idiot during the aftermath of him reading the letter. What they are planning will be sure to make people laugh. It shows dramatic irony because not only do Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew know about these letters and so does the audience, which adds to the comedy, readers crave the concept of knowing something that another character does not know because it make them feel powerful.
Now that Malvolio has read the letters and is convinced that Olivia is in love with him, Maria gathers Sir Toby and Sir Andrew for a good chuckle “Most villainously, like a pedant that keeps a school i’ the church. I have dogged him like him, like his murderer. He does obey every point of the letter that I dropped to betray him. He does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies. You have not seen such a thing as ‘tis. I can hardly forbear hurling things at him. I know my lady will strike him. If she do, he’ll smile and take ‘t for a great favor.” (III, ii, 69-75)
This gives both the audience and the characters behind the prank, a nice laugh that is what Shakespeare wants to happen. It is found to befunny to see people make fools of themselves. Shakespeare has let Malvolio’s name reflect in his personality as a Puritan, stomping on the fun of those around him who like to drink, sing, party, and in general like to have fun. Malvolio, even though a servant, acts as if he is better than the other servants, leading other characters in Twelfth Night, to have negative feelings towards this man.
The audience too, sees these reasons in the play and learns to feel that it is okay to ridicule Malvolio. The moment when Malvolio enters to see Olivia is a priceless comedic moment, reason being he is already head over heels in love with her. Yet Maria knows exactly what is going on but must act like she doesn’t, and Olivia genuinely does not have a clue what is happening. Mistaken identity is demonstrated since Olivia does not know what is happening because she has been mistaken to be in love with Malvolio.
What once again makes these scenes of the play so hilarious is the dramatic irony. When somebody is completely oblivious to what is happening and is so obvious to the others it makes the reader feel clever and in this case, in a hysterical way. Friendship is sometimes based on the wrong objectives. In the case of Sir Toby Belch is befriending Sir Andrew for the benefit of his wealth. Sir Toby Belch is well aware of how wealthy Sir Andrew is when he says “Why, he has three thousand ducats a year.” (I, iii, 20) and Maria replies with “Ay, but he’ll have but a year in all these ducats. He’s a very fool and prodigal.” (I, iii, 21-22) implying that he is foolish and immature enough to fall for the wrongly based friendship with Sir Toby Belch. Through the play, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby stick together, in hope of Sir Andrew ending up with Olivia.
During the ever so cowardly fight between Viola and Sir Andrew, Sir Toby is trying to guide Sir Andrew to beat Viola. Potentially meaning that Sir Andrew could “win” Olivia instead of Viola (Cesario). This fake friendship is comedic because the audience knows that the drunken Sir Toby is trying to use Sir Andrew, but of course Sir Andrew doesn’t know because he is an idiot. The mistaken identity Sir Andrew has for Sir Toby is a different kind of mistaken identity than what Viola and Sebastian have which is demonstrated by their similar looks and Viola’s purposeful disguise. The mistaken identity between Viola and Sebastian adds a large amount of comedy (and confusion) to the play, who includes Viola and Olivia, Sebastian and Olivia, Viola and Orsino. Olivia has quickly fallen in love with Cesario (Viola) not knowing she is a woman. “ ‘What is your parentage?’
Olivia is aware and concerned that she has been able to fall for someone this abruptly. Once again is it irony that adds to the comedy of the play, the audience may get confused, but still are told and know the difference between Viola and Sebastian. By the end of the play, it is now clear to Olivia that Viola is in fact a woman when she reveals to everyone, and that Olivia now loves Sebastian. Though, through the course of this discovery, Olivia calls Viola her husband in front of Orsino. “Alas, it is the baseness of thy fear.
At this point, Olivia has seen both twins and still thinks they are the same person. Orsino is immensely rattled when Olivia calls Viola (Cesario) her husband, because he is trying to believe that Viola has not betrayed him, and that Viola loves him. Orsino believes that Viola is a young man, who is just there to serve and help him marry Olivia. After a while Orsino is finding himself liking Cesario (Viola). He knows he is not supposed to because he thinks Viola is a boy but he can’t help it. What is funny about Viola disguising herself as Cesario is that the whole time Orsino thought Viola was a boy and it was wrong of him to like him. Then at the end he finds out she is indeed a girl and they are happy. By the end of the play when the comedy quiets down and everyone is finally with the right partner. All of these elements added to the comedy of the play in many ways. These characters and the scenarios of mistaking someone for who they are not contributed a big part to the plot device. After all, the mistaken identity and disguising does help as a plot device.