We find ourselves now, indulged in Twelfth Night, or, What You Will. And once again, Shakespeare has spun us into a very tangled web of love, death and identity switches. So what’s the point this time?
Having read to Act 3 (well 5 for tomorrow) we see that this comedy has already fallen into the Shakespearean trap and ‘natural order’ has been severely shaken. We have a lost noble girl turned eunuch, a love-sick duke, and an abstinent bachelorette who find themselves in a warped love triangle. This seems all wrong, but I think Shakespeare is once again toying with the different kinds of love that we see in society.
First, we have The Duke Orsino and Viola. In order to establish herself, Viola disguises herself as a young man and begins to work for Orsino. Orsino has been pestering the lady Olivia to marry him, but has no luck because she does not wish to see any men for 7 years. Orsino soon realizes that Viola (I mean…Cesario) is as attractive and as soft spoken as a woman, he asks her to go persuade Olivia into marrying him. But Viola finds herself in the pickle that we should have seen coming—she has fallen for the Duke. Here, we see a kind of bromantic relationship. The Duke, though blind to the truth, confides in Cesario and trusts him the most to do his bidding. Just like two best boy friends would in real life. As of now, the relationship that they have now is between two men. It could be alluding to a future romantic one, but as of now, it is purely plutonic. Though there is a woman is disguise, Shakespeare displays the acts of two men in a friendship.
Then we have Viola and Olivia (the names are anagrams for each other who knew?!) whose lives have also been completely shaken. Olivia is first apprehensive to hear another plea by the Duke’s workers when Viola/Cesario shows up at her door, and wants “the boy” sent away immediately. Viola’s speech is not what Olivia was expecting though; it is kind and sweet. And of course, Olivia is smitten with this soft spoken boy. When Viola receives Olivia’s ring, she realizes just how bad this situation is. She is in love with the Duke, who is in love with Olivia, who’s in love with her. It’s totally effed. Viola may be dressed as a man, but the relationship between two women is stronger than her disguise. Olivia does not see her for the woman she is, yet seems to love her for her personality. Just as the strong bond of brothers exists between Orsino and Cesario, the sisterhood that Olivia and Viola share is just as important.
There is more than one purpose to this gender-bend. It is a literary device by Shakespeare; to move this play into the typical twisted plot direction of all of his comedies. But it is also his way of displaying order in disorder; to show norms in a misconstrued way. To us, it seems all wrong, but it’s just a disguise (literally and figuratively) of the norms of plutonic love in society.