The question I kept returning to while reading act I and II of Twelfth Night was; why does Viola decide to disguise herself as a man instead of going to Olivia or Orsino’s house to ask for help because she was stranded in a strange land? Shakespeare does give us a concrete answer. At first I thought I could be missing something or she merely disguised herself to be able to move more freely as a man, as men had many more rights than women in Shakespeare’s time. I felt there needed to be just one reason for Viola’s disguise but our class discussion showed me there were many reasons that could be interpreted which led to a more interesting read of the play as a whole.
Today we feel there should be reality in everything presented us. When we see a completely unrealistic movie about zombies we are angered when the small pieces of the puzzle are unrealistic. We are able to accept the idea of zombies but not that a car could flip over ten times with all passengers surviving without a scratch. Shakespeare’s audience was much more forgiving, much more open to imagination. If Violia decided to disguise herself as a man they would not necessarily ask questions they would imagine what type of high jinx this game may cause. It also created a great comedic effect in a man dressed as a woman disguising himself as a man. Disguising yourself as someone else was a very common plot technique at the time. Twelfth Night takes place around a time of celebration where people are often cross dressing and disguising themselves so the audience of Shakespeare’s time would not require concrete reasons for disguise as much as a modern audience might.
Another interesting reason for Viola’s disguise is her grief. She could be hiding her true identity in order to grieve her brother in peace, much like Olivia does by not wanting to see visitors. She believes she is alone, believes her brother to be dead. A Freudian interpretation might suggest she disguises herself as a man to become her brother in her grief of her loss. By becoming a man she is able to empower herself, if she was still with her brother he would have power over her but because she is alone she holds the power. Men would be able to move much more freely coming into a strange land. As a woman she never would have been able to walk into Orsino’s house and say “I am here to serve you.” She would be arrested as a prostitute. As a man she is able to do this and becomes quite close to the Duke very quickly.
As I have discovered there are many reasons why Viola would disguise herself as a man. And there does not have to be one set reason for her decision. It is a time of celebration where disguise is common, in her grief she could want to become her brother or want to hide herself to grieve, and finally men have more freedoms than woman at this time. Shakespeare does not give us one definitive reason for her disguise because he wants us to wonder and imagine the places this disguise could take the plot of the play.