If the Costume Fits, Play the Part

Within Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the extension of clothing is portrayed in numerous aspects whether it be defying the boundaries of social class or to break the encompassing role of gender within Elizabethan times. These two qualifications of clothing come to be as a disguise that consumes Viola in a physical sense, and consumes the people around her by the persona she is attempting to portray. Even more so, the allure of her male persona has the comical play bounce back and forth between gender roles and the uncertainty of gender/sexuality.

It is fair to say, that by Act V, the duke Orsino, after learning the true gender identity of Viola, distinguishes the two identities as two separate, physical characters. By attributing Viola as “your master’s mistress” (V.i.322), and before the play comes to a conclusion, Orsino also attributes Cesario as the physical manifestation that is currently present before the duke as well as the persona that Orsino seems to dote on behind public affairs “Cesario, come– / for so you shall be while you are a man; / but when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (V.i.381-384). The separation between Viola’s identity and Cesario’s identity within the eyes of Orsino, especially during the final scene, is surrounded by the clothing that Viola is still wearing, her male garb rather than her initial dress she bore in Act I, scene i. So essentially, the façade that surrounds Cesario allows for his character to become an archetype of Viola because of the clothing that marks him as a man, and even brings his character beyond into the world of social jumping by marrying the duke post the end of the play.

While Orsino is not the only one character caught in the illusion of Cesario—Olivia being the other caught in the trap as well as associated with the foggy qualifications of gender within the play—Viola becomes enclosed within two identities by the end of the play. through the association with the characters around her. Her final lines of the play are about her feminine garb “The captain that did bring me first on shore / Hath my maid’s garments.” (V.i.372-3). Strangely enough, once the truth about her is discovered, she recedes back from the play, and her femininity is left on the backburner and her status as a women, about to be wed, follows the pattern of what had happened to Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she as a women in this patriharical society, and as a betrothed women, is silenced and not heard from even though she is spoken to by Orsino through stage direction on line 318 “To Viola” but is still referred to as Cesario. These conflicting identities finally being brought into focus and illuminated on could be the basis as to why Viola does not speak after mentioning her “maid’s garments” where her identity that resonated with Cesario will be lost once she changes back into being a women, or it could be the fact that Shakespeare leaves the ambiguity to settle in with the characters as well as the audience about the eccentricity that clothing can have on identity. It is the basis on which Shakespeare works since his players are disguised as gender roles, historical figures, or even social classes that they would never be able to access in reality.


One thought on “If the Costume Fits, Play the Part

  1. elisebrucche

    I think your suggestion that Orsino sees Viola as two separate physical identities captures some of what makes Shakespeare’s emphasis on costume and gender/class so intriguing and odd for twenty-first century readers. While clothing still carries gender and economic connotations, the boundaries are far less rigid today than they were for Shakespeare. For instance, it not unheard of in our society to have a man dress as a woman, but to still identify as a man and vice versa. To take this idea of identity a step farther, it also not unusual for an individual to identify his/her gender differently from his/her biological sex. Given this interchangeability, it seems odd, perhaps even laughable, to us that Orsino and Viola might be separated based merely on what Viola is wearing. A modern day Orsino, we think, would not be so quick to physically separate Viola and Cesario, choosing to focus instead on less gendered aspects of Viola/Cesario. Yet, despite our present fluidity, there is still an inevitable gendering that takes place in our culture. However, it is our language, not our clothes, that forces us to separate people, if not physically, then at least linguistically, into male and female identities. It seems like our modern day Orsino might not be so very different from his Shakespearean counterpart.


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