Twelfth Night: Theme of Appearance and Reality


The theme of appearance and reality is another important theme in the play “Twelfth Night”. It is worth to point out that the play has numerous instances where blatant lies and deceit are prevalent. Also, there are incidences in the play where physical disguises and forged documents are found thus making it necessary to think about the concept appearance vs. reality (Shakespeare).   It is also an important theme because issues of deceit and lies are also prevalent in the modern society thus making it easy to relate the incidences in the play to real life events. The paper will look at some of the instances in the play where issues of deceit and betrayal are prevalent in the play and their parallels in real life.


In the play “Twelfth Night”, most of the characters consistently disguise themselves or play parts to trick those surrounding them.  For instance in Act two, Viola disguises herself as a male with the name Cesario. Viola finds herself in a tricky situation after surviving a shipwreck in an incidence that she also loses her brother (Shakespeare). Coincidentally, Olivia, also a survivor, had also lost her brother, and the two girls find themselves in a similar situation. Since she wanted to identify with Olivia’s grief, the young girl decides to disguise as a boy so that she could serve Orsino, the Duke of Illyria. For some time, Viola serves the Duke as Cesario and tricks him that she is a boy while in real sense she was a girl. The Duke trusted ‘’him’’ so much to an extent that he sent ‘’him’’ to woo Olivia, who Orsino was so determined to marry.

The disguise of Viola as a boy is an occurrence that happens so often in the daily activities. For instance, most people have disguised either as men or women to get job opportunities in the competitive job markets. Also, some of the individuals involved in criminal activities have also disguised themselves as women or use children to perpetrate their criminal activities (Shakespeare). Women and children are least suspected and hence they have consistently been used by criminal gangs to perpetrate their criminal agendas. In some instances, people have also cheated on their age to ensure that they get opportunities that would otherwise be elusive had they not lied. The contemporary society has several incidences where trickery and disguise prevail just to save a situation.

The disguise of Viola as a boy leads to the issue of gender identity crisis. During the time of play, all the female role today were played by boys and in this case, Viola acts like a boy (Cesario) and plays the role of male while she ought to play a female role. This gives an explanation of the extent to which people sacrifice even their culture and sexuality to achieve their goals. Individuals are willing to pretend to a great extent such that issue of maleness or femaleness becomes secondary. In the play, both Cesario and Sir Andrew are females acting male roles. Deceit and lies have become so rampant in the contemporary world, and as Shakespeare confirms, this is a trend that has been in existence for a long time.

The disguise of Viola as a man causes a sexual mess and unnecessary contradiction. For instance in this scene, Viola falls in love with the Duke, and she cannot divulge the news to him as the he thinks he is a boy. Orsino has even trusted Cesario to an extent that he sends him to help woo Olivia, who he desperately needs to marry. On the same note, Olivia falls in love with Viola in her disguise position as Cesario (Shakespeare). This creates an awkward position whereby Olivia is in love with a woman although she thinks he is a man. On the other hand, the Duke remarks on the Cesario’s beauty which is an indication that he is also attracted to her even before her male disguise is removed. The presence of sexual ambiguities has been a thorny issue in the modern society and has resulted in degradation of social morals. Once individuals are affectionate to each other, it becomes difficult to put an end in such relationships.  This is evidenced in the play where Orsino continues to address Viola as Cesario even after identifying that she is a woman. “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” (Act V Scene I). It is prudent to note that the Duke is truly in love with Viola, and this may seem as a betrayal to Olivia whom she pretended to love.


In conclusion, the issue of appearance and reality has been discussed at length by the play ‘’Twelfth Night’’. The character Viola has been used artistically to express the concept of disguise and deceit (Shakespeare). Many of the happenings in the incident are also prevalent in the contemporary society and hence giving the play a literal meaning. The play moves ahead and highlights the dangers of disguise. In essence, the incidence in the play is quite relevant to the happenings in the modern society.


Work cited

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg. Print.

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