Deception is present in Twelfth Night on a number of levels. To examine the role of deception in Twelfth Night in relation to the plot, we must consider what may have occurred if in fact there was no deception in the piece. Deception sets the whole story in motion, and is pivotal in creating the irony and comedy that abounds in Twelfth Night. It is through deceit and deception that the topsy-turvy web of comedy and confusion that entangles the characters of Twelfth Night is spun.
The deception exhibited in the play can be divided into two groups. Firstly, let us consider cases of self-deception. Orsino is a classic sufferer, and continually pines away for his darling Olivia. The self absorbed Orsino believes himself to be in love with the Countess Olivia; however, it would appear that Orsino is more in love with the notion of being in love than anything else. In his opening lines he talks of his love, but it is not until seventeen lines later that he first mentions Olivia. He does not talk to Olivia, and is content to mope around his house in self-involved sorrow while he sends courtiers to woo her on his behalf. Ironically, Olivia is in a similar situation. She uses the unfortunate excuse of her brother's demise to hide herself away from the world, and shows no interest in relating to the other Illyrians.
If these two characters were free of their self-deceit, and able to see themselves as they truly are, a tremendous impact would be had on the play. Perhaps Olivia would have returned Orsino's apparent love, after all he is of very noble birth. In this scenario Viola and Sebastian would be cut out of the story entirely, and the original trickery and chaos would not come about. Alternatively, Orsino may have realised the truth about his emotions and stopped his pursuit of Olivia. Cesario would not be sent to her, and Olivia would not fall in love with 'him'. Furthermore, Sebastian and Olivia's final union would also be impossible, and Cesario would remain bound by 'his' disguise.
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Olivia's steward, Malvolio, struggles to see his real self. He is of the opinion that he is in some way superior to others of his social class and deserves to be elevated to the nobility because of his supremacy. He sees himself as surrounded by 'idle, shallow things', not of his 'element ' and this feeds his unexpected ambition to the point where he is able to be fooled by Sir Toby and Maria's trickery. He is deceived completely, and Sir Toby remarks '. . . thou hast put him in such a dream, that when the image of it leaves him, he must run mad.' If Malvolio was not so deceived, he would not have this belief of superiority, nor would his holding of this belief be exploited. He would find the letter's message unbelievable and escape the suffering caused by
his original trust in its words.
His strong ambitions would remain a secret, and the sense of pity and respect we gain for Malvolio through his struggle to be deemed sane would also be non-existent. The comedy of the puritan's trials would also be lost.
Sir Andrew's self-deception provides nothing but comedy. The deluded clumsy simpleton thinks he is sophisticated, noble, and a marriage prospect for Olivia. Had Sir Andrew known his chances truthfully, he would have ended his pursuit of Olivia's love. Sir Andrew's absence would result in a loss of a number of humorous debacles; however the major events of the story would be largely unaffected.
The other kind of deception in the play is the deception of others. Viola is undoubtedly the most deceptive of
the characters, and her deception plays the greatest role in the play. Her original desire to be disguised as a
man facilitates the formation of the dreaded love triangle and the resulting complexities that make up the
story of Twelfth Night. Viola's decision to conceal her true gender is the basis and foundation for the entire
plot. She makes a conscious decision to hide her true self, saying:
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent.
When talking with Olivia, Viola even states that she is concealing herself:
Viola: ...you do think you are not what you are.
Olivia: If I think so, I think the same of you.
Viola: Then think you right: I am not what I am.
Was it not for Viola's deceptive disguise, she would not have become a member of Orsino's court. She would not have been sent to Olivia, nor would the mislead Olivia fall in love with Cesario, and later Sebastian. It was Olivia's love for Cesario that saved her from becoming a recluse, and this would have been her fate were it not for Cesario's arrival. Cesario would remain unknown to Orsino, and Orsino and Viola's marriage would not occur. The Duke would almost certainly have continued to wallow in his sorrows as he languished over Olivia.
Viola soon becomes anxious at the massive effects of her deception:
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
The major events concerning the main characters would not take place, if Viola had not deceitfully donned the disguise of Cesario. Her deceit has drastic consequences, and huge meaning for all. Even Sir Andrew would have been saved from his embarrassing duel, it Viola was not disguised. Viola's deception provides the extra dimension of dramatic irony that is present throughout the piece. The troubles created by her deception in regard to gender, and mismatched love provide many ironically comedic moments. Olivia falls head over heels in love with none other than a woman in disguise, who is in turn in love with a man, who ironically believes her to also be a man. Each character says or thinks a number of things that are ironically false and often humorous, while the audience has the luxury of seeing past the deception and realising how wrong the characters are about one another.
Sir Toby, Fabian and Maria are the conspirators behind Malvolio's downfall, who is the unsuspecting victim of Maria's deceitful letter. Later Feste delivers the cruellest blow when he disguises himself as Sir Topas, the curate. Here Malvolio endures his greatest suffering as his sanity is questioned and his limits tested. Without their scheme to get square with Malvolio, we would not see him suffer or discover his other side as discussed earlier. It is only through Maria and Sir Toby's deception, that Malvolio's respectable, pitiable and admirable qualities are revealed.
Sir Toby and Fabian are also behind Sir Andrew's deception. Sir Toby's false friendship and advice leads only to his enjoyment and Sir Andrew's misery. He is manipulated incredibly by Sir Toby, at all times for his personal benefit. Toward the end Sir Toby shows his true feelings for Sir Andrew calling him 'An asshead, and a coxcomb, and a knave...' The resulting comedy of his suit to Olivia and his duel with Cesario, would not occur were it not for Sir Toby's deception. Antonio would also be relieved of his confusion, as he would not step in to save Viola whom he mistook for Sebastian. Near the end, Sebastian realises there is something in the extraordinary situation 'That is deceivable'.
Olivia bade Malvolio 'return' Orsino's ring to Cesario, in the hope that he would return to her. This was fraudulent trickery on Olivia's behalf in order to see her new love again. Later she apologises for her deceptive 'cunning ' but it is through this deception that the love triangle between Orsino, Olivia and Viola is strengthened. Deception facilitates the formation of Twelfth Night's intricate plot.
Shakespeare uses deception on a number of levels. He alludes to the deception in the play right from the beginning, in the title. Historically Twelfth Night is the last night of twelve days of celebration following Christmas, in which social order is upturned and anything and everything goes. The subtitle, 'Or What you will', fits well with the attitude of Twelfth Night's festivities when people could do whatever and be whoever they liked.
Not only is deception essential in the construction of the plot, but it is also present so that Shakespeare can relate to us the outcomes of those who practice deception and those who are deceived. There does not seem to be a concrete system with which a character's rewards or punishment can be determined in respect to their deception. Viola, Sir Toby and Maria are some of the chief deceivers, and yet they are rewarded with wedded bliss. These characters are also able to see past much of the other character's deception. Olivia and Orsino suffer from self-deception, and nonetheless receive the same reward.
Malvolio and Sir Andrew see themselves even less truly, and can find no happiness. Feste is arguably the least deceived of the Illyrians, but for this he receives no consolation. Perhaps Shakespeare is trying to show that those involved with deception, are taking a risk. Whether you are being deceived or deceiving others, you can never control, or be sure of your outcome. Shakespeare also uses deception in relation to the concept of fate. Despite the immense deception of the play, Shakespeare ensures the right people still end up together; and although deception affects their journey, their destination remains unchanged.
The celebrations of Twelfth Night must come to an end, as does the play, and the happiness of some of its characters. Feste's melancholy final song does nothing to assure us of even the handful of happy characters' continued happiness. Feste's song tells a story of growing up and growing old, recounting a story of the discovery of the unkindness and harshness life. Shakespeare's ending for Malvolio and Feste, who are at opposite ends of the spectrum of deception, serve as reminders to the uncertainty of life.
Both the comic plot and the romantic plot are constructed in deception. The confusion, trickery, comedy and chaos of Twelfth Night is present only because of the characters' deception of themselves and one another. Deception makes Twelfth Night what it is. It is the cause of the story, and without it Twelfth Night would be a very straight-forward, linear bore without any twists or turns. It is through deception that Shakespeare shows us the triumph of fate and the uncertainty of life, and the play gives an insight into what awaits those who gamble with deception and false judgement. Deception plays a huge part in Twelfth Night and is essential in making it the topsy-turvy, ironic, chaotic comedy that it is.
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