The characters in The Twelfth Night have very misconstrued self-identities, for example, Orsino believes he knows who he is and what he wants, but in fact he does not. On the other hand, Viola knows her self very well, while she is technically is disguised. While Dr. Erich Gruen would probably also criticize the character’s skewed self-perception, he would undoubtedly agree with the way their base their identity- on their character, not on their race.
Duke Orsino shows his confusion of self immediately to the readers. In his first speech, he begins by raving about the music that is playing, “If music be the food of love, play on”. He makes his affections clear, but they do not last long. Only lines later, he asks for the same music to be stopped. “Enough, no more/’T is not so sweet now as it was before”, he states. His back and forth mindset indicates something about his nature- he is hot one minute and cold the next. One minute he may feel passionately about something, however the next he may want nothing to do with it. Shakespeare invites the reader to understand that this is part of his character. Therefore, the reader can infer that while he may feel passionately about Olivia at the beginning of the play, there’s no predicting how he may feel at a later time. The Duke is unable to see this about himself, however. He refuses to relinquish his desire to win Olivia over; rather he persists no matter how many times she rejects his advances. His finicky nature is also demonstrated when he proposes to Viola immediately after finding out she is not Cesario, but a woman. He may see himself as a romantic and dedicated lover, but in fact he is not. If he were so, he would not have given up on Oliva so easily. Likewise, he may identify as a romantic, but that does not make him one. A romantic would be doing anything and everything to win the woman he loves over. Orsino, however, only sends others to do his bidding. There is nothing romantic about a woman receiving messages through pages from a man who claims to love her.
Conversely, Viola seems to have the clearest self identity in the play. Ironically, she is the one disguising herself, but she can see herself the clearest. She maintains her honor throughout the play, even if it means sacrificing her happiness. She is willing to do so due to her self-identity as an honorable and good person. She is able to watch the man she loves pine over someone else, and even help him woo her. She stays true to her identity in this manner. She knows she could stoop to the level of sabotaging their interactions, but she does not. She will not sacrifice her identity as a good and honorable person by doing so. When she finally reveals herself at the end of the play, her identity has not changed. Her appearance and desires do not change whom she really is, neither does the way she dresses.
Dr. Erich lectured on the difference between identity now and in the ancient world. Today, everyone identifies with his or her race or nationality. Race lines and nationality divide our culture. In ancient times, however, identity was similar to the way identify is seen in The Twelfth Night. Peoples during those times only identified themselves with who they were as a person, not by the color of their skin.
The way Dr. Erich describes Identify is parallel to the way Shakespeare’s characters identify themselves. One’s identity, they believe, comes from who someone is, not from what race they are. Although the characters are sometimes unable to identify who they really are, they still base their self-image on who they are, not how they look. That is how everyone should identify himself or herself, through careful reflection of who they really are, not on their skin tone or nationality. What makes you who you are is your behavior, not your ancestors.