What is Identity?
William Shakespeare presents a conflict over identity and growth in Twelfth Night, or What You Will. In Viola's struggle to survive she loses her identity and even her gender. The indecisiveness of Olivia and Orsino creates a standstill until Viola intervenes. Malvolio is so blinded by his self obsession that he is tricked into manipulating his own identity. Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare tells a tail of the struggle to maintain ones identity and character through hardship and conflict.
Viola is the protagonist and she is shipwrecked on an island during which she loses her brother and all her belongings so she must disguise herself as a man to survive. “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid”(Shakespeare 4). Viola decides to take up an alias as a man named Cesario so that she can get a job working for Orsino since Olivia will not take any new workers because she is in mourning. When disguised as Cesario, Viola brings a message of love to Olivia from Orsino and proves to her what true love is not by Orsino's definition but by her definition. Viola expresses a love that shows true affection unlike the stagnant love of Orsino. This act by Viola changes Olivia's view of love and reveals the emotions of Viola. This helps her maintain her identity even though she had to struggle through change. The ones that persevere have the most solid identity.
Olivia is a wealthy noble woman and Orsino is a wealthy noble man trying to court her but he is denied because Olivia is mourning for her brother. Orsino is indecisive and an over dramatic romantic while Olivia is also extremely over dramatic and obsessive. “If music be the food of love play on…That strain again! It had a dying fall…Enough; no more”(Shakespeare 1). At the very opening of the play we are shown how Orsino can not make his mind up about what he wants. He is so sure that at first that he wants to hear the music and then he must hear the music again but then sharp and suddenly he does not want to hear anymore. Olivia will not let any men court her because she is mourning her brother's death. “The element itself, till seven years' heat, Shall not behold her face at ample view”(Shakespeare 2). Olivia is so dramatic she will not even come out to let the sun see her face for seven years of mourning she claims. Viola shows Olivia that she need not mourn so long for her brother and she shows her what true love is and Olivia ends up married happily to Sebastian. Viola also shows Orsino what true love is and they end up married. If one does not change and take their own true identity then disaster will follow.
Malvolio is efficient and self righteous steward to Olivia and he is tricked because he does not know his true self. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria trick Malvolio because they do not like his strict and uptight attitude. They give him a letter that makes Malvolio think Olivia loves him, however the letter tells him to do some strange things to prove it. “I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting on”(Shakespeare 33). Malvolio makes himself into a complete idiot and buffoon. He dresses in high yellow socks and a strange dress and acts very strange towards Olivia thinking that she loves him. Eventually Olivia becomes so creeped out by Malvolio that he is thrown into a dark room. Malvolio losses his identity and disaster follows because nothing good ever happens when you are not yourself.
The struggle to find and keep one's identity is a major reoccurring theme in Twelfth Night, or What You Will by William Shakespeare. Viola losses and then regains her identity through perseverance and honesty. Olivia and Orsino overcome there indecisiveness and dramatic attitude because of Viola's loyalty. Due to his strictness and self righteousness, Malvolio is tricked into changing his identity to the complete opposite of his normal state.