How does Shakespeare use mistaken identities in Twelfth Night?

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Mistaken identity is central to the plot of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. When Viola washes to shore in Illyria in act 1, scene 2, she believes her twin brother has died in the shipwreck they were both in and assumes his identity, both because it will be safer for her to appear to be a man than an unaccompanied woman and in order to gain employment with Duke Orsino. Her disguise leads to the central love triangle of the play: Olivia, mistaking her for the man she is masquerading as, falls in love with her, while Orsino, also believing her to be a man, is oblivious to the fact that she has fallen in love with him.

Viola's famous monologue in act 2, scene 2, beginning "I left no ring with her, what means this lady," centers on the theme of mistaken identity as Viola becomes aware of Olivia's misplaced affections, saying,

Poor lady, she were better love a dream.

Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.

Here, it is clear that Viola regrets her decision to pretend to be Cesario, as she realizes that being mistaken for a man has led to a sticky situation that will end with Olivia getting hurt. She compares her alter ego to "a dream," as both are unreal.

Things are complicated even further when Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, washes up to shore as well, very much alive. With both Sebastian and Viola-as-Cesario wandering around Illyria appearing to be one and the same person, the other characters of the play have conversations with one assuming it's the other, leading to much confusion and even a fight or two as the play barrels towards its climax. Ultimately, Olivia marries Sebastian, believing him to be Cesario, confusing both Orsino and Viola when she approaches them and claims that Viola/Cesario is her husband. Sebastian, for his part, is shocked that Olivia has offered her love to him without him ever having spoken to her before.

In the end, Viola and Sebastian meet face-to-face and are able to untangle everything that has come to pass, realizing that they have been repeatedly mistaken for one another and clarifying who is who to Olivia and Orsino.

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One way in which Shakespeare makes use of mistaken identities is to show that people are not always what they appear to be. Viola illustrates this point by discussing the illusion of appearances in the very first scene in which we meet her. In Act 1, Scene 2, Viola reflects on the fact that the character of the sea captain who rescued her is just as "fair," or good and noble, as his looks are fair, as apparently he is a rather handsome man. We see her compare his fairness in character to his fairness in looks in her lines:

There is a fair behavior in thee, captain;And though that nature with a beauteous wallDoth oft close in pollution, yet of thee I will believe thou hast a...

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mind that suitsWith this thy fair and outward character. (I.ii.50-54)

These lines are also important because they express her understanding that looks can be deceiving, and that someone can be something completely different on the inside than they appear to be on the outside, which is a dominant theme in the play. We especially see the illusion of appearances portrayed when Sebastian is mistaken for his sister who is pretending to be a manservant named Cesario. It's very apparent that both Sebastian and Viola have very different character traits. For one thing, when Viola as Cesario converses with Feste in Act 3, Scene 1, she is very congenial with him. They exchange witty retorts, and she remarks about how good Feste is at his job as a fool. However, when Sebastian encounters Feste in Act 4, Scene 1, whom Feste mistakes for Cesario, Sebastian doesn't give Feste the same congenial treatment. Instead, he becomes annoyed by Feste, even calling him a "foolish fellow" to which Feste retorts that Sebastian "will prove a cockney," meaning "clueless person" (eNotes, IV.i.2, 12). Sebastian even proves to have a temper. While Viola says she hates violence and prefers peace, Sebastian readily strikes Sir Andrew. Sebastian even severely hurts both Sir Andrew and Sir Toby a second time in the final act. If we can believe Sirs Andrew and Toby, the second time Sebastian struck them was apparently unprovoked, showing us that, unlike his sister, he has a much more aggressive temper, and even though he and Viola look alike, inside they are very different. Yet, Olivia feels she is in love with Sebastian merely because he looks like Cesario, who is really his sister Viola. Olivia will probably eventually be disappointed to learn that their characters are really very different. Hence, Shakespeare gives both Viola and Sebastian opposing character traits, plus mistakes their identities, to show just how deceptive looks can be

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Where does mistaken identity occur in Twelfth Night?

Shakespeare loves gender bending and makes the most of it in this madcap holiday comedy.

When Viola shipwrecks, she decides it would be safer to be a man and disguises herself as Cesario. She enters the duke's service. Olivia then falls in love with "Cesario," not realizing she has fallen for a woman. Viola, unfortunately, falls in love with the duke, another impossible situation as long as he thinks she is a man.

Meanwhile, Olivia's servant, Maria, pretends to be Olivia and writes fake love letters from "Olivia" to Malvolio, making the foolish man think Olivia is in love with him. As Malvolio is nothing but her servant, it is not likely Olivia would become enamored of him—but he makes the mistake of believing the letters are from her.

If things aren't already mixed up enough, Viola's twin brother Sebastian appears, also shipwrecked. Olivia mistakes him for Cesario, and they marry. Then Cesario reveals she is a woman, and she and the Duke wed.

Shakespeare seems to be saying that love goes deeper than gender—and he creates a good time in the process

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Where does mistaken identity occur in Twelfth Night?

Like with many of Shakespeare's comedies, mistaken identity is a key part of this play. In fact, the play is named for the Christian holiday of same the name, which is closely associated with confusion, revelry, and chaos. 

For the majority of the play, Viola is disguised as Cesario, a young man. The other characters in the play, including the man she loves, spend most of the story thinking of her as a man. Olivia also falls in love with her due to this mistaken identity, which creates the love triangle that is the center of the play. Orsino loves Olivia. Olivia loves Cesario (or Viola), and Viola loves Orsino.

It is only another mistaken identity that helps solve this problem. Olivia marries Sebastian, Viola's brother, because she mistakes him for Cesario. This allows Viola to reveal her identity and marry Orsino without much conflict.

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