Twelfth Night Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night book cover
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Where does mistaken identity occur in Twelfth Night?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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mbjohnse eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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