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Twelfth Night is the story of a woman, the lone survivor of a shipwreck, who believes that her twin brother drowned with everyone else. In the name of convenience, she disguises herself as a man — it’s dangerous times to be a lady on your own — called Cesario.
There’s more to it, but this overview covers what’s been on my mind. You can watch the Ben Kingsley/Helena Bonham-Carter film for a pretty solid adaptation (which also stars Richard E. Grant and Demolition Man alum Nigel Hathorne).
There’s also a BBC version from 1969 with Sir Alec Guinness — https://youtu.be/DuwgQ9Qof88
When you read a script, which is pretty common to do regarding Shakespeare, you know everyone’s name so some subtle things can be missed. I remember being very impressed by the subtle detail in “Rosencranttz & Guildenstern are Dead” that they are never explicitly named. It’s clear when you read it that it’s part of the gag of the whole thing, but it’s extra subtle to realize that it really is never clarified which one of them is which.
Similarly, though for different reasons, it’s really interesting to me that while we the readers of the Twelfth Night script know the woman’s name, we the viewing audience do not. Her brother is Sebastian; we learn that pretty early.
This brings me to her dressing as a man, which always struck me as really silly. Which is fine; it’s a comedy. But the vague justification always struck me as pretty weak. She’s acquainted with the court there, her father was a well-known merchant. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. But then, after decades — I’ve seen this play so many times since 1996, and performed in it once — I caught this line in act III when she says, “I my brother know yet living in my glass.“ ‘Glass’ here means ‘looking glass,’ like a mirror. And I realized that the continued disguise is a coping mechanism.
“I my brother know yet living in my glass“ means that she doesn’t have to confront Sebastian’s death when she can see him as alive in the mirror. This isn’t a stretch, either, that’s literally what it means. If I were creating a dual-text edition, that would read “my brother is still alive in my mirror.”
So, that’s a thing.
Her brother survives, by the way, and that’s not a spoiler for a few reasons: ignoring that the play is 400 years old so you’ve had plenty of time, we meet him living in act I. Also, not a spoiler, they reunite at the end. It’s a comedy, so we know this will happen.
But because this play is so much about identity, it’s not until Sebastian shows up and they reunite that we find out her name. In a real sense, he names her for the viewing audience, and this allows her to finally stop being Cesario and to become herself: Viola.