The Steep and Rocky Path of Finding Oneself in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” 

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“Twelfth Night” is a fictional story by William Shakespeare that shows the impacts it has on a person when they try to become somebody they aren’t. In “Twelfth Night” Viola takes on a male role as her brother Sebastian, whom she believes died at sea, but uses the name for her male role as Cesario. The role as Cesario brings many challenges for Viola in love, the reminder of her deceased brother, and finding out who she really is inside and out. Every day that Viola was impersonating Sebastian, her self–identification was being impacted by not staying true to who she is on the inside, which also caused her personal characteristics and qualities to fade away in the process. Viola’s life is shaped around her role as Cesario. The memories of her brother were pushing her to succeed in keeping her secret to herself. With the walls crumbling down around Viola with her personal self, Viola begins to wonder if her role as Cesario is worth losing her own self-identification.

Viola’s self-identification in “Twelfth Night” is impacted throughout the story line when she is pretending to be her false identity, Cesario. Self-Identification is defined as “The identification of description of oneself as belonging to a particular category or group of people; the attribution of certain characteristics or qualities to oneself (“Self-Identification”). Self-identification can impact a person when they aren’t believing in themselves or staying true to who they really are. In ‘Twelfth Night” it shows the struggles it has on Viola living her double life as both Viola and Cesario. With her true characteristics and qualities on the inside and a complete mask of her brother’s qualities and characteristics on the outside. The effects of her having to hide herself from everyone deteriorates her self-identification because the role of Cesario is only becoming more dominant and beginning its takeover of her true self. As a result, self-identification is a big part of Viola’s world in “Twelfth Night” and it is structured around her false identity as Cesario.

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With pretending to be Cesario, Viola can’t carry out what is natural for every human which is being loved for who you are, and to love as well. In “Twelfth Night” Viola is working for the man she loves, as he is chasing after another woman right in front of her. This makes holding her tongue with her secret even more difficult because she is unable to confess her love to the man she wants to be with. “Whoe’re I woo, myself would be his life” (Act 1 Scene 4, Page 369). Having to go matchmaking for the man she wants to marry affects Viola’s self-identification because she isn’t being true to herself in the situation and revealing her love for him. Love is shared between two people, and when you are in love with a person you know every little detail about them. For Viola she can’t experience love in the true depths she wants to because of her secret identity as Cesario. Even though Viola can’t express the love she has for Orsino she uses Cesario to her advantage with trying to get his mind away from Olivia. “Sooth,but you must. Say that some lady as perhaps there is, hath for you as great a pang of heart as you have for Oliva” (Act 2 Scene 4, Page 395). Viola tried to persuade him that there were other women out there, referencing to herself, and hoping with his reaction that she might have a chance with him. Viola has emotionally fallen in love but her physical identity as Cesario is preventing her love from becoming full circle. Viola’s role as Cesario is preventing her ability to deepen her love of herself for who she really is and what makes her Viola. When Viola is in the role as Cesario it is a way for her to talk to Orsino in a way she never could as Oliva, Cesario is her only way into Orsino’s world. With Viola not being able to fully love the man she wants to marry impacts her on a deeper level because she can’t carry out what is natural for every human to feel inside, which is feeling loved for who you truly are as a person. With the voice resounding in Viola’s head fighting its way out to show the man she loves who she truly is, is being held back because of Cesario. Love can make people do crazy things, and for Viola love might finally bring out who she always wanted to be on the outside, her true self.

Sebastian, and the man he was, will always be in the back of Viola’s mind while playing the role of Cesario. Viola in ‘Twelfth Night” only has a small scale of memories of her brother because she lost him at such a young age. These memories are all she has left of Sebastian and what made him so special to her and what kind of person he was inside and out. With their history, there is always the sliver of hope for Viola that her brother didn’t drown, and that he somehow survived and is out there somewhere in the world. “My brother he is in Elysium. Perchance he is not dorwn’d” (Act 1 Scene 2, Page 361). She is thinking of the positive that he is in a peaceful place, such as heaven, but that sliver is still stinging in her mind that there is always the possibility that he didn’t drown. Viola is under pressure because she wants his name to live on in a good way, so when she steps into the role of Cesario, her brother’s character is living through her. There is also pressure with feeling like she has a big role to fill because she remembers her brother being a memorable man. She also wants to live on for the both of them because she believes she is the only one that survived the storm. “Mine own escape unfoldeth to my hope” (Act 1 Scene 2, Page 361). Since Viola survived the storm, it is easier for her to believe and imagine that her brother survived too. The role as Cesario comes with lots of ups and downs for Viola, but playing the role she believes is her brother is the hardest. The love that Viola has for her brother is expressed through Cesario, and the hope that she has that he is still alive. That sliver of hope in her mind is what keeps her relationship and bond intact with her brother, just from the small scale of memories that she remembers. Viola still has that outstanding thought in the back of her mind that her brother is deceased, which impacts herself on the inside and how she is today. The deep grief Viola suffers from the loss of Sebastian is evident in the role she plays as Cesario. Her denial of his drowning is casting a formidable shadow on her own reality.

Viola’s tragedy is embedded within the lies of her false identity portraying Cesario which dominates her true self. In ‘Twelfth Night” Viola’s true self is beginning to fade away with the false identity of Cesario. Every day that Viola is pretending to be her brother a piece of her is being taken away from her true identity and the pieces are being replaced with the weights of her secret. The secret is unravelling what is truly inside. In ‘Twelfth night” Viola seeks to know what her life would be like again without her secret, with just being the person she actually was meant to be. “Oh that I served that lady and might not be delivered to the world. Till I had my own occasion mellow what my estate is” (Act 1 Scene 2, Page 362). Viola is looking for ways out of her secret, even in the smallest ways such as working for a lady, and hiding from the world for a while on an enclosed estate. She is waiting for the day to reveal her identity to the people around her, but until she does the secret of who she really is will always be in the background. Viola expresses that she feels lost to her inner identity as a woman “Make me a willow cabin at your gate, and call upon my soul within the house” (Act 1 Scene 5, Page 378). Viola, in a sense, has purchased this cabin, but doesn’t feel at home, just like she is Viola on the inside but doesn’t feel like herself on the outside when she pretends to be someone she isn’t. The impact of pretending to be Cesario is damaging to Viola’s self-identification because she is losing her sense of self with the role of Cesario. Certain qualities of Viola get left behind when she steps into the role of Cesario such as her gender, personality and her overall self. A person is made up of certain characteristics and for Viola it is hard to determine which one’s belong to whom, and this puts Viola into a puzzle of wonder about her identity. Viola’s double life is a mix of chaos and emptiness because she isn’t the same person internally and externally which is causing her to lose herself in the process. With the weights of her secret crashing down and the pieces of her self-identification getting taken away and lost, Viola will be the only one who can conquer her journey of realization in honour of her brother and repairing herself both within and out.

In “Twelfth Night” Viola’s decision to take on the role as Cesario came with a lot more struggles than she was anticipating. With trying to pretend to be somebody Viola wasn’t, her own character and qualities were gradually fading away. With her recollection of her brother drowning at sea when he was young she takes on the role as him with the name as Cesario. The reminder of her brother while playing the role impacts her in grief of his remembrance. The false identity created obstacles for her in her personal life with love and fully being able to feel loved by another person. The role as Cesario was affecting her self-identification with the constant lies and secrets of her false identity. With her new life being shaped around the role as Cesario, her own self is being knocked down in the process and often forgotten. With the weight of deception pressing causing the unravelling of her secret, Viola will be the only one to set her true self free.

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The Steep and Rocky Path of Finding Oneself in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” . (2020, December 14). WritingBros. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from
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