A Critical Scene in Twelfth Night

Our group was assigned the play Twelfth Night for performance, and we chose Act IV Scene I. Twelfth Night is a play that turns normal social constructs upside-down, particularly gender roles. The title of the play, as we have learned in class, points to this reversal by referring to the twelfth night of Christmas celebration, which at the time was a night of “turning things on their heads.” We are introduced almost immediately in the play to the way that things will be confused, when one of the lead characters—Viola—decides to dress up as a man to serve the Duke. The scene we chose is a significant turning point in the play because this is when Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, first meets the characters with whom Viola has developed relationships. Viola has based her disguise as a male on her brother’s appearance and the people who know her as Cesario mistake Sebastian for her. Shakespeare uses this appearance of Sebastian to resolve complications in the plot that might otherwise result in chaos.

This scene is significant in performance, as we have learned by performing it, in that it provides audience members with an opportunity to see how the other characters react to Sebastian. Shakespeare uses this scene to show just how great the similarity is between the appearance of Sebastian and his disguised sister. The scene opens with Festy trying to relay a summons from Olivia to Sebastian, who he thinks is Cesario/Viola. He attempts to assume the same jovial relationship with Sebastion that he’d developed with Cesario, but Sebastian is not playful and tries to get rid of Festy, who never seems to get the hint that he’s being serious. This is when Andrew and Sir Toby enter, making the same mistake that Festy has made. They immediately resume their conflicts with Sebastian when their vendetta is actually directed at Cesario. Finally, Olivia enters, who proceeds to insist on an answer to her advances from Sebastian, when she’s fallen in love with Cesario. As a performance issue, this serves to make it abundantly clear to the audience that the resemblance between brother and disguised sister is striking. The ease with which the two characters are confused is necessary for the resolution to the play’s conflicts.

One of the central conflicts—which involves Olivia’s lines in this scene—is solved by the mistaken identity of Sebastian. When the play begins, Duke Orsino seeks to woo Olivia, who will have no suitor as she mourns her brother. She allows Cesario to come forth and present Orsino’s suit, but instead of accepting Orsino’s propositions, she falls in love with Cesario. Because Olivia believes that Sebastian is Cesario, a marriage is arranged in this scene between the two. And because Viola has developed a warm relationship with Orsino as Cesario, Orsino does not need to be terribly disappointed at losing Olivia to Sebastian. The appearance of Sebastian in this scene as a character who will accept Olivia’s advances frees Viola not only from Olivia’s pursuit, but also to reveal her true identity and her love for Orsino.

This scene is crucial to the peaceful resolution of the play. Sebastian’s appearance at this point in time serves both to redirect the homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships and to allow for a comic rather than tragic ending. Perhaps if Sebastian had never arrived, or worse—arrived too late, Viola’s true identity might have been revealed, resulting in the anger of both Orsino and Olivia. Perhaps she would have been killed or killed herself, and Sebastian would’ve had to attend her funeral. Perhaps a more fitting title for this play could’ve been All’s Well That Ends Well.

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