Love in Disguise: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night


A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid:
love’s night is noon.
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Act III. Scene II) 

Love is a growing, or full constant light, 
And his first minute, after noon, is night.
John DonneA Lecture Upon the Shadow 

William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (1601-1602) begins with two twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated by shipwreck. Viola is rescued by a captain, who brings her to shore in a foreign land, Illyria. She believes her brother Sebastian is dead, but the Captain encourages her:

Assure yourself, after our ship did split,
When you and those poor number saved with you
Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,
Most provident in peril, bind himself,
Courage and hope both teaching him the practice,
To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;
Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back,
I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves
So long as I could see.

The captain then tells Viola of the Duke of Illyria, Duke Orsino,

A noble duke, in nature as in name,

and helps Viola craft a plan to disguise herself in her brother’s likeness and, in doing so, gain access to the Duke by representing herself as a male eunuch (named ‘Cesario’) for his service. The plan is successful, and Viola (as Cesario) gains enough favor with the Duke to be appointed a special task: to send messages of love to Countess Olivia, the woman with whom the Duke is infatuated.

A tangled, comedic love-circle builds from this: Viola (as Cesario) develops affection for the Duke Orsino, who is attempting to woo Olivia; but Olivia falls in love with Cesario, whom the Duke sends to woo her on his behalf. Therefore, Olivia’s messages of rejection given to the Duke are good news to Viola-dressed-as-Cesario, who herself loves him. The Duke develops a deep appreciation for Cesario, his faithful courier of love messages, without knowing that his delivery of the messages actually hinders their desired effect: Olivia ignored the Duke and his messages in her attraction to the messenger.

Naturally, the cross-dressing and the affection between characters of the same sex (the Duke’s intense admiration for Viola-as-Cesario, Olivia’s attraction to Viola-as-Cesario), have led to many discussions of homo-eroticism, sexuality and gender identity in the scholarship surrounding Twelfth Night. I will steer clear of all of this, instead commenting on the role of disguise in the successful development of love by integrating  John Donne’s philosophy of love as depicted in his poem A Lecture Upon the Shadow.
For Donne, disguise is a natural and necessary aspect of the development of love. Using the image of two people walking together as a metaphor for a relationship’s progression, he writes:

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
         These three hours that we have spent,
         Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produc’d.

The two members of the relationship, Donne makes clear, are responsible for producing their own disguises; just as shadows are invariably produced on a sunny day, so are disguises in the beginning of relationship, as he says further on,

So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadows, flow
From us, and our cares;

There is a tendency for us to consider all disguise as total falsity, and therefore immoral or wrong; Donne would adamantly disagree. Disguise in the early stages of a relationship is natural, inevitable, and therefore good. We all present our best in attempting to find a romantic partner–or we try to, at least. My experience on dating apps suggests that perhaps some people may not be very skilled at presenting their best to romantic prospects. But they still try to, and rightfully so.

Disguises, however, only play a limited role: they must carry the lovers to the edge of the reality; at some point, in Donne’s philosophy of love, there must come a great unveiling. The lovers are then laid bare, disguises are permanently dropped, and they walk in brave clarity from then forward.

But, now the sun is just above our head,
         We do those shadows tread,
         And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.

In Twelfth Night, this great unveiling comes at the very end of the play. The disguises, which comedically served love by severing it, are removed: Sebastian, Viola’s brother,  who survived the shipwreck after all, arrives in Illyria. Viola then takes off her Cesario disguise (which looks just like Sebastian), revealing her true identity. In a dramatic twist, the Duke then marries Viola; Olivia marries Sebastian (since she was so attracted to Cesario), and Maria marries Sir Toby. The disguises kindled the love between the characters, but the removal of the disguises consummated it. 

Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s play ends with the lovers’ weddings. We never learn what becomes of their marriages, what follows the dropping of disguises. We can, however,  continue with Donne.

Disguises, though necessary in the beginning of a relationship, destroy it if they enter in following the unveiling (when ‘to brave clearness all things are reduced‘):

If our loves faint, and westwardly decline,
         To me thou, falsely, thine,
         And I to thee mine actions shall disguise.
The morning shadows wear away,
But these grow longer all the day;
But oh, love’s day is short, if love decay.

Simultaneously romantic and realistic, Donne warns of the fleetingness of love. Following the infancy stages of love, even small shadows ‘grow longer all the day,’ and cause ‘love’s decay,’ for

Love is a growing, or full constant light,
And his first minute, after noon, is night.

And Olivia echoes,

Love’s night is noon.

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