How and why does Shakespeare use disguise to develop the comedy of 12th night? The use of disguise features throughout 12th night. As the play is a comedy it has to involve certain conventions such as green worlds and confusion, the inclusion of disguise allows Shakespeare to generate comedy and a positive response from the audience as well as making the conventions of comedy easier to include in the play. Shakespeare includes his first use of disguise early on in the play (A1:S2) where Viola asks the captain to ‘present me as an eunuch to him’.
This disguise goes on to become a crucial part of the play, and the relationship between ‘him’ (Orsino) and Viola. Because Shakespeare has Viola say this very early on in the play when the audience’s attention is still very focused as there has been no confusion up to this point, Shakespeare can use this disguise to create dramatic irony throughout the play, using the audience’s knowledge of Violas disguise to create awkward and amusing exchanges. An example of an exchange that uses this dramatic irony can be found in (A3:S1) ‘send thee a beard’ Feste says to Viola.
In the Globe production of 12th Night the audience burst out in laughter at the irony of this. The delivery of the actor of Viola is also used to generate comedy, the actors voice jumping from high to low as she has to remember she is acting as a boy. This is even funnier due to the fact when the play was first performed and often nowadays the cast was all male, causing the audience to see a man playing a woman who is disguised as a man, this causes great confusion and adds to the comedy.
Viola goes on to cause a lot of chaos within the green world of Illyria, most notably the relationship between herself and Olivia, the audience see Olivia falling for Viola and the confusion builds as the awkward love triangle is formed between Viola, Olivia and Orsino. This allows Shakespeare to set up the comedy structure which involves confusion being resolved at the end of the play by weddings. ‘Cesario, husband, stay! (Olivia A5:S1) At this point of the play Olivia has completely fallen for Viola (Cesario) which has caused chaos in the love triangle and sends the audience into fits of laughter. Another example of disguise is found in (A2:S5) before Malvolio comes onstage we see the stage direction ‘The men hide’ In the production of the play Sir Toby, Andrew and Fabian hide in a bush unknown to Malvolio who has just entered the stage however fully obvious to the audience as the men’s heads are visible through the bush.
This example shows further how disguise provokes dramatic irony. Malvolio is positioned center stage and is speaking aloud to himself which the men in the bush can hear clearly. Malvolio says that Sir Toby should ‘amend his drunkenness’ and says that he ‘wastes his time with a foolish knight’ which brings the response ‘That’s me’ from Sir Andrew. The positioning of the three men in a bush on stage causes the audience to laugh at how Malvolio is mocking them, further use of dramatic irony.
This scene develops further as Malvolio becomes the subject of ridicule from the men in the bush as he reads the letter. The audience hear the men in fits of laughter in the bush as Malvolio further deludes himself upon reading aloud the letter. In (A4:S2) Feste presents himself to the imprisoned Malvolio as ‘Sir Topaz the curate’ Taking on a disguise which requires no physical disguising as Malvolio cannot see Feste. The relevance of this disguise is in the name Feste gives himself. Topaz’ is a yellow stone which reminds the audience of Malvolio’s yellow garters worn earlier on in the play in his deluded attempt to woo Olivia. This mockery pokes fun at the already ridiculed Malvolio, who is addressed as ‘Malvolio the lunatic’ by Feste. The name ‘Sir Topaz’ brings refrence to the story of ‘Sir Thopas’ In Chaucher’s Tale. The tale is a parody of romances ironically relevant to Malvolio. When acting as Sir Topaz the actors delivery causes amusing confusion of Malvolio as he switches from speaking as Sir Topaz and as himself (Feste).
The refrences in the name Sir Topaz would appeal to the wit of some of the more educated members of the audience. In all of these examples the disguise is made obvious to the audience which creates dramatic irony. This dramatic irony is what causes all of these scenes to make the audience respond with laughter. Conventionally in comedy’s confusion plays a large part which shows why Shakespeare makes such good use of disguise as it leads to many different comedic scenes. Hayden Bowman