Tracing Deformity in Shakespeare 4.0: Twelfth Night, Or What You Will

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This series focuses on the deformities found in some of Shakespeare’s plays and we examine the possibility that Shakespeare makes these deformities ambiguous in order to complicate what it actually means to be deformed. The deformities we discuss in this series range from physical and mental deformities to deformities of language. It is recommended that readers have read or have a grasp of the specific play before reading this analytical series. Direct quotes of the text come from the Second Edition of The Norton Shakespeare, unless otherwise noted.

1a. n. The quality or condition of being marred or disfigured in appearance; disfigurement; unsightliness, ugliness.
4a. figurative. Moral disfigurement, ugliness, or crookedness.
5. Misused for deformity, n., difference or diversity of form; want of uniformity or conformity.



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Set in a topsy-turvy world like a holiday revel, this comedy devises a romantic plot around separated twins, misplaced passions, and mistaken identity. Juxtaposed to it is the satirical story of a self-deluded steward who dreams of becoming “Count Malvolio” only to receive his comeuppance at the hands of the merrymakers he wishes to suppress. The two plots combine to create a farce touched with melancholy, mixed throughout with seductively beautiful explorations on the themes of love and time, and the play ends, not with laughter, but with a clown’s sad song. GOODREADS


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As this series acknowledges, Shakespeare plays with the word ‘deformity’ to possibly show the depth and breadth it’s definition.  

In Twelfth Night, Viola dresses up as a man, Cesario, in order to find a job in Illyria. She ends up working for Count Orsino, where she is directed to woo Olivia into marrying him. Here, Viola is dressed as the fictional Cesario.

Viola dressed as Cessario (left) & Olivia (right).         MANUEL HARLAN

For the Elizabethans, ‘disguise’ still retained its primary sense of strange apparel… But it also carried the senes of ‘concealment’ and of deformity. —“SEXUAL DISGUISE IN AS YOU LIKE IT AND TWELFTH NIGHT” – NANCY K. HAYLES, p. 160

Viola’s cross-dressing could be seen as a misused version of the word ‘deformity’ according the the Oxford English Dictionary (cited above, 5). Her “difference or diversity of form” shows her “want of uniformity.” Those who would argue her cross-dressing as a deformity of her sex are proven wrong because it is simply her “diversity of form.” By posing as a man—Cesario—Viola is able to seek work and utilize her “diversity of form” in order to prove her “want of uniformity” because if she were her womanly self, she would not be able to acquire a job in Illyria. 

With this sixteenth-century viewpoint, the ‘deformed’ Viola condenses Olivia’s and Orsino’s ‘monstrous’ loves. In Orsino’s and Olivia’s unpromising reactions to the androgynous image of Viola-Cesario, Shakespeare denies a classic claim for the salutary relationshop between androgyny and understanding. —LOVE, DISGUISE, AND KNOWLEDGE IN “TWELFTH NIGHT” – Maurice Hunt

In the course of Twelfth Night, Viola believes her twin, Sebastian, died at sea—and Sebastian believes the same of her. However, they are both alive, well, and in Illyria. 

In a case of mistaken identity of twins, Viola and Sebastian, Antonio feels betrayed. Antonio has been the inseparable friend of Sebastian for several months since the shipwreck and now feels as though Sebastian has forgotten him. However, Antonio addresses Sebastian’s twin, Viola, dressed as a man, and she has no idea who he is:

But O, how vile an ideal proves this god!
Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there’s no blemish but the mind;
None can be called deformed but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks o’er-flourished by the devil.
The Norton Shakespeare, 3.4.329-334

Antonio believes that Sebastian is being “unkind” by not remembering him—even though Antonio is speaking to Sebastian’s twin, Viola, dressed up as a man—Cesario. Antonio is explaining that Sebastian is very handsome, but is mentally deformed because he does not know who Antonio is.

Antonio argues that anyone can be beautiful and still have a deformity of the mind by being “unkind.” Here, Shakespeare alludes to how even if someone has a physical malformation, they can still be mentally deformed. 

Antonio also alludes to a similar fascination with inner and outer beauty—or deformity—that Albany has in KING LEAR of Goneril and that Othello has of Iago in OTHELLO. Antonio describes how Sebastian still looks the same, but has become devious internally—because Antonio is really speaking to Sebastian’s twin, Viola, dressed as Cesario.

This divisiveness causes Antonio to call Cesario (Viola) beautiful on the outside, but, essentially, deformed on the inside—relating her to an empty box constructed by the devil. That is, Antonio believes Sebastian to be perfect on the outside and the devil incarnate on the inside because Cesario (Viola) does not know who Antonio is. This relates to OTHELLO and KING LEAR, where Othello and Albany also view Iago or Goneril as the incarnate devil. 

In Shakespeare’s hands, sexual disguise illuminates not only the relationship of woman to man, but also the relation of appearance to reality and human beings to forces more than human. The multiplicity of meanings with which Shakespeare invests the disguise does not really ‘disentangle the perplexity [of seeing] a boy play a woman playing a man’, but it provides the thematic counterpart to that complexity of vision, and so orders it into one aesthetic whole. —“SEXUAL DISGUISE IN AS YOU LIKE IT AND TWELFTH NIGHT” – NANCY K. HAYLES, p. 123

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare plays with the word ‘deformity’ to possibly show the malleability it’s defintion. This furthers the notion that Shakespeare could be creating a larger commentary on what it actually means to be deformed. 

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