In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare constantly alludes to the contrast between darkness and light by the use of secrets, mistaken identities and the contrast between sanity and insanity. With this motif Shakespeare shows us that if we act on first impressions without the true knowledge of the entity of the situation or character, then the misinformed motives will surely be in vain; and our efforts futile. Creating much dysfunction within the play, Viola’s manly disguise as Cesario creates confusion between Olivia, whom is in love with Viola’s disguise, along with Orsino, who is unable to explain his infatuation with Cesario.
When we are first introduced to Olivia, she refuses to be courted by the Duke Orsino or Sir Andrew Aguecheek, claiming to be mourning the death of her father and brother for seven years. Yet her story quickly changes once Cesario (Olivia) enters the equation. Calling Orsino’s love a “heresy” as Viola delivers a message from the Duke seems ironic because of the fact that Olivia actually falls in love with the woman carrying the message (1. 5. 205). This prime example of mistaken identity causes Olivia’s attempts at winning Cesario’s love seem feeble and ignorant, especially as she sends off Malvolio to deliver a ring to her new found love.
With every time Viola declines Olivia’s love, Olivia’s affection only grows stronger and more determined toward Cesario, only stoking the already blazing fire of smoldering misunderstanding, causing the heavy plume of chaos and dysfunction to climb higher and higher into the sky of the human psyche until the situation’s melting point is reached and the truth alone is left. Just as the reader feels the awkwardness of Olivia’s love for Cesario, the feeling is just as potent for Orsino’s love for Viola.
Although it is perfectly natural for Orsino to have the feelings he does for Viola, the reader experiences awkwardness equal to that of Olivia’s feelings simply because Orsino believes that Viola is actually Cesario, yet has this unexplainable attraction to his new best friend. Yet, in Orsino’s case, the reader feels sympathy for the poor guy, as though he is being tricked into doubting and second-guessing his instincts by Viola. While the ones around her suffer from being kept in the dark, Viola is certainly not immune to the effects of her deception.
Along with keeping her safe, Viola’s disguise also hinders her from bringing her affection for Orsino into light. This inability to portray her true emotions only thickens the broth of the plot stew that Shakespeare has been concocting since “If music be the food of love, play on” (1. 1. 1. ). After being plagued by darkness and deception for most of the play, the revelation of Viola’s true identity douses the fire of misconstruction and single-handedly overthrows the terrible tyranny of misconception that so violently ruled these humble people for far too many acts.
Once her true identity is out in the open for everyone to gaze upon, Orsino wastes no time in having her hand in marriage. Although he knows her true gender, Cesario says to Viola “Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never should’st love woman like to me” (5. 1. 260–261). This resolution would seemingly leave Olivia in the dumps, yet the joyous light cast by Viola’s ability to muster up the strength to shine calls Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother) into the scene, who elopes with Olivia without thinking twice.
Even once everything is revealed, Orsino continues to address Viola by her male name. We can thus only wonder whether Orsino is truly in love with Viola, or if he is more enamored of her male persona. Orsino’s declaration of love to Viola suggests that he enjoys prolonging the pretense of Viola’s masculinity. This example of the darkness versus light motif reinforces the common conception that truth will always prevail. In a world which ambiguity and obscurity play part in everyday life, utter chaos and misapprehension are sure to follow.
While in such a world where the truth never dies, and is set on a gleaming pedestal set in the spotlight, the inhabitants rest their heads on their pillow easily with the certainty of their surroundings; no reason to second guess the identity of their peers nor their own. A world in which truth is shrouded in lies is as useful as a colony of blind worker bees, everyone swarming around aimlessly looking for their flower.
Yet when the wax clears from their eyes they are able to see the brilliant colors that they have been missing; as when the truth is revealed, lies washed away, and everyone is able to look on each other with a different light, seeing everyone as they really are. Although no characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night are seriously insane, it would certainly be a stretch to say that they are perfectly sane, seeing as most of them have a skewed view of the world around them.
Shakespeare uses the fine line between sanity and insanity to model the motif of Darkness as opposed to Light. An exemplary example of this witty metaphor is Malvolio’s sorry situation when he tries to flatter Olivia. When Malvolio wears overly eccentric clothes, everyone begins to get suspicious; when he begins speaking of a letter from Olivia (that she never wrote), then the other characters are absolutely positive that he has lost his mind. Due to his unruly and unorthodox behavior, Malvolio is sequestered in a dark room.
It is no coincidence that the seemingly mentally ill has been put in a dingy chamber. Shakespeare is using this tragic scene to reveal the difference between the sane, which see the world through a finely polished set of spectacles, and the insane, which see the same scenery, yet as if they were looking through an enormous kaleidoscope. While the balanced have a fairly straightforward view of their surroundings, or are enlightened, while the unhinged seem to have a shady and backwards outlook on the environment.
When Feste poses as Sir Topas as he confronts Malvolio in the dark room, Malvolio pleads with him saying “Sir Topas, nobody’s ever been as badly treated as I’ve/ been. Good Sir Topas, don’t believe I’m insane, / They’ve shut me up here in horrible darkness”(4. 2. 26-28). This quotation poses a pivotal question, is one inherently deranged, or could the sinister actions of others cause one to become unstable over time? This case undoubtedly reinforces the latter of the two, as a forged letter given to Malvolio, meant to mislead him and make him look like an idiot, clouded his vision of his relationship with Olivia.
Once he superimposed his own reality, the others rejected his advances and deemed him unworthy of mingling with the rest of the crew. In his desperation, Malvolio exclaims “I tell you, this house is as dark as ignorance. And I tell you, no man has ever been treated worse than me. I’m no more insane than you are…”(4. 2. 40-42). At this point Malvolio has lost all sense of human dignity and basic pride while at the hands of such malignant torment, and it is clear that the joke has lost its mere foolery, becoming something more sinister and torturous.
Shakespeare uses this imagery to show how those without knowledge are often left in the dark. It is Malvolio’s ultimate egotism which makes him an easy prey for the pranksters. The conspiracy, having accomplished its purpose in secretly humiliating Malvolio, should have then been revealed to him and brought to an end. However it seems that out of sheer cruelty and selfish fun, the pranksters continue the mockery, keeping Malvolio in the darkness of their cruel scheme.
They take its maliciousness to a further degree, convincing Olivia and other onlookers that Malvolio’s bizarre behavior is caused by his insanity rather than their own actions, thus dragging them into the darkness along with the real butt of the joke. At the same time they attempt to convince him of this through imprisoning him and twisting his words into those of a lunatic. The others make Malvolio out to be the ignorant and psychotic, he is actually just looking the broken glasses of a letter that was given to him, purposely meant to embarrass the unfortunate chap.
Malvolio himself knows that he is sane, and he accuses everyone around him of being mad. Shakespeare uses these examples darkness versus light to exemplify the flaws and strengths of humanity. Although, in the end, the first example worked out beautifully for each of the characters, the dismay, disillusion and confusion while Viola’s gender and identity were kept hidden in the darkness of her cloak belated this fairy tale ending and could have easily torn apart the lives of everyone involved.
While the target of the second situation, Malvolio, is much less fortunate than those of the first. Yet, once light prevails, everything is straightened out. Living in darkness, the human race is destined to fumble around, jamming toes and blaspheming. Only once we find that elusive switch to shed light on our surroundings will we gain the ability to efficiently move through our day-to-day lives, as illustrated by Shakespeare by his darkness and light motif.