Twelfth Night is one of my favorite sixteenth/seventeenth century plays; not only is it hilariously entertaining, but Twelfth Night reveals much of about Elizabethan culture and social issues. The most obvious is perhaps gender, as Viola dresses as a man in order to gain independence and mobility on the strange island and the women have as much, if not more, active roles as the men. However, this reading, I’m more interesting in the importance of the servants than of the elite born main characters. Society relies heavily on an honors system in which people accept their class status, and act accordingly with honesty. Nonetheless, the comedic plots of Twelfth Night thrive on a web of lies that are believed because of the trust in everyone’s honesty. For instance, Act 1, Scene 2, lines 50-66:
There is a fair behavior in thee, captain;And though that nature with a beauteous wallDoth oft close in pollution, yet of theeI will believe thou hast a mind that suitsWith this thy fair and outward character.I prithee, and I’ll pay thee bounteously,Conceal me what I am, and be my aidFor such disguise as haply shall becomeThe form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke:Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:It may be worth thy pains; for I can singAnd speak to him in many sorts of musicThat will allow me very worth his service.What else may hap to time I will commit;Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.
Be you his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be:When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see. (1.2.50-66)
Here, Viola relies on the Captain to provide her vital information of her surroundings, the Duke and Olivia, as well as the Captain’s status as a trusted official to ironically lie to the Duke about Viola’s gender and status. This is a contradiction of social honor because if the Captain acted with honor, he wouldn’t like to the Duke; but at the same time, he is honorable following Viola’s orders. Once employed as a lesser nobleman in the Duke’s court, Viola continues to deceive both the Duke, whom she loves, and Olivia, who loves her, but is only successful because of their trust in Viola’s inherent honesty and honor. Later, Sir Toby and Maria are able to trick Malvolio into thinking Olivia is in love with him because Malvolio trusts that the forged letter is genuine. That is to say, for Malvolio it is more logical for a noble woman such as Olivia to be in love with him than it is for the letter to be a forgery from her servant. There is historical precedent for noblewomen falling in love with their higher status servants, such as Henry V’s widow Queen Catherine and Owen Tudor, but such marriages were so rare and fantastic. Thus the inherent trust in a servant’s honesty was strong enough to delude the Duke and Olivia into thinking Viola is a young man, and Malvolio into thinking Olivia is in love with him. This trust also gives servants power within the lives of the nobility, and allows for much social mobility or power mobility within the hierarchy. As servants, Viola and Maria are far more active than their masters; and their influence on their masters and their worlds may represent or criticize the inner workings of Elizabethan court life.