A Double Life - By Akiva Fox, Literary Associate, Shakespeare Theatre Company

When Shakespeare wrote about twins, he wrote from experience. In early 1585, his wife, Anne, had given birth to fraternal twins. Not long after, Shakespeare traveled to London to make his name in theater. One of his first efforts as a playwright was an adaptation of an old Roman play about a pair of separated identical twins who reunite on one frantic day in Ephesus. Called The Comedy of Errors, the play hinged on mistaken identity; Shakespeare even added a second set of twins to compound the confusion and hilarity.

By 1596, Shakespeare had become one of the most successful playwrights in London. But that summer, tragic news came from home: Hamnet, his only son, had died. Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, was 11 years old. The next time Shakespeare wrote a play featuring twins, the twinning served as much more than a gimmick. Twelfth Night opens with a young woman named Viola washing up on an unfamiliar shore, convinced that her twin brother has died in their shipwreck. Distraught and alone, she takes an unusual step to protect herself: she puts on her lost brother’s clothes and sets off into Illyria disguised as a boy.

Viola’s choice may be as much emotional as it is pragmatic. In her study The Lone Twin, the British psychotherapist Joan Woodward writes that after the death of a twin, “one of the ways that guilt feelings were expressed by many of the lone twins was in their attempt to ‘live for two.’” More than just a woman in disguise, Viola becomes a double creature comprising both herself and her brother. She all but admits this when she cryptically tells her master Orsino that she is “all the daughters of my father’s house, and all the brothers too.” She even embeds this doubling in the name she chooses: Cesario, which comes from the Latin word for “cut” or “split.”

Viola’s doubleness (and the miraculous reappearance of her brother Sebastian) gives rise to the mistaken identity and unrequited love that drive the comedic engine of Twelfth Night. But just as the similarity between Viola and Sebastian causes confusion, so, too, does their oppositeness. Unaware of the twinning, characters are baffled when Cesario suddenly switches from brave to cowardly, assertive to reserved, lusty to shy. Cesario—and by extension Viola—is a walking contradiction.

Twelfth Night is full of such contradictory twins. The play begins in a state of mourning; like Viola, the noblewoman Olivia has lost her father and brother and determines to mourn within her house for seven years. Her steward Malvolio encourages this mourning, in part because it allows him greater control over her. On the opposing side, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch declares that “care’s an enemy to life” and spends his days in drunken revelry. But when love enters the scene and the characters all move from extreme mourning to extreme revelry, these apparent opposites reveal their similarity. “Toby’s misrule and Malvolio’s excessive rule are really two sides of the same coin,” writes the scholar Marjorie Garber. “Both are aimless, fruitless, and preoccupied with sterile formalities.” The same could be said for the twinned opposites pain and pleasure, tears and laughter, and repression and release.

Once revelry and release replace mourning and repression, everyone in Twelfth Night falls in love. But instead of falling in love with a person, they fall in love with their idealized image of that person—a kind of shadowy twin. Orsino, who burns with love for Olivia despite hardly knowing her, confesses that he is smitten only by the “image of the creature that is beloved.” “I am not what I am,” Viola warns a love-smitten Olivia, but Olivia replies, “I would you were as I would have you be.” Even Malvolio convinces himself that Olivia loves him, imagining an elaborate fantasy of his life as “Count Malvolio.”

Only one character sees without the double vision induced by excess: Olivia’s jester, Feste. He believes in the “whirligig of time,” named for a spinning toy. Over time, mourning spins to revelry and back again in an endless cycle. Fame and status come and go, and the least person soon becomes the greatest. People fall in and out of love, experiencing exhilaration and dejection anew each time. Feste’s position allows him to mock everyone alike, and he never misses an opportunity to puncture inflated extremes of love or despair. “What’s to come is still unsure,” he tells the other characters, urging them to live their lives free from all-or-nothing hysteria. In a world torn between the twins “all” and “nothing,” only Feste sees that reality lies in between.