Twelfth Night is a lighter piece by William Shakespeare, and a good break from the usual tragedies and histories he is most well-known for. The play challenges the traditional gender roles of the time by putting a woman (Viola) into a very convincing man’s disguise. She is so convincing that Olivia falls in love with her and Orsino never notices. The play also follows a subplot which finds Malvolio questioning his sanity in a dark room while wearing yellow stockings. Students are likely to laugh at this play, be intrigued by the themes of deceit, disorder, madness, the triviality of love, and wonder at the implausibility of such a case of mistaken identity ever happening today!
The part of Viola was played by a teenage boy on Shakespeare’s stage, which adds to the plot twist of Viola being in disguise as Cesario throughout the play. When theatre was in its infancy in England, women were not allowed to perform in plays because the profession was not deemed to be a credible one. Have students explore this unusual set of circumstances in Elizabethan Theatre.
Likely, many students will not find Viola’s disguise so plausible that she fools so many people. Likewise, they may also not understand why Malvolio is so gullible to Feste’s priest ruse. However, cases of mistaken identity happen all the time! Have students check out these famous cases of mistaken identity, some serious and some silly, and discuss the cases. In particular, students may want to explore if racial profiling plays a role in cases of mistaken identity in some of the criminal cases listed below: