Origins of Catfishing: Identity and Sexuality as Performance in Twelfth Night

“I am not that I play” (Norton, 459).

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is replete with mistaken identities, misinterpretations, and ambiguous sexualities. Not only are semblances feigned, but information is complicated and misconstrued through various mediums. The plot of Twelfth Night, much like that of The Importance of Being Ernest, is based on the inconsistencies between appearance and reality. Characters mask themselves in costumes to assume other identities. Romances are formed and fractured due to false information and recognition. Images of masking recur throughout the text, as brides walk “veiled” and Olivia “draws the curtains” to display her face (448, 460). Almost every character involves himself/herself in some sort of masking, whether that be through written word (Maria, Toby, and Fabian), spoken word (Feste), or appearance (Viola). Eventually, the “knot” becomes “too hard” to “untangle,” and characters are caught in their lies or in complicated situations (464). I could not help but to think of a similar phenomena that uses the internet to feign identity: Catfishing.

When one catfishes, he or she lures another into a relationship (often via social media) by false means or through a fictitious persona. The original 2010 documentary film depicts a man researching his online girlfriend and eventually tracking her down in person. The film has developed into a television series, the trailer to which I have posted below. The relationship between Viola (Cesario) and Olivia is somewhat similar to a catfishing, as Olivia is falsely convinced that Viola is a man. The letter from Maria to Malvolio more so resembles a traditional catfishing, because Maria has claimed someone else’s identity and written falsely from them. The ambiguity of identity and relationships potentially implies a latent homosexuality within Twelfth Night, as described in greater detail through Zaralli’s case study of Marjorie Garber’s Vice Versa: Bisexuality and Eroticism of Everyday Life. According to Garber, homosexuality (and bisexuality) was considered a “practice” rather than an “identity” (Garber). She claims that bisexuality is present in many Shakespeare plays, though some less obviously. The relationship between Viola as Cesario and Orsino is particularly interesting, for though he is unaware of Viola’s interest in him, the two are incredibly close. Orsino trusts Viola, the man, with his secrets, and spends much of the play in close quarters with him. When Viola reveals her true identity as a woman, Orsino pursues her without hesitation, claiming that they will be married. Gender within the play additionally appears fluid, though ironically there is ample discussion on the temperament of women versus men, and the different ways in which both pursue romance. The notion of masking also relates to Zarrilli’s case study on Kabuki theater, a form of traditionally Japanese drama. Kabuki is very stylized, with sharp, specific movements. The actors wear masks to embody a character, and the masks themselves are inherently tied with the new personas. When in costume, the actor assumes the character entirely, and cannot be separated. Similar to Viola’s disguise, Kabuki theater uses costume as a way to portray a deeper transition from one person to another.

Zarrilli also discusses a case study of the comic, citing Henri Bergson’s: “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic.” According to Bergson, the comic utilizes “absurdity” and the “logic of the absurd” (Bergson). Comics “invert common sense,” often mixing “madness” and “dreams” with reality (Bergson). The uncertainty of sanity and reality, seen clearly through Malvolio’s deception, demonstrates the use of absurdist comedy within the play. The fool, Feste, additionally embodies this role of the comic, and often appears wiser and more cunning than many of the other characters. Viola states: “this fellow is wise enough to play the fool and to do that well craves a kind of wit” (Norton 478). The play mentions fools, politicians, and comedians, all of whom utilize some sort of performance to craft an identity. Feste is perhaps the most successful of the Twelfth Night characters at feigning a persona, for though he plays a fool, he is intelligent. Feste ultimately acquires a good amount of money for going along with what is asked of him.

I saw Kovaric’s chapter on television and the Global Village tangentially relating to the play in its discussion of the “illumination” that television could bring. With the rise of publicized political debates, information was able to spread more widely and accurately. The mention of quiz show deception was interesting, as the shows seemed to be the origins of modern “reality” television, complicating what is real and what is staged. The discussion of the Global Village related well to the play, as it provoked a “huge involvement in everyone else’s affairs.” Though the information in Twelfth Night is misconstrued, the notion of nosiness and secrecy is prevalent, leading characters to involve themselves in others’s situations, only to further complicate them.


Is it easier today to successfully feign an identity, with the prevalence of internet and social medias? Is it be more complicated to keep consistency through these mediums, or is it easier to distance one’s self from another through them?

I’m interested in Feste’s role as the fool, and am hoping to discuss him more. This is not a specific question, but more so a hope to discuss his function in the play and why he can successfully feign an identity when others cannot. Is it that he is always performing?

I am also interested in exploring gender roles, specifically relating to Shakespeare’s society. If bisexuality was seen as “practice,” and gender appears less of a concern romantically and sexually throughout the play, why are depictions of gender so stringent and polarizing in the text, particularly in terms of domestic roles and human nature.

Does the rise of television continue to promote reality as a performance? Everyday events such as the news, political debates, and sports, are now mediated through a box that inherently places them in the realm entertainment. Is this similar to Twelfth Night’s intentional deception of character’s feigning reality?

Another topic that I think we should is the relation between one’s appearance and one’s interiority. There is ample discussion within the play about outer beauty and inner maliciousness: “nature with a beauteous wall doth oft close in pollution” (Norton 449). How does the internet, with photoshop, affect this notion? Does there need to be discord between appearance and one’s interior?

Catfish Season 1 Trailer:



Works Cited:

Bergson, Henri. “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comicby Henri Bergson.” Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic. Authorama, n.d. Web. <>.

Garber, Marjorie B. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. <>.