"I am not what I am", a quote that echoes from more than one of William Shakespeare's characters in "Othello" as well as "Twelfth Night." The quote serves many purposes, allowing the individual to see that somehow the true self is usually always hidden. In William Shakespeare's comedy, "Twelfth Night, or, What You Will," Viola, the protagonist and main character disguises herself as a male in order to protect herself while in search of her twin brother who got separated when they were shipwrecked; and becomes Orsino's servant to try to win his love.
To commence with, masquerades allowed people to break away from the trappings of self and identity and become someone contrary to who they actually were. As we find out in the play, it also functions as a way to protect the disguised person. Viola, who believes her twin brother Sebastian to be dead from the shipwreck, finds a way to protect herself since she has no other family or relatives to care for her. She has been cast up on the shore of a strange land. Not surprisingly, her very first words indicate confusion and a sense of despair and disorientation: "What country, friends is this? . . . And what should I do in Illyria." But she moves out of her dismay to engage others around her, to ask for help. In her initial circumstances, a woman alone surrounded by strange men in a strange country, she has every reason to be afraid.
Given some reassurance, she seizes upon a slender hope and initiates a plan. She knows she's taking a dangerous chance (after all, the Captain might abuse her trust), but within a few moments, she is offering him money (again a potentially dangerous act) and within moments she is moving purposefully away with a plan and a group around her. The initial confusion and despair are being addressed with courage and hope. The shift in her situation from the beginning of the scene to the end of it may not seem like much, but it sets the rhythm of her encounters with life and establishes for us the major outline of her character.
For all the similarities between As You Like It and Twelfth Night, however, there are some obvious differences, all of which tend to stress that Viola's task is considerably more difficult than Rosalind's and that the happy outcome is much more in doubt and less unambiguously celebratory than in As You Like It. Prominent among these differences is the fact that Viola has far less freedom and authority than Rosalind does. Viola may be dressed up as a man, but Cesario is a servant to the man she loves and has to act on his misguided instructions. She certainly cannot challenge him directly or engage in complex role-playing games as Rosalind can freely do. Moreover, the love Olivia expresses for Viola complicates this issue, because Viola/Cesario is not free to treat Olivia as she might like. She lacks the face-to-face equality Rosalind has with Orlando, a freedom which frees Rosalind to initiate the courtship games and to address Orlando as an equal.
Viola's situation is further complicated by the fact that Orsino is in love with the idea of love and hence it is much more difficult to move him out of his emotional wallowing. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that Orsino is a man capable of a violent streak when thwarted (there's a much more powerful and vulnerable ego working in him than in Orlando). Similarly the complication of Olivia's feelings introduce complexities which are not easy for Viola to solve, because Olivia is also a person with some authority and because Viola cannot confront Olivia as she might like to without offending Orsino.
Viola, in other words, cannot take charge of her courtship. She has to hang on in shifting circumstances where other people are in charge and hope things will work out in the end. In that sense, she is more passive than Rosalind, or at least less of an actor than a reactor. The happy outcome at the end of the play is less of a tribute to her ability to shape events than to her faith in love, her ability to endure in difficult circumstances, and to win through because of her enduring faith in people.
Many would question why Viola would want to be in disguise to begin with, but she does so for protection because she has no father and believes that her brother has died in the shipwreck. If Orsino found out who she really is, a female dressed up as a man she would be a female alone in the world with no protector. If Viola's true identity was revealed earlier in the play, the play would fall apart. Not only would she lose any chances of survival, but also the trust of Orsino and Olivia. Although at times she lets certain things slip about her identity, it is never revealed because the characters are blind to what she's saying as their minds are somewhere else at that point in time.