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Literature Studies: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Essay


William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is the play that concentrates on such important issues as love, friendship, and the distribution of gender roles in the society. However, in his play, Shakespeare presents the unique vision of the nature of personal relations and gender, and modern researchers agree that these issues are closely connected in the play with the concepts of sexuality, affection, and social expectations.

In spite of the fact that during the period of the English Renaissance the concept of gender was socially constructed and associated with a range of conventions, in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare reveals the social distribution of gender roles as a kind of illusion because of focusing on the role of affection in establishing interpersonal relations, and the author accentuates the idea with discussing the themes of cross-dressing and shifts in male and female roles.

To discuss this idea in detail and from the contemporary perspective, it is necessary to focus on the Shakespeare’s vision of gender as the illusion with references to the characters of Orsino, Olivia, Viola, and Sebastian and descriptions of their gender roles.

The specific role of gender in the play is emphasized with the focus on the opposition between traditional social visions of the female and male roles and the world of Twelfth Night in which feelings play the more important role in comparison with the social conventions. From this point, the Duke of Orsino is the main character in the play who is inclined to distinguish between male and female rights and roles determined by the social norms.

Being a noble man and following strict social norms, Orsino chooses Olivia as the woman to marry because of her aristocratic origin and high social status (Logan 225-226). Thus, Orsino supports his intentions to marry while vividly describing his affection, “O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, / Methought she purged the air of pestilence! / That instant was I turn’d into a hart” (Shakespeare 1). Logan states that Orsino’s affection is closely associated with his satisfaction because of the right choice of a woman to marry (Logan 226).

Orsino chooses to act according to the social rules and norms, and he demonstrates the social significance of the courtship conventions, according to which the roles of males and females are strictly determined. For instance, music is discussed as one of the most important elements to accompany the courtship procedures, and Orsino discusses the music as the ‘food of love’ (Schalkwyk 82).

Noble men in love tried to tell about their feelings with the help of music and romantic songs, and they sent a person who could tell the chosen woman about her admirer’s love. Performing his male role in courtship, Orsino sends Viola/Cesario as a page to tell Olivia about his love, “My lord and master loves you: O, such love / Could be but recompensed, though you were crown’d / The nonpareil of beauty!” (Shakespeare 15). Referring to the Duke’s actions, it is possible to note that Orsino is the example of a man for whom social norms are significant, and he follows them properly.

Furthermore, Orsino’s focus on traditions also explains his focus on the distribution of gender roles and his biased discussion of women’s roles. Thus, depicting his affection and ability to love, Orsino states, “There is no woman’s sides / Can bide the beating of so strong a passion / As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart / So big, to hold so much; they lack retention” (Shakespeare 28).

Women’s hearts appear to be not very big to feel the passion similar to Orsino’s one because women’s “love may be call’d appetite”, and Orsino’s love is “all as hungry as the sea” (Shakespeare 28).

These Orsino’s words provide the audience with the opportunity to understand that this male character is significantly focused on differences in male and female roles while discussing the social and personal relations. That is why, the Duke of Orsino can be discussed as an illustration of masculinity, because this man is ready to pursue his dreams and goals while acting rather decisively.

Nevertheless, the first time when the audience can realize the presentation of gender roles in the play as the illusion is the situation when Olivia breaks Orsino’s plans and avoids the marriage. It is expected that Olivia should agree to marry Orsino after learning about the Duke’s love.

However, Olivia challenges the norms and the traditional distribution of roles in the society. Focusing on Olivia’s behavior, it is possible to note that her role is determined not only by her gender but also by her social status. Discussing Olivia’s actions and words, Logan states that Olivia “speaks to Cesario / Sebastian from a position of power, arranging rendezvous as she chooses” (Logan 226).

From this perspective, Olivia demonstrates the acquisition of the active role typical for men because of her social position. Olivia remains passive till she is not interested in the man’s courtship. This position explains the challenge experienced by Orsino when Olivia spurns his courtship because of falling in love with Cesario. In the research, Charles pays attention to the fact that Olivia is too active and decisive in her actions while focusing on the idea to win the love of the page (Charles 130).

Thus, Olivia does not need male clothes to act like males, and she allows herself acting like a man because of concentrating on the desired male. Olivia demonstrates her affection openly and passionately. Speaking to Cesario, Olivia states, “I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride, / Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide” (Shakespeare 38).

Olivia’s words mean that she is so decisive in her actions that she is ready to break all the rules and norms and to demonstrate her passion in spite of the logical laws. Logan supports the idea that falling in love with disguised Viola, Olivia chooses to act as the man in this pair because of the necessity to win the love of the androgynous page (Logan 225).

As a result, the gender roles are mixed, and they become the illusion because the Olivia and Viola/Cesario are inclined to act not according to the social norms and standards, but according to the situations and their own desires. Thus, Viola chooses to change the clothes and receive the job as a man.

Olivia makes her decision and asks a man to marry her, thus, playing an active role in building her own destiny. On the contrary, such researchers as Shulman and Logan state that the Duke of Orsino and Sebastian are rather passive at times (Logan 230; Shulman 99). The described behavioral patterns emphasize Shakespeare’s focus on ignoring the conventions and presenting his vision of the gender roles in the society.

Focusing on the character of Viola, it is important to remember that the young woman spends much time while being in disguise, and for everyone else she is a male who has to act correspondingly. That is why, Viola becomes active only when she is wearing male clothes and when her identity is hidden. The first signs of Viola’s decisiveness are observed when she thinks over the opportunity to find the job at Olivia’s households.

Thus, Viola claims, “O that I served that lady, / And might not be delivered to the world, / Till I had made mine own ocassion mellow, / What my estate is!” (Shakespeare 3). According to Hunt, Viola’s words indicate her readiness to act decisevely, without paying attention to her gender role and social expectations (Hunt 8).

The character of Viola demonstrates the subtle nature of gender roles in Shakespeare’s play vividly because of involving the idea of cross-dressing. Logan supports the view that Shakespeare manipulates the people’s vision of gender as the set of characteistics and qualities attributed to women and men because of their typical appearance (Logan 231).

As a result, the change in clothes is associated with the change in actions, and Viola’s sexuality and gender are perceived by the play’s characters through the focus on her dress. According to Logan, the possibility of disguise suggests that “there is something arbitrary about identity, and a disguise that involves a change of gender similarly suggests that our apprehension of sexual identity is mutable and susceptible to illusion” (Logan 231). Viola’s gender becomes a kind of illusion because it is mainly perceived only with references to her clothes and appearance.

Viola/Cesario’s relations with Olivia makes the idea of gender in Twelfth Night even more illusory and accentuated actively only with references to the character of Orsino because Olivia falls in love with a woman who looks like a man. According to Charles, cross-dressing and the relations between Viola/Cesario and Olivia are important to “demonstrate that erotic attraction is not an inherently gendered or heterosexual phenomenon” (Charles 124).

From this point, the illusory nature of gender in the play can be discussed from two perspectives. On the one hand, the characters of the play are inclined to speak about gender roles only as the social attributes and as the response to social standards, and they refer to their feelings while choosing the lover (Amir 290).

On the other hand, focusing on the lovers’ appearance, the characters of the play expect the lovers’ definite actions determined by their appearance, and as a result, gender (Barber 230). That is why, looking at Viola as at Cesario, Olivia expects definite actions typical for a man, as it was in case with Orsino’s courtship. Thus, the performance of cross-dressing “can be disruptive” for the characters of the play (Charles 123).

Sebastian is another character in Twelfth Night who is inclined to combine both feminine and masculine features. The combination of the male and female features is remarkable while discussing Sebastian’s relations with Antonio and Olivia. Logan pays attention to the fact that Sebastian takes a passive role in the love relations and friendship, and this role is more characteristic for women. Antonio, Sebastian’s friend, loves him as the wise friend and partner (Logan 226).

At the same, time Olivia encounters Sebastian and asks him to marry her because she thinks of him as Cesario. Though Sebastian falls in love with Olivia immediately, he does not begin to act as the man in love relations. According to Logan, Sebastian enjoys the attention of Antonio and Olivia, and he “allows them to present him with lavish gifts” (Logan 232).

This ‘passive’ role is not expected to be performed by men, and it is explained in the play with references to Sebastian’s appearance which makes the other characters discuss Sebastian as feminine (Lindheim 681). At the same time, Sebastian is also ready to defend ladies when it is necessary (Barber 276). Shulman stresses that Sebastian’s “sword-fighting” makes him very different from “the more timid and intellectual Cesario” (Shulman 102).

In this situation, Sebastian clearly reveals his masculinity. Furthermore, the mix of attributes is closely associated with the fact that Sebastian and Viola are twins. Thus, “An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin / Than these two creatures” (Shakespeare 66). That is why, only their performed identities and worn clothes make the people discuss the twins as the male and female. This idea is important to support the view that Shakespeare blurs the lines between the genders of the presented characters intentionally.

Referring to the mixed gender roles in Twelfth Night, it is possible to assume that though gender roles were distributed in the English society in a certain way, it was acceptable to switch roles in the theatre.

Discussing the tradition of cross-dressing not only in the comedies but also in the theatre, Charles notes that “the English Renaissance popularity of both the all-male stage companies and plays about gender switching reflects a social and cultural fascination with the subject who symbolized the bodily cite of this gender ambiguity” (Charles 125).

Furthermore, Lindheim pays attention to the fact that the situation that women were not allowed to perform on stage added to the vividness of the play’s conflicts significantly (Lindheim 681). As a result, the situation of cross-dressing on stage and in the play often contributed to the audience’s confusion because it was difficult to understand what character is on stage.

Logan claims that that approach contributed to the creation of the specific atmosphere of a comedy of disguised identity (Logan 233). That is why, the genders of Viola and Sebastian are rather illusory and expressed only through the context.

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night can be discussed as the play which presents the vision of gender roles as the social convention which can be easily ignored while focusing on the feelings and emotions. The illusory nature of the distribution of gender roles is accentuated in the play with references to the role of appearance in discussing persons as men or women. That is why, the socially constructed idea of gender cannot be revealed effectively in the play where the main accents are put on cross-dressing and mixed identities

. From this point, Shakespeare seems to criticize the traditional social visions of gender roles and present the characters of the play as the embodiments of attributes and qualities which cannot be typical for them because of their gender. As a result, there are few differences between Viola and Sebastian, Olivia acts to emphasize her decisiveness, and only Orsino follows the traditional vision of gender.

Works Cited

Amir, Ala. “Dramatic Irony in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night”. Journal of Missan Researchers 5.9 (2008): 289-318. Print.

Barber, Cesar Lombardi. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.

Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night”. Theatre Journal 49.2 (1997): 121-141. Print.

Hunt, Maurice. “Viola/Cesario, Caesarean Birth, and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night”. The Upstart Crow 21.1 (2001): 7-14. Print.

Lindheim, Nancy. “Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night.” University of Toronto Quarterly 76.2 (2007): 679-713. Print.

Logan, Thad Jenkins. “Twelfth Night: The Limits of Festivity”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22.2 (1982): 223-238. Print.

Schalkwyk, David. “Music, Food, and Love in the Affective Landscapes of Twelfth Night”. Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays. Ed. James Schiffer. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013. 81-99. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, or, What You Will, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997. Print.

Shulman, Rachel. “Resolution, or Lack Thereof in Twelfth Night.” The Delta 2.1 (2007): 98-104. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, March 19). Literature Studies: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/literature-studies-william-shakespeares-twelfth-night/

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"Literature Studies: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night." IvyPanda, 19 Mar. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/literature-studies-william-shakespeares-twelfth-night/.

1. IvyPanda. "Literature Studies: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night." March 19, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/literature-studies-william-shakespeares-twelfth-night/.


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IvyPanda. "Literature Studies: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night." March 19, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/literature-studies-william-shakespeares-twelfth-night/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Literature Studies: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night." March 19, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/literature-studies-william-shakespeares-twelfth-night/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Literature Studies: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night'. 19 March.

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