Any Shakespearian comedy is timeless as these works reveal eternal issues which all generations have to solve. The Twelfth Night, for instance, concentrates on such issues as love, friendship, relationships between the man and the woman as well as the distribution of gender roles in the society. Of course, these are issues which can hardly be solved. Besides, each generation has specific views on the matter.
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Thus, people of the twenty-first century tend to see concepts other generations did not pay attention to. At present, lots of researchers focus on such concepts as gender roles and homosexuality as well as such conventional topics as the significance of the plot and subplots, analysis of characters, analysis of literary devises and so on. In this paper, I will consider distribution of gender roles in the Elizabethan era and contemporary world through analysis of the play.
In the first place, it is necessary to note that it is quite irrelevant to try to understand what Shakespeare wanted to stress. It is possible to contemplate about his desire to show women’s underprivileged position in the society (Lindheim 680). The playwright could have tried to say that a female could hardly exist in the society without a male.
Nonetheless, these contemplations will be rather groundless as it is impossible to find any information on this matter. At the same time, it is possible to trace the way people see the society through their appreciation and evaluation of the play. It is a well-known fact that any literary work (as well as the way people perceive it) reflects characteristics of the society.
The Twelfth Night reveals major characteristics of the Elizabethan society where males were powerful and decisive and where women had to be submissive and gentle. One of characteristic features of that time was people’s striving to adhere to conventions of Platonic love of Italian Renaissance. Thus, noble men used to create an image of their perfect lady who was idealized and worshiped (Schalkwyk 82). Duke Orsino’s decision to marry Olivia is an illustration of this practice.
Obviously, Duke Orsino does not really love Olivia as the real Olivia and the one the noble man created in his mind are totally different women. However, it could not bother the duke as he was absorbed by 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). The man is lovesick and he is willing to reveal his feelings.
Apparently, Shakespeare depicts an example of men who had the same love ideals. The fact that this relationship never starts can suggest that people of that period did not believe in such love any more. The fact that Duke Orsino chooses a woman he knows (even though she was in disguise) rather than marrying a woman he has created in his mind also shows the way people of Elizabethan era saw it. At present, people regard Duke Orsino’s love as something unreal and unworthy to take into account. This is seen as a comic element as if such type of love is ridiculed.
It is also important to note that Shakespearian play also depicts conventions of courtship. Music becomes one of the most important elements of this process (Schalkwyk 82). Men in love try to tell about their love with the help of music and romantic songs. Besides, it was appropriate to send a person who could tell the woman about her admirer’s love.
Viola appears in Olivia’s house as one of these messengers and tells about her “Master’s” 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). Therefore, nice words about love were also a part of courtship. Little has changed since the seventeenth century and women are still eager to hear about their admirer’s love and sufferings.
It is noteworthy that the role of women in courtship was to remain rather passive. It is expected that Olivia learns about Duke Orsino’s love and agrees to marry him. The woman should wait until the male tells her about his love and only after some courtship she agrees to marry him. The play starts with depiction of such a conventional order.
Interestingly, it also ends the same way as Viola reveals her identity and she is waiting for Duke Orsino to make her happy and marry her. When he says about her love, Viola gives her woes as well, “And all those sayings will I overswear” (Shakespeare 67). This was the accepted way which could not be changed.
However, the comedy of mistaken identities breaks the rules and gender roles are somewhat mixed. Thus, Viola has certain job and is active which was unprecedented for a woman. Olivia makes her decision and asks a man to marry her, thus, playing an active role in building of her own destiny.
On the contrary, Duke Orsino and Sebastian are passive at times and act in a more feminine way, so to speak. Of course, it is impossible to state that women could play an important role unless there were specific circumstances. It is necessary to consider the four main characters of the play in detail to identify the distribution of gender roles in the Elizabethan era.
Viola is one of the most active characters of the play. Ironically, she is a female who is supposed to remain submissive and wait for men to decide (Charlton 277). However, it is important to remember that she was in disguise and for everyone else she was a male who had to act correspondingly. Viola becomes active only when she is wearing male clothes and when her identity is hidden. When she reveals her identity, she becomes submissive and passive as any other female of that era.
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Importantly, even though Viola wears male clothes, one can feel femininity in her. The way she speaks and the way she expresses feelings are typical of females (Amir 299). Many researchers believe that “verbal exuberance” of Cesario (Viola) is a sign of being female (Lindheim 681). Hence, it is clear that even though Viola takes an active part and is involved in some activities attributed to men, she fails to act like a man.
Olivia can be regarded as a more active and bold female character. First, she appears as a conventional female who has to choose a husband from a bunch of suitors. She is rather passive, but when she understands that she loves a man she becomes active and ready to break the rules. She does not need male clothes to act.
She is bold enough to ask the man who loves her to marry her. Therefore, being a female she behaves in a way males are supposed to act. Notably, this is favorably accepted by the audience and, at the end of the play, it is clear that Olivia and Sebastian will be together.
At the same time, Duke Orsino is an illustration of masculinity but even he is sometimes passive. Duke Orsino is “bear-like” compared to Cesario or Sebastian whose youth makes them look androgynous (qtd. in Lindheim 681). He is noble and he is ready to pursue his dreams and goals. He tries to win the heart of his beloved.
In a nutshell, his nobility, wealth and age make him a real man. Nonetheless, he is ready to wait for news from his messenger. Admittedly, this is typical of men to resort to all possible tools to achieve their aims, but it seems Duke Orsino relies on his servant too much.
Finally, Sebastian is another character who combines both feminine and masculine features. In the first place, this is manifested in his appearance. Sebastian who is not “yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy” has androgynous appearance (Shakespeare 13). In many ways, he is passive. For instance, he is an object of two people’s admiration. Antonio, his friend, loves Sebastian who remains indifferent to this feeling. At the same, time Olivia encounters Sebastian and asks him to marry her.
Though Sebastian falls in love with Olivia immediately, he is quite passive. Even though he is a man and wears male clothes, he lets a woman decide for himself. At the same time, Sebastian is also ready to defend ladies and fight, which is a male prerogative (Barber 276). Shulman stresses that Sebastian’s “sword-fighting” makes him very different from “the more timid and intellectual Cesario” (102). In that situation, Sebastian revealed his masculinity.
Therefore, it is possible to assume that though gender roles were distributed in a certain way, it was acceptable to switch roles in the Elizabethan era. However, this switch could only happen on the stage, of course. Noteworthy, in the country where the ruler was female, such comedies were popular with the audience.
It is also necessary to add that stories based on sex disguise were especially popular as only actors took part in a play. Women were not allowed to perform (Lindheim 681). Therefore, there was often some confusion as it was difficult to understand what character is on the stage (for example, Viola or Cesario). This contributed to creation of the atmosphere of a comedy of disguised identity.
Admittedly, Shakespeare depicted the society of the 17th century where women had to be subordinate to men and had to be passive and submissive. However, it is still an illustration of the contemporary society. Although women are seen as equals and take an active part in the social life, there is still certain disproportion in distribution of gender roles.
In many cases, especially when it comes to relationships between men and women, females are bound to remain rather passive as the image of a beautiful princess waiting for her savior still persists. Nonetheless, it is also common for a woman to be an active agent in relationships with men. Lots of women are now ready to act like Olivia and say about their feelings. There are women who prefer being passive and wait for the man to win their hearts as in case with Viola.
At present, women often put on masks or certain kind of disguise (usually metaphorically) to seem more masculine to succeed in the society. It is still believed that women cannot perform certain roles in the society due to some features of their character. For instance, women are seen as too emotional, too gentle, too indecisive, and so on. Therefore, some women try to hide their femininity to succeed in such fields as business, politics, and so on.
On balance, it is possible to note that Shakespeare’s play depicts major features of the society of the 17th as well as 21st centuries. The Twelfth Night reveals the way gender roles were distributed in the Elizabethan era, but it is apparent that little has changed since then. Women tend to remain passive and submissive in their relationships with men though lots of females are now active and it is common for a woman to get what she wants.
Therefore, it is possible to trace slight changes in the society which have been taking place for centuries. At present, people see the play as an amusing story about a female who disguised her identity to survive and to obtain her happiness. However, it is larger than that as the story is still a reflection of the modern society where women are regarded as free and active agents in the relationship with men, but lots of females choose to be submissive or disguised.
Amir, Ala D. “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.
Charlton, H.B. Shakespearian Comedy, London: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Lindheim, Nancy. “Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night.” University of Toronto Quarterly 76.2 (2007): 679-713. 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.