Gender Roles In Twelfth Night example essay topic

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Born on approximately April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, William Shakespeare is considered by many to have been the greatest writer the English language has ever known. His literary legacy included 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and five major poems. Among his many plays is the notable, Twelfth Night, a romantic comedy, placed in a festive atmosphere in which three couples are brought together happily. The play opens with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, expressing his deep love for the Countess Olivia. Meanwhile, the shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a man and endeavors to enter the Duke's service.

Although she has rejected his suit, the Duke then employs Viola, who takes the name of Cesario, to woo Olivia for him. As the play continues, Cesario falls in love with the Duke, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola disguised. Maria, Olivia's servant woman, desires to seek revenge on Malvolio, Olivia's steward. "To the delight of Sir Toby, Olivia's uncle, and his friend Sir Andrew, Maria comes up with a plot to drop love letters supposedly written by Olivia in Malvolio's path. When she does, they observe him, along with Fabian, another servant, as Malvolio falls for the bait. Believing that Olivia loves him, he makes a fool of himself" (Napierkowski 3).

The plot deepens as Cesario proceeds to woo Olivia for the Duke. It is only the second time that Cesario appears at Olivia's home when Olivia openly declares her love for Cesario. Throughout this time, Sir Andrew has been nursing a hope to win Olivia's love. When he plans to give up hope of her love, Sir Toby suggests that Sir Andrew fight with Cesario to impress Olivia.

Cesario, however, refuses to fight. At the same time, Viola's brother, Sebastian, who is also shipwrecked, makes his way to safe lodging in Illyria with Antonio the sea captain. After the fight between Cesario and Sir Andrew begins, Antonio intervenes to save Cesario, whom he takes for Sebastian. But the Duke's officers promptly arrest Antonio for a past offense.

Then, Olivia later comes upon Sir Andrew and Sebastian bickering at her home. Olivia, thinking Sebastian is Cesario, leads Sebastian to marriage in a nearby chapel. Finally, Cesario inevitably reveals that he is Viola and Sebastian recognizes her as his sister. The Duke reciprocates Viola's love offerings and proposes to her. Olivia assures Malvolio that she did not write the letter that so disturbed him, and Sir Toby marries Maria in appreciation for her humiliating scheme. In spite of the promise of three weddings to be celebrated, the play concludes on a sour note when Feste, the clown, depicts life as grim, 'for the rain it raine th every day' (Act V Scene i).

They play's primary central theme is that of the comic relationships between men and women. Furthermore, it illustrates the traditional, societal notions of "interdependence, and the newly emerging attitudes towards individual choice and personal desire, or as the play puts it, 'will' " (Malcolmson 163). Although Twelfth Night is a story of love and courtship, nevertheless, it is also a "comedy of gender", because of its ability to override the traditional Elizabethan notions of the female role through the characters of Viola and Olivia. The date of the composition of Twelfth Night is fixed around 1600 "during a period before a woman's place was imagined as separate sphere, since, for the Renaissance, a woman was considered to be analogous to other social inferiors in a hierarchical society" (Malcolmson 161). During this time, England was enjoying a period of socio-political security and respect for the arts. Unfortunately, Elizabethan society was a masculine society in which women had little part.

The female in Elizabethan society was not only subordinate to the male because of her unpredictability but also because of her nature as the 'gentler sex. ' A woman was considered to be fit for homemaking and child-bearing; she was considered to have no interest in, or ability to, understand politics and her virtue was at all times protected, firstly by her father, brother, or guardian and subsequently by her husband. "For a woman to show an interest in current affairs, to express opinions or even to write literature other than a personal diary was to exhibit unladylike and indecorous behavior" (Green 8). As a minor, a girl was under the guardianship of her father, who arranged her marriage.

As a wife, a woman passed to the guardianship of her husband, who controlled any land she brought to the marriage" (Fritze 685). Under the common law, married women could not inherit or administer land, make wills, sign contracts, sue or be sued, or make trusts or bonds. "The legal term for the status of married women was 'coverture,' which meant literally that a woman's legal identity was 'hidden' or 'covered' by her husband's" (Fritze 685). Consequently, the general assertion has often been that the roles of women in Shakespeare's plays were prominent for the time and culture that he lived in. "Shakespeare's notion of Elizabethan gender roles, and in particular those of Elizabethan women, was presumably that of the accepted theological doctrine, which taught that Adam was created first, and Eve from his body; she was created specifically to give him comfort, and was to be subordinate to him, to obey him and to accept her lesser status. Thus, to Elizabethans the concept of sexual equality would have been anathema.

A dominant woman was unnatural, a symptom of disorder" (Green 2). Little conclusive evidence exists concerning the actual involvement of women with the Elizabethan stage; women were not permitted to act on the stage. "Boys or young men whose voices had not yet changed acted the women's parts, and it is this convention of contemporary Shakespearean theatre practices that in many ways contributes to the development of positive and powerful female characters in Shakespearean drama" (Green 4). Boys acting as women disguised as boys provide the strongest visual symbol of Feste's comment in Twelfth Night that 'nothing that is so, is so' (IV i). Whether disguised as the young man Cesario or in her true identity as Sebastian's sister, Viola is the central character of the play. Viola first appears on the coast of Illyria in Act I Scene ii, accompanied by the captain who saved her from drowning in a shipwreck, and concerned about the fate of her missing brother who had been traveling with her.

'And what should I do in Illyria?' -she wonders-'My brother he is in Elysium' (I ii). Once the captain gives her reason to hope that her brother is still alive, Viola sets about the business of fending for herself in a foreign country. "She knows that a single woman unattended in a foreign land would be in an extremely dangerous position. Consequently, she evaluates the sea captain's character, finds it suitable, and wisely places her trust in him; then she disguises herself as a boy so that she will be safe and have a man's freedom to move about without protection" (Jones 54). In Act I Scene, she validates her trust in the captain by saying the following: There is a fair behaviour in thee, captain And though that nature with a beauteous wall Doth oft close in pollution, yet of the eI well believe thou hast a mind that suits With this thy fair and outward character. She comments that although a fair and kindly exterior can sometimes conceal a corrupt soul, she believes that the Captain's nature is as true and loyal as his appearance suggests.

Viola's choice to dress as a boy would have been an extremely brave action in Elizabethan society; cross-dressing was seen as highly immoral. Similarly, the fact that Viola was able to see how a man's world was would probably have been seen as quite shocking at the time. Viola is supposed to be behaving one way, yet she is not. Furthermore, Viola's situation in Twelfth Night could hardly be thought of as typical for a woman in Elizabethan society because she proves herself assertive, capable and intelligent. She challenged the "stability of appearances, gender roles, and the 'off-limits' territory of same-sex-desire" (Green 11). "Though Elizabethan society demands certain behaviour from women, Viola, through necessity, chooses to undertake a different path to deny that behaviour.

In doing so, she promotes self over public image and proves that women can be both individual and intellectual without compromising what Elizabethan men saw as the 'ideal' in womanhood" (Dominic 512). Olivia, of course, is the main female role, the object of amorous intentions by the Duke, by Sir Andrew, by Malvolio and, eventually, by Sebastian. "She is obviously a beautiful young woman of proper breeding who disapproves of Sir Toby's tipsy rabble-rousing but nonetheless generously tolerates his presence in her household" (Dominic 513). In Act I Scene i, the reader learns that Olivia plans to spend seven years mourning for her dead brother, during this time she will hide her face with a veil, reject any declarations of love, and weep daily to keep her brother's memory alive. Orsino considers the countess beautiful but cruel (II iv).

Viola's friend the captain describes Olivia as 'a virtuous maid' (I ii). Viola / Cesario calls her beautiful but 'too proud' and scolds her for refusing to marry and for thus failing to 'leave the world [a] copy' of her beauty by having children (I v). Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch, is impatient with her: 'What a plague means my niece, to take the death of her brother thus?' (I ). Feste, who is Olivia's professional clown, or fool, argues that she is in fact the real fool since she wastes her youth and beauty in seclusion while weeping for a brother whose 'soul is in heaven' (I v).

Olivia is not prepared, however, for the infatuation she feels for Cesario. 'How now?' Olivia asks herself, 'Even so quickly may one catch the plague? / Methinks I feel this youth's perfections / With an invisible and subtle stealth / To creep in at mine eyes' (I v). "Critics have pointed out that like Viola, for example, Olivia quickly accepts what happens to her as part of her fate" (Jones 55). 'Well, let it be,' she concludes; 'Fate, show thy force.

Ourselves we do not owe: / What is decreed must be; and be this so!' (I v). Unlike the traditional Elizabethan woman, Olivia is unwilling to submit to Orsino's advances because she enjoys playing her role as 'lady of the manor. ' Furthermore, Olivia assumes the traditionally male role of wooer in an attempt to win the disguised Viola. To members of the Elizabethan society, Olivia's actions through her overt interest in a young 'man' with whom she has no acquaintance would have been unheard of. "Judged by the morals of the time, both women [Viola and Olivia], had they been real people, would be labeled whores. However the play neither passes judgment nor censure on them" (Green 8).

In conclusion, the social and cultural background to Twelfth Night shows just how different the society of the play was to that of Elizabethan England. "Twelfth Night stands out particularly well as a play in which Shakespeare, though conforming to contemporary attitudes of women, circumvented them. He did this by utilizing theatrical conventions to his advantage in order to experiment with the creation of resolute female characters with a strong sense of self and an individual identity" (Dobson 493). Through the characters of Viola and Olivia, Shakespeare seems to be celebrating the female potential for honor, loyalty and truth as opposed to censuring the behaviour of a whore. "The play dramatizes the superiority of women to men in order to call into question the rigid structures of the traditional order, and, in the process, to validate certain forms of social mobility" (Malcolmson 163). Thus, Viola and Olivia release themselves from societal norms, to become independent thinkers and advocates for their rights as women.

In a time where women were not even able to act on the stage, Shakespeare created two strong characters that challenged the very ideals of Puritanical, Elizabethan society.


Dobson, Michael. "Twelfth Night" in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Dominic, Catherine C. "Twelfth Night" in Shakespeare for Students. Book II. Detroit: Gale, 1997.
Fritze, Ronald. Historical Dictionary of Tudor England, 1485-1603. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Green, Renton. 'Twelfth Night: Present Me As An Eunuch: Female Identity in Twelfth Night. ' e Notes to Twelfth Night. Seattle: Enotes. com LLC, October 2002.
Ed. Penny Satori's. 20 February 2005.
Jones, Elizabeth. Cliffs Noted Hardbound Literary Libraries. Shakespeare Library Vol. I. Traverse City: Moon Beam Publications, 1990.
Malcolmson, Christina". 'What You Will': Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night" in Twelfth Night. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Napierkowski, Marie Rose. 'Twelfth Night: One-Page Summary. ' Shakespeare for Students. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
1 March 2005.