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The Twelfth Night and Gender

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Gender is a major theme of Twelfth Night. Despite a woman being the ruler of England at this time, men were seen as the dominant and more powerful gender. Until a women got married and became the ‘property’ of her husband, she belonged to her father, or, if her father had passed, her brother. The Elizabethan life for men was one of power, they had all the authority and were seen as strong, more emotionally sturdy and superior to women.

In Shakespeare Twelfth Night, we seen Duke Orsino, a male,tend to perform aspects of what would be considered a women’s gender role. The first gender bending performance we see is Orsino’s moodiness. In the opening scene of the play Orsino commands his musicians to play because the music is feeding his desires, but, he never lets the them finish as he interrupts stating it no longer sounds as sweet as it once did.

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If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again! It had a dying fall.

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odor. Enough; no more.

Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

While he is seen as a powerful man, here we see him being moody and all over the place emotionally which are thought to me qualities of a women. We also see Duke Orsino like this later in the play when the fool, Feste, says Orsino’s ‘mind is very opal’. An opal gemstone shimmers and shifts colors constantly. Feste is saying that Orsino is temperamental, emotionally unstable and moody. He is a fool for love, constantly changing the way he feels. Despite the fact that he holds many characteristics of a man such as being bold, assertive, having a giant ego and confidence, throughout the play, we see him perform feminine gender role traits, challenging the construction of traditional gender roles during this time period.

The way women preformed their roles and the feminine gender traits they carried were much different than men. Women were inferior to men and raised to do as a man says. They were thought of as weak, always needing protection, emotionally unstable and as property. They would be allowed to marry by the age of 12, sometimes earlier depending on the social status and wealth of their family. They were voiceless, and deprived of many rights. Women were also thought to me much more emotionally and expressive of their feelings compared to men. While Viola/Cesario breaks this gender construction, we see her conform to them as well.

The relationship between gender and performance is particularly complex in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night because of Viola, who is also Cesario. Her gender fluidity is an essential part of the play and demonstrates how gender is not just about physical differences but can be performed and impersonated. She dresses in men’s clothing, changes her tone of voice and is referred to as Cesario in order to perform as a man and because of this, her status becomes equal to that of a man. She has full control over her life, her choices, and duties, which wasn’t a luxury women got during this era. Though her performance of a man fools many, there are moments throughout the play where she adheres to the gender construction of a woman. There are many instances in which characters refer to Cesario as an effeminate man despite that fact that she was making conscious efforts to act and appear more manly. Also, in one of Viola’s speeches, she indirectly confesses her love for Orsino. Sooth, but you must.

Say that some lady, as perhaps there is, Hath for your love as great a pang of heart As you have for Olivia. You cannot love her; You tell her so; Must she not then be answered?

In doing this, she challenges the male gender stereotype about keeping their emotions hidden and to themselves. It can be argued that the gender roles here are not really a reversal of the stereotype, but an enforcement.


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