Gender Roles in Twelfth Night and As you Like It
Much of the comedy in Twelfth Night and As you Like It emerges from Shakespeare’s distortion of traditional gender roles, as both plays contain strong female leads who disguise themselves as males. Though both Viola and Rosalind help their less-than-ideal beloveds woo their own objects of desire, and both disguises emerge party from the loss of a male familial figure, the women inhabit their male facades in drastically different ways. In both plays, though, Shakespeare provides constant reminders of Viola and Rosalind’s femininity, never straying too far from established gender tropes.
One of the clearest similarities between Rosalind and Viola lies in that they disguise themselves as a result of losing the protection of a male familial figure. After losing her father Duke Senior to banishment, Rosalind finds herself banished by the rash cruelty of her uncle, Duke Frederick. Rosalind adopts her male disguise not as a way to purposefully subvert her feminine nature, then, but out of sheer necessity: Alas, what danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel forth so far!
Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.
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Were it not better,
Since I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man? (As You Like It, Act I, scene iii, lines 108 -110) Viola, too, disguises herself after losing the protection of her brother Sebastian. Unable to support herself financially as a woman, she disguises herself as a man in order to earn a living as a page in Duke Orsino’s court: “I prithee (and I’ll pay thee bounteously) / Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become/ The form of my intent” (Twelfth Night, or What you Will Act I, Scene iii, lines 52 – 55). Thus, Shakespeare uses these disguises as a way to comment upon the subjugation of woman and their dependence on men in his culture.
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