Gender Roles in Twelfth Night

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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 raineth 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...
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