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Twelfth Night

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Topics: Gender role, Man
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed to an audience from different social classes and of varying levels of intellect. Hence his plays contain down-to-earth characters that appeal to the working classes, side-by-side with complexities of plot, which would satisfy the appetites of the aristocrats among the audience. However, his contemporary status is different, and Shakespeare’s plays have become a symbol of culture and education, being widely used as a subject for academic study and literary criticism. A close analysis of Twelfth Night, which is considered to be a reference to the twelfth night of the Christmas celebration, shows how Shakespeare is able to manipulate the form, structure, and language of a play in order to contribute to the meaning of it, which in the case of Twelfth Night is that of deception. Also, Shakespeare uses Twelfth Night to examine the patterns of love and courtship through the twisting of gender roles. I found this play to be the most entertaining of those I have read because of the fact that it is completely different from that of any other Shakespeare play. This romance explores numerous themes of love; however, the most recurrent theme is that of deception. There are many characters in the novel that suffer from deception. But the most overt examples of disguise is through the character of Viola. I find that this is the origin of much of the deception in the play. Stranded in Illyria after a shipwreck, she dresses as a male in order to work as a Eunuch for the Duke Orsino. “Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him.” This is seen as the first accidental deception and is where the disguise forms the plot. Even though it wasn’t Viola’s intention to deceive people, the disguise that she puts on is what constructs the plot and the romantic deceptions with Olivia, Orsino and Cesario. Another example of how disguise and deception is used within the play is seen among the relationship between Olivia and Cesario. Within the play Olivia is deceiving herself by thinking she can mourn for her brother and at the same time abjure the company of men. However, this sense of deception is gone when she shows interest in the young man at her gates. The young man is Viola who is disguised as a man, which in turns leads Olivia to fall in love with a man, who is in fact a woman. Shakespeare is creating a lot of confusion because in Elizabethan theatre, a man would play the role of a woman, which I will talk about later. The play then moves on to examine patterns of love and courtship through the use of twisting gender roles. In Act 3, scene 1, Olivia displays the confusions created for the characters as she takes on the traditionally male role of a wooer in an attempt to win the disguised Viola, or Cesario. Olivia praises Cesario’s beauty and then addresses him with the belief that his ‘scorn’ only reveals his hidden love. However, only the surface of her problem is presented in her speech when she mistakenly interprets Cesario’s manner. The reality of Cesario’s gender, the active role Olivia takes in pursing him/her, and the duality of word meanings in this passage threaten to turn the traditional patriarchal concept of courtship upside down, or as Olivia would say, turn “night to noon.” Perhaps the biggest upset to the traditional structure is the possibility that Olivia may be in love with a woman. Shakespeare allows you to excuse this by having Olivia be unaware that Cesario is actually female. Yet, Olivia’s attraction seems to stem exactly from the more feminine characteristics like Cesario’s ‘beautiful scorn’ and ‘angry lip.’ It is Olivia’s words that made think that Olivia knew Cesario was a female, yet choosing to love him/her anyway. Olivia’s description of Cesario’s beauty, both here and upon their first encounter, praises typically femine qualities, but curiously doesn’t question Cesario’s gender. The comparison of love to guilt tempted me to wonder if Olivia was guilt about her love for such female attributes. Olivia’s oath on maidenhood also tempted me toward a lesbian reading by hinting that Cesario would also understand maidenhood. When Olivia declares that not even ‘wit nor reason’ can hide her passion, she suggest that she would love Cesario even if it were against common logic, as a same sex couple would be. Despite the unacceptability of a same sex romance during the time period in which this piece takes place, the hints toward this reading seem visible enough to have been thought of then as well as today. Although probably not intended to the extent of a lesbian courtship, the situation of a woman wooing another woman I found to be very comical. Perhaps even more so in the Elizabethan era with two male actors wooing each other as woman. Shakespeare has the ability to pose the question of homosexual love by using “Cesario” as a shield to protect both the characters within the play and us, the reader from having to deal with the question directly. Although he avoids denying the Elizabethan romantic conventions with a homosexual plot, Shakespeare does, however, upset what is usually seen as normal by having Olivia act as suitor and having the man act as the object of desire. However, this role reveral is not hidden since Olivia plainly says “I woo” when she addresses Cesario. The way, in which she speaks to Cesario, in a way mimics the contemporary traditions perfectly. Cesario’s refusal sets up the classic situation of the beloved as an object of unattainable perfection for the lover to then praise. Olivia’s speech is in rhymed couplets separating it, along with Viola’s response, from the typical blank verse of the rest of the play. This happens in a way as if the rhymed couplets were intended to be poems standing on their own. Olivia swears by everything that her passion cannot be restrained even by reason while simultaneously admiring Cesario’s resistance. She follows the patriarchal formula perfectly; the only exception was her gender. The absurd situation of wooing a disguised woman makes Olivia doomed to fail even though her ability to replicate the correct discourse. On the contrary, perhaps it was Shakespeare’s intention to show that it is the very discourse, which causes the failure. The foolishness of the scene; a male actor playing a woman, wooing another man playing a woman, who is a playing a man, appears to poke fun at the entire the situation. By swearing on everything Olivia devalues the things that she swore upon before and now of all of a sudden she seems supercilious. The reaped use of the word “reason” and the ambiguous structure of the last line muddle Olivia’s meaning to the point where it would be difficult for Cesario to choose whether or not to comply and to what he would be complying with. While reading the passage in this manner, the passage became somewhat of a satirical enactment of a traditional courtship. I found that gender switch served to emphasize the impossibility of love within a structure that demands that the object of desire must refuse in order to remain desirable. To further the mockery that is the traditional discourse, Shakespeare adds an additional message in Olivia’s speech. The unhappiness of Olivia’s impossible situation could be seen as a lesson for taking on the wrong role. By leaving her place as object and becoming the actor Olivia is unknowingly chasing after someone she can never have. When Sebastian appears, a male replication of Viola, all the problems then seem to disappear because the proper gender roles have been restored. Yet without Sebastian, without the true male, chaos reigns and reason breaks down. It as if following the loss of order in the situation, the word “reason” seems to lose power within Olivia’s speech. First we must take into account that “reason” is not strong enough to contain Olivia’s passion. Second, the fact that she urges Cesario not to take his “reasons from this clause”, presumably indicates that he should not base his decisions on her revealed passion, but he should instead “reason thus with reason fetter.” Cesario should “fetter” the logic of not returning her love with the “reason”, the explanation that Olivia offers to him. I found that by having “reason” fetter itself, it then becomes helpless in a way. The “fettering” of the word “reason” parallels the loss of reason, of logic, within the action of the play. It is the speech that Olivia gives in which her attempt to take the active “male” role “fetters” reason. Whens he upsets the convention of female passivity, chaos is seen as the ultimate result; however, that changes when Sebastian comes and saves the day. I found it to be unclear whether Shakespeare was mocking the structure of traditional courtship, reaffirming it with the message that when women step out of their proper roles it is chaos that insinuates as a result, or quite possibly he was proposing both. Rather than resolving anything, I found that Shakespeare just continued the ambiguity found throughout the passage with the last line of the passage “Love sought is good, but given unsought, is better.” Olivia could be saying anything with this line and it is truly unclear what she means. She could be saying that it is good for her to give love, but it could be even better if she was giving it without reciprocation. This meaning would coincide with her weariness of suitors and with the standard of unfulfilled worship of the beloved. However, on the contrary, she may even be asking the complete opposite. She could be saying that she is happy to seek love, but she would be even happier if it were given to her without her having to go after it. This notion would support the interpretation that she is in fact not in her proper role, and that she would be even happier if she returned to the traditional state of passivity. We must not overlook how the last line returns to the problem of Cesario/Viola as both man and woman. One could make the interpretation that it is better to love a member of the same sex and not have the love returned than to be hounded by suitors. On the other hand, the line could be read as the concluding lesson to what has so far, in my eyes, been a sarcastic representation of courtship. However, to follow the tradition of unreturned love could be seen as the opposite lesson in the passage. There could even be the possibility that the line sends and follows both messages. Love is sought from Viola, however, it is never received, but it is “given unsought” by Sebastian who is truly unsought due to the fact that he doesn’t even exist in terms of Olivia until the end of the play. The fact that the passage allows for Viola and Sebastian to be interchangeable, both of the variations can be enacted. It should be noted, that neither option is faithful to the lover/beloved doctrine. To follow the doctrine, love would have to be given without reciprocation. However, in the case presented in the passage it is between two women; not the proper following of the doctrine. Yet, the norm seems to be restored in a sense when Sebastian arrives, but the love is truly fulfilled when Sebastian agrees to be ruled by Olivia. Even with all the problems supposedly solved, the question in regards to gender role is still left with Olivia who seems to never have entirely relinquished her active “male” role. Twelfth Night is different from many plays of its time in that it tackles many uncomfortable issues regarding love and gender even though Shakespeare never really resolves this for his audience. Instead he leaves the questions of love and gender open to the audience, but does it in a manner that contains the discomfort with humor, disguise, chaos and a happy ending.

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