Twelfth Night Term Paper

Pages: 7 (2212 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 2  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Women's Issues - Sexuality

¶ … gender issues related to cross-dressing and disguise, which, arguably, distort female identity. Another chief concern will be to determine whether it was Shakespeare's intention to challenge gender taboos of the Elizabethan age. From a modern perspective, it will be seen in what ways the playwright definitely has performed such a worthwhile task. It may be assumed that disguise works to deform or destabilize identities as defined by gender. The difference between sex and gender, as explained by feminists, is that the latter appears to be a mere social and cultural construct (Butler, 1990). Therefore, the stereotyped gender assumed by women restrict and (de)form their identities. The case feminists have made will be of interest to the present essay, given the fairly significant trend of cross-dressing female characters in Shakespeare's plays.

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Considered by critics as Shakespeare's best achievement in the comic genre, the play Twelfth Night or, What You Will affords an elaborate exploration of love and power relationships, gender roles and taboos. Identity poses highly confounding problems, as there are numerous layers to the characters' gender roles and their maze-like relationships and (homo) erotic affinities. Through a range of female characters and the implications of (wo)man disguises, Shakespeare exposes gender issues. Several heroines of the comedies appear in disguise on the Renaissance stage, which represents the cultural context of the play. The central aim of the paper is to investigate early modern constructions of gender as distinct from sexual difference. For this purpose, the Elizabethan context and especially the Shakespearean text shall be used.

Term Paper on Twelfth Night Assignment

The intricacies of the play make it only more difficult to interpret the issues mentioned here above. The main character, Viola, is parted from her twin brother Sebastian during a shipwreck. Alone and vulnerable as a young lady, she assumes male clothes in order to serve Orsino, the duke of Illyria. As Viola cannot afford to be a woman in these circumstances, she beseeches the captain to help her disguise: 'Conceal me what I am; and be my aid / for such disguise as haply shall become? The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke: Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.' (I.II.18-64). She would be 'very worth his service' (ibid.) if only she were not a girl. Nonetheless, disguised as young page Cesario, she soon becomes his favorite.

Further complications occur, as Viola, while assuming a male role, falls in love with 'another' man - her master. She realizes 'As I am man, / My state is desperate for my master's love' (II.II.I-III). The duke speaks to Cesario about his love for Lady Olivia, who refuses him because she is in mourning for her dead brother. When Orsino sends Cesario to woo Olivia for him, the Countess falls in love with the supposed page. Characters such as Viola challenge biased perspectives upon femininity as frail and vulnerable. On the other hand, duke Orsino is an embodiment of deformed or effeminized masculinity. This character's lines seem those of a romantic lady: 'If music be the food of love, play on; / Give me excess of it...'

Viola's exploit at Olivia's court is an instance that further undermines male roles. Windholz (2004) reads this scene to show how much more than a man a woman-disguised-as-man can do. Viola achieves great success with Olivia, who had admitted no suitors, not even the Duke or others who have been denied entrance to her court. This only proves that Viola plays the male better than men themselves play their own roles. She even wins more than she had intended: Olivia's love, 'an accomplishment that illuminates the limits to Duke Orsino's patriarchal power' (Windholz, 2004). Windholz's conjecture is that Shakespeare uses such characters to expose the flaws of the undue distribution of gender roles.

Moreover, Olivia's final marriage to Sebastian is possibly caused by Viola's conversion into Cesario. Viola had been inspired to have the captain dress her exactly as her lost brother and the twins looked identical. These 'identical' identities of a man and a woman may also have been devised to undercut gender differences.

Noticeably, the sexual relationships and gender roles in Twelfth Night are multi-layered. Viola / Cesario, a female character played by a male on the Elizabethan stage, is dressed as a male throughout the play. Critics like Lisa Jardine (1992) have tried to explain these utterly confused gender roles in Shakespeare's play. For this purpose, she looks at the connection between economic dependency and sexual accessibility in Elizabethan England. These matters greatly control the need for cross-dressing.

As Jardine implies, Viola and Sebastian are both forced to accept dependent positions after the shipwreck. Thus, Viola becomes sexually available to duke Orsino, and Sebastian becomes accessible to countess Olivia. When Olivia invites him 'Nay, come, I prithee: would thou'ldst be ruled by me!', Sebastian cannot but accept: 'Madam, I will.' (IV.I.47-II.24). Relationships of power that go along love attractions may also be an explanation for all these arrangements in the end.

Other critics also examine transvestite heroines as confined by rigid gender definitions. In Rackin's view, characters like Viola, Portia or Rosalind, all played by boy actors, are idealistic representations of androgyny. In the essay 'Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage.' (1987), Rackin explains that 'the theatre provided an arena where changing gender definitions could be displayed, deplored, or enforced and where anxieties about them could be expressed by playwrights and incited or repressed among their audiences.' (Rackin, 1987:29).

All these multiple levels of disguise instill a great degree of identity confusion in the play, as men play the part of women playing the part of men. The text itself puts forward issues of sexual identity in a manner that may be regarded as avant-garde. Undoubtedly, the social and sexual intricacy of characters' many-sided disguise needs to be considered in the context of sixteenth century polemical debates over cross-dressing.

On the one hand, women appear dressed as men within the play; on the other hand, men appear in women's clothing - both textually and meta-textually. It is common knowledge that boy actors played women characters in the theatrical performances of the time. Puritans expressed their discontent in anti-theatrical polemic, judging it a provocation for women to appear on stage in front of male audiences (Howard, 1988:418). Even the Bible, the foremost book of Western culture, incriminates those who wear garments pertaining to the opposite sex as being 'an abomination to the Lord your God' (Deuteronomy, 22:5).

The canonic discourse of patriarchal culture resorts to 'the Book' in order to enforce gender roles and produce artificial notions of 'femininity'. The cultural pattern it has generated defines woman as secondary to man. As a result, men and women assume gender roles they believe are ascribed to their sexes. Ashamed by her transformation, Viola cries out that her disguise is a 'wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much,' (II.I.I-49) because she is disturbed by the bedlam of her impractical romantic condition. What is more, her cry also spells out a cultural assumption of cross-dressing as deviant, perverted, and thus sacrilegious.

This illustration bears out the cultural production of femininity, which is accomplished by gendered role distribution. The canon reinforces distinct models for men and women. Certain conventions stand for masculinity, while femininity is defined by another set of specific marks. Shakespeare disrupts this scheme, the symbolic order it stands for and defies gender stereotyping. 'Gender' is fabricated through the connotations assigned to the sexed body on the basis of mere sexual differences.

However, since some women are considered masculine and some men - feminine or effeminate, this reflects there is no inherent relation between genders and biological sex. All this exposition of feminist inspiration proves that 'gender' identity is only the cultural interpretation of sex subjects in the symbolic order (Butler, 1990). Shakespeare, much like Butler, performs a disruption of gender categories. His illustrations of female transvestitism and male effeminacies conspicuously deride stable gender categories.

The symbolism of disguise also assigns social significance to garments as marks of power and gender roles. Wearing clothes of the opposite gender is a culturally loaded gesture whose meaning is to destabilize culturally received categories. Gendered clothing seems to perform the function of disciplining the female body. Jean Howard offers several examples of cross-dressed women who were punished for the transgression of cross-dressing because they threatened the normative social hierarchies. This was considered an unacceptable activity in Renaissance, given the Biblical interdiction (Howard, 1988:418). Certainly, cross-dressers were permissible as long as they were male, especially performing theatrical roles.

Feminists have also exposed clothing as a disciplining ritual. Thus, the enactment of cross-dressing is considered a transgression and disapproved of, as seen above. Given patriarchal cultural codes, women's garments become objects of contempt and ridicule, especially when covering a man. Even the clown, another embodiment of disguise, scornfully declares: 'This will I tell my lady straight: I would not be in some of your coats for twopence.' (IV.1, 5-46).

Howard (1988)… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Twelfth Night" Term Paper in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Twelfth Night.  (2007, June 25).  Retrieved August 4, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Twelfth Night."  25 June 2007.  Web.  4 August 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Twelfth Night."  June 25, 2007.  Accessed August 4, 2020.