Home » Shakespeare » Twelfth Night Gender Essay

Twelfth Night Gender Essay

When thinking of what true love really is it is known that people have many different perspectives on its meaning. Love can be viewed as the physical attraction that one has to another, the desire that one has to be in another’s company, or the longing to have someone to love and be loved by. Shakespeare writes about love on many occasions within several of his romantic, comical, and dramatic plays.

He uses many of his male characters to redefine what it means to be in love with a female, and to reveal to his audiences the drastic lengths that the males go to for their female counterparts. Shakespeare uses Antony from Antony and Cleopatra, as well as, Duke Orsino from Twelfth Night to demonstrate the subtle power that women had over men because of the love that the males had for them. Antony is utterly infatuated with Cleopatra, and proves that he is willing to go to drastic lengths to show that his love for her is genuine.

The power structure is reformed within Twelfth Night between the relationship of Duke Orsino and Olivia as he is too intimidated by her to even speak to her himself. However, unlike the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra and Duke Orsino and Olivia, also in Twelfth Night, the hierarchy is unknowingly altered when Orsino gives Cesario the power to communicate his emotions to Olivia through rehearsed speeches. The relationship between Orsino and Viola was later modernized and recreated into a film version, She’s the Man.

Although it may be unknown whether the Shakespeare’s male character’s obsessions were due to the physical attraction they had for the females or if it indeed was actually true love, Shakespeare still uses the emotions that the men have for the ladies to create a comical love story, and to ironically alter the patriarchal system and place the females above the men through multiple diverse ways. Shakespeare places the power in the hands of the females through the characters Cleopatra and Olivia.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony was among the three most powerful men in the world during his time, but Cleopatra is able to bring him to his knees in ways that no enemy was ever able to do. We are able to clearly see the bending of the power structure between the couple in the first scene. A messenger comes to them proclaiming that he has news for Antony from Rome. He immediately declares that just the sheer fact of having to think about Rome annoys him. Cleopatra then says, Nay, hear them, Antony. /… Caesar have not sent / His powerful mandate to you, “Do this, or this; / Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that. Perform ‘t, or else we damn thee” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 19-24). She boldly mocks the fact that Antony has a tendency to return to Rome at Caesar’s beck and call. When Antony questions why she would say this. She fires back saying that Antony can stay with her no longer because of Caesar’s summon for him. She says, “As I am Egypt’s Queen, / Thou blushest, Antony, and that blood of thine / Is Caesar’s homager. Else so thy cheek pays shame / When shrill-tongued Fulvia scolds” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 29-32). She is accusing Antony of being as submissive to Caesar as his actual servants.

She criticizes him for giving Caesar and Fulvia enough power to humiliate him. To which Antony replies, “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space. / Kingdoms are clay. Our dungy earth alike / Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life / Is to do thus, when such a mutual pair / And such a twain can do ‘t, in which I bind, / On pain of punishment, the world to weet / We stand up peerless. ” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 33-40) As quick as Cleopatra is to call Antony out for choosing Rome over her, Antony denies Rome and proclaims that his place is not there, but rather with Cleopatra.

He goes on to say that they should simply do as they are doing because they are the world’s best couple. He even goes as far as to say that anyone eho denies that they are a perfect match should suffer consequences. His words are his attempt to ensure that Cleopatra stays happy with him. Despite the power that he actually has, she is able to control his actions due to the sheer fact that he does not want her to ever feel as if she is second in his life. He rejects his country in an effort to honor her as his one true love. He sacrifices his reputation to proclaim his love for her.

Even in his death, he still places Cleopatra above himself. He says, “I am dying, Egypt, dying; only/T here importune death awhile, until / Of many thousand kisses the poor last / I lay upon thy lips” (Shakespeare 4. 15. 18-21). She replies, “I dare not, dear; / Dear my lord, pardon, I dare not, / Lest I be taken” (Shakespeare 4. 15. 21-23). His dying wish is to have one last kiss with her, and despite all that he has sacrificed to be with her, she will not even sacrifice in the slightest to come down to him. He is only able to have a last kiss with her because he is “heaved aloft” to her.

In his dying moment, he is seen as a male “damsel in distress” figure. He is desperate to be saved in his final moments. His masculinity has been stripped as he is no longer able to do anything for himself. Because of the love he has for Cleopatra, his power is removed from him and given to her. And, Antony gladly offers it up for her. In the article “Girl Power: The Enigma Who Ruled Her World”, Gelareh Asayesh states, “Shakespeare got it right when he wrote of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (Asayesh).

Not only Antony, but those around him all agree that it is not only Cleopatra’s beauty that makes her so enthralling, but her unpredictability and wits are equally as attractive. Therefore, Antony had no choice, but to give in to her every desire. A similar type of relationship is seen in Twelfth Night between Duke Orsino and Olivia. The play begins with Orsino’s statement about love, “If music be the food of love, play on” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 1). He proclaims that if music keeps love alive, then keep the music playing.

He is completely enthralled with Olivia, and he compares his desire for her to the way a starving human would crave food. But, she does not return his love; therefore, he then goes on to say, “Enough, no more! / ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 7-8). He haults the music because of the sadness it starts to bring him. His love cannot be fulfilled because she does not love him in the same way, so he kills the music as a forcing himself to suffer for the love that he desires so relentlessly.

He has a completely altered perception of love due to the fact that the love he feels is not returned. He later proclaims, “Away before me to sweet beds of flowers! / Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers” (Shakespeare 1. 1. 41-42). He orders Valentine to take him to his garden in order that he may have a place among his flower to pour out his thoughts about love. Regardless of the fact that Orisino is a powerful ruler in Illyria, his feelings for Olivia completely shatter the expectations he is supposed to withhold as a masculine leader.

Just as Antony, his masculinity is lost in the extreme feelings he has for his lady. In both Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night, the power structure is shifted in a way that places the female characters superior to the men. Contrarily to the two previous relationships, Shakespeare and the director of She’s the Man, Andy Fickman, are able to maintain a similar theme that is seen within the relationships of both Antony and Cleopatra and Duke Orsino and Olivia, but in a drastically different way. In Twelfth Night, Orsino is too nervous and intimidated by Olivia to even talk to him on his own.

Therefore, he gives Cesario the power to speak to Olivia on his behalf. He says, “O, then unfold the passion of my love. / Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith. / It shall become thee well to act my woes; / She will attend it better in thy youth / Than in a nuncio’s of more grave aspect” (Shakespeare 1. 4. 24-28). Orsino tells Cesario to tell Olivia about how much he loves her, and about how faithful he would be to her if she would just return his love. Orsino then proceeds to admit that Olivia will pay more attention to Cesario than he would to her since Cesario is young.

It is specifically within this moment that another layer of Orsino’s power is destroyed. Although he does not know in this moment that Cesario is actually Viola, he ultimately still gives her the power to converse with Olivia through memorized speeches. Even though she is speaking his words, it still gives her a voice that she would not have had if he had known she were a female. Women’s Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays by Irene G. Dash states, “The play not only challenged accepted notions about men and women but explores the meaning of self-sovereignty for women” (Dash 24).

The disguise of Cesario, Viola is given a sense of authority that she had never had before. The mask that conceals her true gender gives her an alternate identity that allows her to obtain a superior power. Dash goes on to say, “Temporarily donning pant, ’til she has made her “own occasion mellow” to better know her own position, Viola, in her quest, characterizes othe women in Shakespeare’s plays. They too must learn who they are, often going through a process of relearning as they seek to establish their own identity-sexually, politically, socially, or exonomically. (Dash 24)

Through her role as Cesario, Viola is able to set the tone for all of Shakespeare’s women. Dash further states, “According to Simone de Beauvoir, women’s “erotic urges” in a male-dominated society cause the problem. She writes of the decision women reach at maturity after having strugged during adolescence with the choice between self as primary and self as ‘Other” (Dash 212). This is primary the struggle that Viola faces within the play as she chooses to deny her true gender and take the role of another.

She makes an attempt to “retain her self-sovereignty even while expressing her’erotic urges” (Dash 213) as a female, while in men’s clothing. She says, “O time, thou must untangle this, not l! / It is too hard a knot for me tuntie” (Shakespeare 2. 2. 41). She accepts the fact that she cannot undo the mess that she has gotten herself into, only time can sort it all out. She takes advantage of the power she has over Orsino, but manages to fall in love with him while doing so. This same theme is also revealed within the modernized version of the play through the film She’s the Man. In Laurie E.

Osborne’s “Twelfth Night’s Cinematic Adolescents: One Play, One Plot, One Setting, And Three Teen Films”, she writes, “Intentionally or not. She’s the Man demonstrates how teen Shakespeare creates an intertextual and intercinematic exchange that allows twentiethcentury teen film to underscore features of Shakespeare’s comedy... ” (Osborne 14). She states that through Fickman’s recreation of Twelfth Night, viewers are able to get a sense of the comical Shakespeare’s plays. Orsino’s lose of masculinity is one of the main comical elements of the play that is clearly shown within the movie.

During a conversation that the disguised Viola has with him about how to ask a girl out, he acts nervous and frustrated. She asks, ‘Why do I get the feeling you don’t do this very often? “, he replies, “Man, I’m just not really good at talking to girls” (She’s the Man). Viola not only plays the role of the corresponder between Duke and Olivia, but she also holds the power to give him relationship advice. In this moment, viewers can see that there is a thin line between the feminine Viola and who she is disguised as a male, but both characters still dominate and take away Duke’s masculinity.

In Monique Pittman’s “Dressing The Girl / Playing The Boy: Twelfth Night Learns Soccer On The Set Of She’s The Man”, she states, “In fact, Bynes’s simultaneous performance of feminine and masculine asserts the undeniable existence of Viola’s “true” or essendal self, a self that cannot be altered by the part she plays, the clothes she wears, or the social expectations she battles” (Pittman 123). Viola’s femininity shines through on multiple occasions, even as Viola attempts to camouflage it as a male figure.

In Robert Dale Parker’s How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, Parker gives a probable explanation for Viola’s capability to transition between genders so effortlessly. Parker says, “[W]e can say that feminism sees women not as one thing but as many different things” (Parker 149). He continues, “… there are many different ways to enact gender, many different ways to be female or male, not one essentialist way” (Parker 149). Femininsm gives Viola an outlet to be herself while she is male and female by stating that all people are different.

There is no one particular way to be one specific gender. Despite the fact that Viola struggles to maintain her masculine identity, while also juggling her role as a soccer player and a debutante, she is still manages to dominate the patriarchal system by ultimately winning Duke and playing as a female on the all-male soccer team. In both Twelfth Night and She’s the Man, the character of Cesario and Sebastian are able to undermine the expectations of male figures, which ultimately results in a alteration of the patriarchal society.

Shakespeare is famous for all of the plays and poems that he has written, whether they are comical, romantic, or tragic, they are still being talked about, read, and performed to this day. The themes that he portrays in his plays are what keep his works exciting and timeless. The anti-patriarchal motif in both Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night are what make both plays the most memorable. The multiple gender bending love affairs that arise within the relationships of all three couples, Antony and Cleopatra, Orsino and Olivia, and ultimately, Orsino and Viola, exhibit a complete alteration of the patriarchal system in many diverse ways.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.