The transgression of Gender in Shakespeare's Comedy 'Twelfth Night'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. The Definition of Gender
2.1. Cross-dressing
2.2. Marriage

3. The two contrasting women

3.1. Petrarch's influence
3.2. The female p ers p ective
3.3. The male pers pective

4. Same sex love in Twelfth Night
4.1. The ideal of male friendship
4.2. Orsino and Viola
4.3. Olivia and Sebastian
4.4. Antonio and Sebastian
4.5. The solution in legal marriage

5. Conclusion

6 Literature

1 Introduction

Disguise, I see thou art wickedness

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much. (Shakespeare 3.1.55-59)

Women mistaken for men, men mistaken for women, disguised as men - this play with identity and gender does not seem to be a new topic for the theatre audience of the 21. century. But in Elizabethan England, where identity and the question of class were very important for society, these confusing relationships shown on stage must have been puzzling. Although confusions over identity are nothing new in comedy since classical times, it is Shakespeare who mainly focused on the issue of gender in his comedies. In Twelfth Night, he plays with the cultural constructions of his time, for example the question of gender and erotic attraction, even between partners of the same sex.

N o wonder some contemporary polemical writers attacked the theatre, characterizing it to be a "seed-bed for sexual depravity". But nonetheless, Shakespeare's play exposes the strangeness of these attitudes towards sexuality and gender. It gives later generations an interesting insight in the uncertainties that surrounded this topic, especially in the late 16th century. As one of the characters who challenge these social constructions, Viola dresses up as a man and transforms the conventional ideal of women in Elizabethan England. This transgression of gender shall be the topic of this paper.

Starting with the ideals of the Renaissance and Elizabethan England, concerning different fields like the definition of gender, marriage and the view on cross-dressing, I want to give an overview of the cultural constructions of this society. These assumptions are supported by some contemporary views of the 16th century on these topics. After this theoretical background is given, the focus in the main part will be on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and its characters. At first, I want to point out how the women of the play see themselves and afterwards how the men depict them. The aim is to show whether the women live up to the men's- and Renaissance standards. Secondly, I want to go a bit further and analyse the occurring same sex relationships in the play because they tell the reader a lot about the view on gender and relationships in Elizabethan England. But I do not only want to point out how gender is transgressed in Twelfth Night but also why Shakespeare used conventional or unconventional characters and topics for his play. In the last part, I will discuss the question why the characters are paired in a legal marriage in the end. Thereby, my assumptions in this part will primarily be supported by Stephen Greenblatt's theses. Then I will summarize the most striking points, findings and results in a summary.

2. The Definition of Gender

In the early stages of the Elizabethan Age, feminist critics had to face a "fairly homogenous and privileged domain of male scholarship" (Barker, Kamps 1) . This dominance was justified by the definition of gender at that time, which granted more power to the males than females.

The way in which Shakespare's contemporaries understood gender and the human body was primarily influenced by the model of a Greek physician called Galen in the second century AD (cf. Massai 9). According to him, male and female sexual organs were structurally similar. What changed was the position of these organs, depending on the temperature in the body. So when men and women were believed to be basically the same, society needed other distinctive features like behaviour or clothing to differ between them. Society also believed that all males go through a transition during childhood where they are close to being female - called „effeminate" at that time - and then grow to an adult man. When a man still kept these female parts as an adult he was seen to remain effeminate. And when male and female elements were equally present in a human body, a "hermaphrodite" could be formed (cf. Greenblatt 88).

Another model which was developed by the humanist Erasmus describes men and women as persons „equal in virtue“. According to the model, equality results from their “common creation of God“, which is expressed in their “mental gifts“ (Turner 92). But he does not grant women the ability of moral choice or autonomy. They can sometimes share the authority with men but the male must “retain his authority at all times“ (cf. Turner 93).

So according to Galen and the Humanist Movement, men and women were physically the same but still men were in a higher, stronger position. Some early feminists attacked this categorization and proposed a social and sometimes even political equality between men and women of the same rank (cf. Turner 94).

Many male writers of Shakespeare's period regarded gender as a sign of distinction, but still a man had more advantages than a woman could attain (cf. Greenblatt 88). So the Renaissance audience was delighted by stories of transformations - in social order, religion or language - and by cross-dressing.

The most important strategy, which occurs in many of Shakespeare's plays, was the one of disguise. Cross-dressing was highly controversial at the Elizabethan time, but still it was performed on stage.

2.1. Cross-dressing

In a time when men and women were experienced as being identical, it was very important to uphold the gender differences with fixed dress and behavioural codes. That is the reason why cross-dressing was seen by some contemporary writers as a “threat against natural and social order“ (Massai 11). As Philip Stubbes puts it in his work The Anatomy of Abuses, published in 1583: „[...] what man so euer weareth womans apparel is accursed, and what woman weareth mans apparell, is accursed also.“ (Stubbes 26). Dressing like the other sex is seen as a sin, because “apparel was given as a signe distinctiue, to discerne betwist sexe and sexe [...]“ (Stubbes 26). According to him and Elizabethan society, one could not change one’s sex and participate with the other sex.

But although cross-dressing was seen as a sin in biblical terms. Shakespeare - like other playwriters in Italia and Spain - used it in Twelfth Night, but not only for a comical effect. In order to find a way of making women speak, without letting them look immodest, they had to wear men's clothes. In disguise they were taken seriously on stage. (cf. Maslen 132)

But there are also two women in the play, who do not dress up as men: the Countess Olivia and her waiting woman Maria. Olivia clearly states what she wants, regardless of customs and within the “[...]verbal expressions!...]“ (Maslen 132) of the ruling class, Maria embodies an ”[...]active and articulate[...]“ (Maslen, 132) woman, who is very witty and tricks the others. This is why Sir Toby Belch marries her in the end: “She's a beagle, true bred, and one that adores me.“ (Shakespeare 2.3.151). Also the other characters end up in a marriage, mostly for different reasons, which will be explained in the following chapter.

2.2. Marriage:

The view on marriage changed dramatically during the fifteenth century, especially after the Tudors had come to power and with the rise of Humanism. In medieval times, when England was Catholic, biblical texts supported the view that women were weaker than men (in physical and moral sense) and that they were not seen as equal partners (Massai 8). As a result, the husband ruled over his wife, children and servants. But with the upcoming Humanism, the attitude towards marriage changed. Humanists believed that men and women could reach an equal status and that only harmony and companionship lead to a happy married life (cf. Massai 9). When Henry VIII declared the Church of England's independence from Rome, Protestant and Puritan theologians supported the humanist views in order to separate from the Catholic Church. But although an equal status was seen as the ideal, men were still regarded as the authority of the family, like Tilney describes it in The Flower of friendship: “[...]both divine and humaine laws, in our religion giveth the man absolute authorities over women in all places.“(cf. Massai 9). Still the women's central role was to construct an ordered household that would raise moral and upright children which will be the future rulers of society. The moral family was seen as the basis of a state and held up the rules and standards for society, for example the correct result of sex, namely legitimate children and then marrying within their own class again (cf. Ruggiero 12-13). But often marriage was also seen as a chance to attain a higher status at patrimony.

Malvolio who wants to marry the wealthy widow Olivia has clearly an interest in reaching a higher level in society. And also Orsino, who is a duke, has no interest in Olivia's actual thoughts and feelings. His opening speech is only about his own experience of desire, about the vision and ideal picture he has about her. He is fashioning the Petrarchan picture of the moaning lover who can never reach the love of his life (cf. Maslen 133). Especially in Twelfth Night, there is a great gap between the idealized women imagined by the male persons in the play and the women depicted on stage, typified by Viola, Olivia and Maria.

3. The two contrasting women

Theoretical texts about the relationship between men and women give us an insight in the conventions of the Elizabethan Age regarding gender and especially the view on women. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night reflects these conventions and gives the reader maybe a more realistic picture of women than idealistic texts. On the one hand Elizabethan society fashioned the chaste and silent woman who stood under the authority of her husband and on the other hand, Shakespeare showed women on stage who choose their partners on their own and break the rules of dressing.


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The transgression of Gender in Shakespeare's Comedy 'Twelfth Night'
University of Wuppertal
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Shakespeare, Comedy, Twelfth Night, Gender, transgression, Petrarch
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Annika Bolten (Author), 2010, The transgression of Gender in Shakespeare's Comedy 'Twelfth Night', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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