Role playing and Gender in Shakespeare’s "Twelfth night" and Sonnet 130

Seminar Paper, 2013

12 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

I Introduction

II The Paradox between ordinary women at Shakespeare’s time and the role of Queen Elizabeth

III Gender in Shakespeare’s Sonnett Nr. 130

IV Role Play in Shakespeare’s 12th night

V Conclusion

I Introduction

This term paper examines the question in what way Shakespeare’s sonnett Nr. 130 represents a woman, how the woman is represented in his 12th Night and how these representations correspond or disagree with the conception of a woman at Shakespeare’s time under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

This issues shall be considered under the New Historicist Approach. New Historicism is a literary theory which takes a closer look at cultural concepts and values at a given time and “the relationship between individual subjects and discourses”. (Meyer 189) This means for the examination of Shakespeare’s Sonnett and 12th night: how is a woman represented in the poem? How is a woman represented in the comedy and what does it mean that a woman performs the role of a man? To what kind of woman in Shakespeare’s time under the reign of Elizabeth I could both pieces of literature refer to?

Both the Sonnet and the comedy carry traces of the Petrarcan tradition of poetry. Whereas the Sonnett parodies this traditionnal language of love using the original form altered by “Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), Henry Howard and Early of Surrey (1517-1547)” (Meyer 53) into the English Sonnet, the comedy parodies the language of the Petrarcan lover by making a woman use this sophisticated language, disguised as a man. The subversive quality of that fact is obvious: a woman impersonating a man on stage could be seen as a parallel to a woman representing a man in English society. But it also points to the real situation of Elizabeth I on the English throne, enacting the duties which were the ones of a King before. This ambigious situation we will examine under the point of view of role game play. If we go back to the Sonnet, we could think about if this Sonnet doesn’t attribute a man’s qualities to a woman as well, as we shall see later.

II The Paradox between ordinary women at Shakespeare’s time and the role of Queen Elizabeth

In the Shakespeare’s time during the reign of Elizabeth I, women’s education was very different from today: according to Lisa Jardine, the liberating possiblities for a women laid only in “Protestantism, humanist education and marital partnership” (38). In those times, women were rather taught how to behave at home, how to cook and how to make the life at home as pleasant as possible. “The households harmony” depended upon the wife’s “serving role in the family” (Jardine 42).

Regarding protestantism, Jardine argues that the opinion of certain historians who claim that the position of the woman in the marriage – confirmed through the writing of Puritan theologists - was ameliorated through the Reformation, is only partly true. (42) In those treatises a difference is made within the “governors” – the parents - of a family (42) and “those who must be ruled” (42) – the children. Thus, the position of the wife is equal to the husband, in theory. In reality, she still had to accomplish her traditionnal duties which included the reproduction and the new freedom, which the Reformation had “given” her, assigned her “the added burden of taking share in the responsability for how the marriage turned out” (42). However, women were allowed to attend services and therefore allowed to debate the holy scriptures with their husbands, provided that they still carried out the duties of “obedience and modesty” (49).

The advantages for women of humanism and humanist education, praised by several authors who wrote about “cultivated and educated women” (51), were only available to high-ranking women. It was seen as an ornament which was not actually necessary. From the men’s point of view, education for women was only meant to occupy them, to keep them busy. Humanism in “its nature is a programme for the leisured” (52). Therefore, “with humanism it became acceptable for the first time since a comparable programme dominated antique education in a similar fashion, for women of the ruling classes to be educated to a level equivalent to that of men” (52). Elizabeth I had such a humanist education. She learnt Greek and Latin and was able to speak French and Italian. (53) As a non-married queen, she nourished a “cult of virginity” (Callaghan 37) which “allowed amorous admiration but which prohibited desire” (37). This made it possible for her to shift the “wifely duties from a household to a nation” (38). But this attitude was not appreciated by the high-ranking men at that time. Those urged her right from the “beginning of her reign” to “marry and produce an heir” (38).

Thus, we may say at that point that there was on one hand the ordinary woman who had some priviledges because of the reformation which were ambigious, on the other hand we have the woman who had the right to be educated in the humanist style. And finally, Elizabeth I as a ruler didn’t make use of education as an ornament for a woman but used it to strengthen her role as a powerfull queen.

If we connect the actual role of a woman to a woman represented on stage at that time, we should consider that the character is “a convincing portrayal of female psychology given from a distinctively male viewpoint” (Jardine 69).

III Gender in Shakespeare’s Sonnett Nr. 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips' red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare’s sonnett Nr. 130 is a parody of the traditionnal Pertrarchan love sonnett and in my opinion a parody of a sonnet written in the dolce stil novo, as the poems in this style are concerned with “the evelation of the human soul through love” (my translation, Förster 64) In the Petrarchan love sonnett the beloved woman is far away and unreachable because she is married. Nevertheless, in oposition to the dolce stil novo, the adored woman is a real woman who lived at Petrarch’s time and who was aging – not only in real life but also in the sonnets of the Canzoniere. In his Canzoniere, Petrarch made use of his knowledge of the human psyche and the ability to “reflect upon himself” (66).

It is this self reflection which is essential for his poetic language which is self centred and which shows that Petrarch is torn between carnal love and pure divine love resulting in a platonic love relation with his adored. Inspite of that, Förster describes Petrarchs language in the canzoniere as “apparently simple” (63), using images of symbolic landscapes. According to Förster, those landscapes are never described in a realistic way but tend to “provide a frame for an athmosphere of Petrarchs feelings” (64).


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Role playing and Gender in Shakespeare’s "Twelfth night" and Sonnet 130
University of Stuttgart  (Institut für Literaturwissenschaft)
Einführung in die Literaturwissenschaft
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ISBN (Book)
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role, gender, shakespeare’s, twelfth, sonnet
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Julia Wuggenig (Author), 2013, Role playing and Gender in Shakespeare’s "Twelfth night" and Sonnet 130, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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