The Effect of Viola's Disguise on the Society of "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017
24 Pages, Grade: 3,0



1. Introduction

2. Definition of Gender according to Judith Butler's Gender Theory
2.1 Concept of Gender Performativity
2.2 Heteronormative Society

3.Two opposed Characters in one Person
3.1 Connection of female and male markers represented by Viola
3.2 Violas Gender Performance with respect to the Concept of Gender Performativity

4. Same sex love in Twelfth Night
4.1 Male friendship, focusing Antonio and Sebastian
4.2 Love Triangle
4.2.1 Olivia and Viola
4.2.2 Viola and Orsino
4.2.3 Orsino and Olivia
4.3 The Effect of Viola's Disguise
4.4 Legal marriage as the Solution

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons! / A natural perspective, that is and is not.” (V,1,209-210) A image which seems to dominate the playTwelfth Night or What you will,form William Shakespeare. It is said that “Twelfth Nightpresents a vision of female erotic desire and constant amity through […] 'structural imagination' of theatrical cross-dressing.”[1]An aspect which seemed to be a taboo in the Elizabethan England due to the fact that identity, class and society where very important at this time. Shakespeare's staging ofTwelfth Nightis therefore described as a “conflict between represented and representing bodies but also the presence of a single body in a double aspect.”[2]Within this imagine of cross-dressing the aspect of desire toward the same sex is mentioned and produces a confusion. Greenblatt phrases it as followed “The delicious confusion ofTwelfth Nightdepends upon the mobility of desire”[3]Due to the fact that the main protagonist, Viola is disguised as a man, triggers a certain confusion which is recognized throughout the whole play. Her gender role in the society and her relation to the other characters, especially the relation to Orsino and Olivia is questioned.

Therefore I will start with a definition of gender according to Judith Butler's Theory. Important aspects like her concept of Gender Performativity as well as the aspect of a heteronormative society will be in the main focus. Her assumptions and theses of her workGender Troublewill be taken in account. After this theoretical view of gender is given, the following aspect will be concerned with the protagonist Viola and her disguised self, Cesario. The connection of female and male markers will play a big role within the interpretation of Viola. Furthermore her appearance and her gender performance with respect to Judith Butler's Theory shall be discussed. After this detailed look on Viola's characteristics is provided, I will turn to the main part of this paper, the relation between the characters of the playTwelfth Night.The implied imagine of same sex love shall be in the main focus. In the face of this imagine, the male friendship between Sebastian and Antonio, as well as the confusing relation between the characters involved in the love triangle, Viola, Orsino and Olivia, will be considered. The next point which is concerned with the effect of Viola's disguise and how the society is influenced by her disguise will lead to the solution and clarification of the confusion of the love triangle, legal marriage between two opposite sexes. This discussion will be based on Stephen Greenblatt's theses stated inFiction and Friction.

So I will ask myself the question how Viola's disguise is connected to her gender identity according to Judith Butler's theory and how her performance affects the characters and the society inTwelfth Night.Finally I will conclude the most interesting results and aspects, in respect to the effects of Viola's disguise in a summary.

2. Definition of Gender according to Judith Butler's Gender Theory

Judith Butler was born in 1954 in Cleveland, Ohio and raised by intellectual parents with a jewish background. Therefore she started early to deal with critical and influential literature which affected her academic career. She studied at diverse universities like Yale University, University of California and even spend a year in Germany to study German Idealism. Her bookGender Trouble, where she discusses her Gender Theory and especially the distinction betweensex, genderanddesireis counted as one of her most influential ones. In the following her Gender Theory, but first and foremost the importance of performance in terms of gender, as well as the incorporation in a heterosexual society shall be discussed.

With her Gender Theory Judith Butler challenges the existing gender theories by other feminist writers and argues against a binary system including male and female as well as masculine and feminine. To support this argument she expresses that “[t]he political assumption that there must be a universal basis for feminism, [...]” is problematic.[4]Furthermore she makes clear that it is impossible to create one fixed term forwomenbecause

the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities.[5]

Butler draws attention to the distinction and the connection between gender, sex and the society by explaining that “gender is culturally constructed : hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor seemingly fixed as sex.”[6]Which leads again to the argumentation against a binary system, but at some point Butler uses the termheterosexual matrixthrough “which bodies, genders, and desires are naturalized.”[7]So there must be some kind of categorisation even though Butler argues that [t]he presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender and sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice.[8]

Sara Salih, who writes about Judith Butler and the aspect of Performativity puts it differently “Butler has collapsed the sex/gender distinction in order to argue that there is no sex that is not always already gender. All bodies are gendered from the beginning of their social existence[...] which means that there is nonatural bodythat pre-exists its cultural inscription.”[9]Butler's Theory and therefore her notion that gender is created and shaped by external effects, is influenced by Simone de Beauvoir who states in her bookThe Second Sex“one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one.”[10]This argument supports Butler's theses that gender is formed, but as already mentioned, Butler goes further and explains that the termgenderis impossible to categories in a binary system.

To sum up, Butler considers several aspects, like the individual performance and the expectations of the society towards this performance, to explain her Gender Theory. The aspect of performance shall be discussed in the following.

2.1 Concept of Gender Performativity

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performativity constituted by the veryexpressionsthat are said to be the result.”[11]Simply, gender identities are performances, so rather a depiction of your actions within a period of time than a description of your personality. Butler argues that this performance and her

theory of gender performativity presupposes that norms are acting on us before we have a chance to act at all, and that when we do act, we recapitulate the norms that act upon us, perhaps in new or unexpected ways, but still in relation to norms that precede us and exceed us.[12]

To reformulate this, norms which we get taught and which are lived in our surrounding, influence our actions, mostly unwittingly. This argument is supported by the statement, “Gender performance involves public, repetitive actions of movement, gesture, posture, dress, labor, production, interaction with objects, and the manipulation of space.”[13]which is quoted from her workGender Trouble.

In other words Butler emphasizes the fact that the performance of gender depends on its surrounding and the exterior influences. This means in conclusion that we rather live norms that influence us unacknowledged than acting out a desired gender. In her workBodies That Matter,Butler discusses the connection of performativity and constraint

Performativity is neither free play nor theatrical self-representation; nor can it be simply equated with performance. Moreover, constraint is not necessarily that which sets limit to performativity; constraint is, rather, that which impels and sustains performativity.[14]

After all “Butler argues that performances always fail to adequately conform to he citational precendet. Performance never completely forecloses the difference between a norm and its citation in action.”[15]In conclusion, Butler emphasizes the fact that gender is based on the individual performance or as Sara Salih put it “that gender is not something oneis,it is something onedoes,an act, or more precisely, a sequence of acts, a verb rather than a noun, a “doing” rather than a “being”.”[16]Here Salih refers back to the first chapter ofGender Trouble.When it comes to interpreting the characteristics of Viola inTwelfth Nightand the aspect of her disguise, as well as her gender performance, Judith Butler theory will be taken into account again.

2.2 Heteronormative Society

In general Heteronormativity describes the belief of an existing complementary system of gender and coherently natural gender roles with predefined sexual orientation within a norm. The termHeteronormativityalready implies that it is concerned with heterosexual relations between two opposite sexes and is therefore viewed as a social classification system which relies on the assumption that gender follows a normative heterosexual desire. Everything that deviates from this norm is considered as abnormal behaviour.In the second chapter of her bookGender Trouble,Judith Butler “characterize[s] a hegemonic discursive/epistemic model of gender intelligibility” and draws attention to the notion of Monique Wittig “ of the 'heterosexual contract' and, to a lesser extent, [to] Adrienne Rich's notion of 'compulsory heterosexuality'”[17]Within this discourse Butler refers back to Joan Riviere's essay “Womanliness as a Masquerade”, where Riviere “introduces the notion of femininity as a masquerade in terms of a theory of aggression and conflict resolution.”[18]Basic principles of this notion are adapted by Judith Butler to her own thoughts, she rephrases it with the words Femininity is taken on by a woman who “wishes for masculinity,” but fears the retributive consequences of taking on the public appearance of masculinity. Masculinity is taken on by the male homosexual who, presumably, seeks to hide – not from other, but from himself – an ostensible femininity.[19]

Butler includes the aspect of “the public appearance” which leads again to a public society that is characterized by heteronormative norms and desires. On these grounds, Butler argues that “Femininity becomes a mask that dominates/resolves a masculine identification, for a masculine identification would, within the presumed heterosexual matrix of desire, produce a desire for a female object,[...]”[20]

As a result of this notion and the norm that acts on homosexual woman and men, woman tend to hide their masculine identification by taking on a feminine mask to conform to theheterosexual matrix,and in the reverse, men embracing their masculine mask to hide their femininity. This aspect can easily be refereed back to performance and the norm that unwittingly influences us.

For the following interpretation it is important to keep in mind that a heteronormative society or as Butler puts it,heterosexual matrix,mediates particular norms, which affect the gender performance and therefore the appearance of gender in this society. This aspect of a heteronormative society will again come up in connection with the interpretation of the same-sex love and the analysis of the legal marriage in the playTwelfth Night or What you willby William Shakespeare.

3.Two opposed Characters in one Person

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons! / A natural perspective, that is and is not.” (V,1,209-210) That is how Orsino expresses his confusion when he first meets Sebastian and learns that he married Olivia, believing Sebastian to be his friend and servant Cesario. His confusion is triggered by the fact that Viola incorporates two opposed characters, on the one hand the characteristics of a loving women which are mainly recognized by the reader due to the knowledge of her disguise and on the other hand the characteristics of a young gentlemen. The connection of these characteristics as well as female and male markers which are represented by Viola, shall be discussed in the following.

3.1 Connection of female and male markers represented by Viola

After the shipwreck Viola believes her brother to be dead and therefore decides to dress up as a man to convince, Orsino, the duke of Illyria, to employ her.

I prithee, and I'll pay thee bounteously, / 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 shall present me as an eunuch to him; / It may be worth thy pains, for I can sing / And speak to him in many sorts of music, ( I,2,52-58)

Her disguise as a man first and foremost is characterised by the change of her appearance which is rather male than female. This becomes clear in the first act at the beginning of scene four, where the instructions tell the reader that Viola appears in man's cloth. “Viola in man´s attire “(I,4) and even is addressed as Cesario, the name she has given herself as a male characteristic. To keep her imagine as a man upright, Viola even entitles herself as a gentleman in front of Olivia. “I am a gentleman.“ (I,5,263) and Olivia is convinced by Viola/Cesario's looks and actions because she replies “I'll be sworn thou art; / Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit, / Do give thee five-fold blazon.” (I,5,275-277)

Violas appearance as a man attracts Olivia that much that Viola believes her to be in love with male disguised identity. “Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her! / She made good view of me; indeed, so much / That methought her eyes had lost her tongue, / For she did speak in stars distractedly. / She loves me, sure:” (II,2,16-20) So Viola believes her appearance to have cozened Olivia's mind and heart.

And even though Olivia believes Viola's disguise, other characters like Malvolio do not quite know how to describe Cesario. “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young / enough for a boy [...] He is very well-favour'd /, and he speaks very shrewishly; one would think / his mother's milk were scarce out of him.” (I,5,148-153) So Malvolio ascribes rather female characteristics to Viola/Cesario without exactly stating them, whereas Orsino who seems to be Cesario's closest friend describes Viola/Cesario with female characteristics and uses body parts of women as comparison. “Dear lad, believe it, / For they shall yet belie thy happy years / That say thou art a man: Diana's lip / is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe / Is as the maiden's organ, shill and sound,/ And all is semblative a woman's part.” (I,4,28-33) All of these characters got to know Viola as a man and have no association to doubt her male identity, but even her brother Sebastian who actually only knows her female identity describes Viola to bear a resemblance to himself without knowing her in disguise. “A lady, sir, though it was said she much resembled me, was yet of many accounted beautiful; […] She bore a mind that envy could not call fair.” (II,2,22-26)


[1]Schalkwyk, David. 2010. The Discourses of Friendship and the Structural Imagination of Shakespeare's Theatre: Montaigne, “Twelfth Night”, De Gourany. Renaissance Drama.Volume 38. 141-171. The University of Chicago Press for Northwestern University.S.142.

[2]Schalkwyk, David. (2010).S.142.

[3]Greenblatt, Stephen. 2001. “Fiction and Friction”. Shakespearean negotiations: the circulation of social energy In Renaissance England.66-93.S.93.

[4]Butler, Judith. (1990). Gender Trouble.New York: Routledge., S.3.

[5]Butler, Judith. (1990). S.3.

[6]Butler, Judith. (1990). S.6.

[7]Blumenfeld, Warren J.(ed.); Sönser Breen, Margaret (ed.). 2005. Butler Matter's, Judith Butler's Impact on Feminist and Queer Stuies.Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.S.131.

[8]Butler, Judith. (1990). S.6.

[9]Salih, Sara. 2002. On Judith Butler and Performativity. Judith Butler.55-67. London: Routledge.S.55.

[10]Butler, Judith.(1990) S.8.

[11]Butler, Judith. (1990) S.25.

[12]Butler, Judith. 2009. Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics.Revista de Antropología Iberomanericana Volume 4, Número 3. University of California, Berkley.xi.

[13]Blumenfeld, Sönser Breen.(2005).S.115.

[14]Blumenfeld, Sönser Breen.(2005).S.141.

[15]Blumenfeld, Sönser Breen.(2005).S.123.

[16]Salih, Sara. (2002). S.55.

[17]Blumenfeld, Sönser Breen.(2005).S.131-132.

[18]Judith, Butler. (1990). S.50.

[19]Judith, Butler. (1990). S.51.

[20]Judith, Butler. (1990). S.53.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Effect of Viola's Disguise on the Society of "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare
University of Constance
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
583 KB
effect, viola, disguise, twelfth, night, william, shakespeare
Quote paper
Emilie Platt (Author), 2017, The Effect of Viola's Disguise on the Society of "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Effect of Viola's Disguise on the Society of "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free