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Viola’s Gender Roles in Twelfth Night


The fluidity and uncertainty with which Viola presents gender is main to the drama of Twelfth Night. However to what level are Viola’s gender roles necessary to the comedy of the play? The arrivals of Viola and Sebastian in Illyria serve as the drivers for drama in Twelfth Night. The presence of twins of various sexes yet identical in appearance is a dramaturgical device essential to the comic resolution, whilst being somewhat farcical.

It is the misconceptions which Viola’s cross-dressing undoubtedly triggers which make her inverted gender functions so important to the comedy of the play. Through her camouflage, she presumes typically male roles such as of the ‘fool’, and the comic worth of her double identity is heightened through the questioning of the gender conventions of Shakespearean theatre.

Yet, Viola’s disguise brings with it a stress of melancholy, lessening her assumed gender roles’ comic effect on the play. Viola’s cross-dressing overturns normality in the regard that she abruptly presumes normally male functions such as that of the Fool. Her first meeting with Olivia as a messenger of Orsino’s love is marked by her different technique to courtship.

She introduces into a preprepared speech of compliments with a poetic apostrophe: ‘most radiant, elegant and unmatchable charm’, just to break into prose to inspect that she is undoubtedly speaking with Olivia. Viola’s repeatedly her speech as conventionally courtly, as it is ‘wonderfully well penned’ and’t is poetical’; yet, these comments basically describe its artificiality.

In fact, juxtaposed to the opening of the play, this whole conference is a parody of Orsino’s cliché method and undoubtedly the conventions of courtly love. Viola deflates the romantic pretensions of Orsino’s embassy, and such ridicule of the ‘male archetype’ by a lady is extremely funny for its suspension of the accepted inferiority of ladies in society.

Yet, somewhat more ridiculous is the fact she has also accidentally presumed his positions of Olivia’s courtier and certainly of a character of terrific power and superiority, as her actions complimentary both Orsino and Olivia of their rigidity. Furthermore, it is such witty manipulations of others that prove her to be a type of fool.

Act Three Scene One is marked by Viola and Feste’s repartee of attempts to exceed each other’s wit; Viola’s reply to Feste’s comment ‘Now Jove in his next product send thee a beard’ is ‘I am practically ill for one, though I would not have it grow on my chin’. Both remarks are pointed references to gender and are hence dramatic paradox;

Feste’s taunting of Cesario’s absence of potency might also act as a humorous meta-theatrical referral to the boy actor playing Viola. Nevertheless, there is a degree of pathos to Viola’s admission, as the beard she desires if not her own is undoubtedly that of Orsino; consequently, she emphasises the complications of her disguise in pursuing her love interest.

Yet, most popular is Viola’s parallel to Feste as a Fool. They have a mutual gratitude of each other’s wit, as Feste comments: ‘I think I saw your knowledge there’, whilst Viola appreciates the intelligence behind his foolery: ‘for folly that he sensibly reveals is fit …’ She realises the irrationality around her and utilizes it to her advantage in picking to cross-dress. Definitely, the whole nature of her disguise itself concerns the spaces of seeming, being and knowing, of which the Fool typically checks out. Such obstacles to male functions make her gender ambiguity amplify the funny of the play.

Viola was played by a kid actor under the conventions of Shakespearean theatre, and this physical reality adds a level of confusion heightening the comedy of her gender roles. Such misplacement is denounced by Olivia’s remark in Act One: ‘you are now out of your text/ however we will draw the curtain and reveal you the photo’ and definitely by the duplicated allusions to Cesario’s femininity, such as Orsino’s remark on her appearance: ‘all is semblative a woman’s part’.

Olivia’s unveiling is a turning point as it represents the end of the grieving for her dead bro and basically ‘enables’ the comedy to commence for the audience. It is an ironic act to a character ‘veiled’ herself, and meta-theatrical referral of ‘drape’ indicates the misplacement of the star of Viola as much as the character.

For as much as her camouflage is her own tactic, it is Shakespeare’s remarkable device. Orsino ridicules Cesario for his absence of virility, yet he may likewise be discussing the male actor’s credibility for the ‘part’ of a woman. No matter how encouraging the kid star was playing Viola, the audience is continuously aware that there is a male body under the disguise of a lady and thus a double sex turnaround is happening in Viola’s camouflage.

Yet, the ‘curtain’ could be symbolic of the discovering of far more extreme techniques than the conformities of Elizabethan theatre. Much of the play’s funny originates from Shakespeare’s trifling with homosexuality. In Elizabethan England, the idea of such relationships would have been uncommon and considerably more unreasonable than a modern-day audience might value.

The misunderstandings triggered by Viola’s cross-dressing are the root of what audiences of the day would have seen as comic ambiguity. The audience understands Olivia unsuspectingly desires a lady when she is drawn to the young servant, and we see the relationship in between Orsino and Cesario develop throughout the course of the play; indeed, some contemporary productions reveal the bond between them in overtly homosexual terms to heighten the funny. In keeping with the conventions of Elizabethan comedy as an entire, the play solves in heterosexual marriage; yet, regardless of references to Viola in female clothes, this never really takes place.

Orsino’s parting lines are: ‘Cesario, come–/ For so shall you be while you are a male’. Unique recommendations to her male alias yet none of her womanly form still signify a comic male to male relationship. For, whilst the fact using a male star for Viola is funny in itself, it is the extreme ramifications of this role that make Viola’s character so vital to the funny of Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, regardless of the obvious comic ramifications of her disguise, from Viola’s double identity emerges sexual dispute and the capacity for tragedy.

In her aside at the end of Act 2 Scene 2, she sympathises with Olivia, remarking ‘poor lady, she were much better love a dream’, emphasising that as a things of Olivia’s desire she is unattainable. She comprehends since as Cesario her love for Orsino can not be reciprocated. He insinuates her gender obscurity in the previous act: ‘For they shall yet belie thy delighted years,/ That state thou art a man’. For whilst the camouflage grants her access to both celebrations, the cost she pays is the loss of any gender identity, as she can not be a female to Orsino or a male to Olivia.

She regularly mentions her gender disparity, such as when Olivia confesses her love in Act Three Scene One, as Viola’s reply is: ‘I am not what I am.’ Her action is remarkable paradox at its most specific and effectively summarises the level of her travesty in inciting Olivia’s love. Nevertheless, this statement is common of her expression throughout the play; such evasions and wordplay are due to the fact that she can not mention her genuine self.

To the audience, it is rather striking that her genuine name is not pronounced up until the extremely last scene, when Sebastian welcomes her: ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola.’ The play’s resolution lines up with the conventions of comedy in settling misunderstandings and showing a ‘happy ending’; there is no sense of Viola’s private identity till the reunion with her brother, when proper gender functions are asserted.

Nevertheless, the disaster of her character is increased even more by the reality Orsino does not even mention her genuine name in his parting line. Overall, while some critics argue Viola is the most developed of the characters in Twelfth Night, for she is not constrained to a stock character, this inevitably adds an oblique side.

Her gender roles may increase the comedy, but the emotional toll of the camouflage which she calls a ‘wickedness’ must not be neglected, and detract her from the function as a basic possession in the play’s comedy.

To conclude, the inversion of her gender functions is glowing of the ‘carnival spirit’ so widespread in Twelfth Night. We see that the play’s funny is very much improved by Viola’s cross-dressing, in as much the gender conventions her masquerade breaks as the inescapable misconceptions.

However, we see also that cross-dressing has certain terrible implications, true to the nature of comedy harbouring a dark underside. Therefore, her gender functions are to a limited level necessary to the funny of the play.

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