Sample Essay on Twelfth Night: Gender and Sexual Identity

Twelfth Night: Gender and Sexual Identity

Twelfth Night is an important piece of literature that examines the aspect of gender and sexual identity in the context of the ancient culture. The literature expounds on the patriarchal society where gender roles are based on the femininity and masculinity instead of social convention. In the play, it may be seen as if there is identity confusion in gender identity especially when the female roles are assumed by male characters in the case of Viola. In fact, the subject of sexuality could be viewed as entangled within self-doubt as well as inquiry. Not only does gender and sexuality border on order on one side, but also on disorder on another. Viola, who can “sing both high and low” (II, iii, 35), is used to make valid questions on gender and sexual identity of the Shakespearean period, albeit through a sense of order and disorder. In more instances than one, her identity is seen to be double-gendered as she transverses her character roles as both a male and as a female. The play is successful in confronting the contemporary generalizations and stereotypes on gender and sexuality, particularly on what it is perceived and expected of a woman. Twelfth Night raises questions on the standard image of each gender and the aspects of hegemonic patriarchy. Through the concept of gender and sexuality embodied deeply through Viola, Shakespeare manages to demonstrate that women can perform beyond their expected roles. Twelfth Night changes the perception ofgender and sexual identity by challenging the cultural and social norms.By association and interaction, Shakespeare introduces a new edge over sexual identity through theatre that was not accommodated openly in the then society.Twelfth Night redefines other identities apart from being male or female. This paper argues that gender and sexuality evolve throughout Twelfth Nightto incorporate other “confused” identities.

Gender and sexuality norms can either be a source of hindrance or inspiration in the pursuit of pleasure, fulfillment, ambitions, and life opportunities. This is especially true in a patriarchal society where there are expectations of each gender. However, Twelfth Night reflects this divide in different light by using Viola. Viola demonstrates that she can achieve what would have been thought only achievable by men. For example, she proves that there is a blend of masculine and feminine behaviors by marrying the man she had desired. She achieves this fate by adopting the character of a male and a female in the literal sense and in the process, manipulates the Duke who is in a relationship with Olivia into marrying her. In manipulating the Duke, she does not allow herself to be engulfed by the societal expectations and acts as a mediator between Olivia and the Duke where she manages to woo another woman on behalf of the Duke whom he loves. She manages to center Duke’s feelings of love on Olivia by making him acknowledge no one can satisfy his love like she. The Duke states, “If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it…” (1.1).This shows his feeling of being drawn more to being in love. This proves that although the female gender continued to face critical conflicts in resolving the societal expectations, they had the power to move beyond the limiting roles. At the initial stages of the play, Viola continuously disguises herself as Cesario and does not appear to hesitate to switch to her feminine self. She says,yet, a barful strife! “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (I, v, 41). This proves that there is a sense of dependence between Viola and Cesario that is important to her plan in the race to woo Olivia on behalf of Orsino. This proves that there is a thin cross-divide between masculine and feminine roles as opposed to what patriarchal societies would love to depict as distinct differences, expectations, and abilities.

Twelfth Night provides a sense of indeterminacy in sexual identity through the Viola and Cesario roles. This shows that masculinity and femininity are mere aspects of a role. It also proves that the qualities associated with being male and female are learned rather than pegged on immutable physical features. For example, when Sir Andrew and Cesario enter into a duel, it is observed that they are playing out the role of men. In this sense, the biological aspect of Sir Andrew’s gender becomes obsolete. In the same argument of noting the construct of gender and sexuality, Shakespeare uses Viola to challenge the stereotypes. Where it would have been expected for Olivia to be submissive and passive, she does the contrary. From the beginning, she adopts a relatively higher masculine role. Even though she is of the female gender, her social role resonates with power over the youthful Cesario. She dominates that character as the household leader. In an interaction with Viola, she quickly expresses her stand by stating, “Now, sir, what is your text?” (I, v, 220).She proves that control and authority are not exclusively male roles as she successfully stops Viola from reiterating Orsino’s preference when she continues, “Is’t not well done?” (I, v, 235). This is the form of gender role reversal that Shakespeare achieves through the play indicating that women could do just as well as their male counterparts.

Twelfth Night provides the best platform for understanding how paradigms of sexuality are consistently disbanded. It is arguable that the cultural meaning attributed to gender can be applied to either sex in the theoretical sense. Shakespeare uses the play to question the assumption that there is a pre-meditated subjectivity that links to masculinity and femininity. Through Viola/Cesario, it is evident that sexuality should be viewed as the result of cultural constructions specified by gender. Viola is just one of the characters that challenge the realm of biological inherence by proving that one can adopt either gendered identities. An individual can choose to be a man or even a woman. Viola, Olivia, Sebastian, and Antonio play a huge role in challenging the exclusionary norm of the already constructed forms of sexuality. In contrast to what the society expects, Shakespeare introduces a new lie of same-sex interaction and association between Olivia and Viola. The cross-dressing role of Viola also plays a critical role in confronting the ideal norms of gender construction in the society. For example, Olivia acknowledges that her wooing role could hurt the masculinity of Cesario. Since the male gender responsibilities relied on how women were treated. She claims, “Do not extort thy reasons for this clause, / For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,” (III, i, 153-4). This may seem to be a sign of conformity which populist societies would praise, but Twelfth Night moves on the contrary. The play steps in the context of love which is not constrained by the gender roles. It is only then that the case of a female couple is entertained while the dominant form of the male gender is subverted. Olivia and Viola may have ended up in their gender-prescribed roles, but the idea of female empowerment is instilled. The gender roles and relationships that are viewed through Viola/Antonio and Antonio/Sebastian are more progressive if the context of the then culture is to be considered. In short, the play proves that gender and sexuality are mere constructs of the society.

Gender and sexuality is an aspect that has formed part of a long-standing controversy over what is expected in the society. Male and female roles have been passed along from one generation to another with those going against the expectations being increasingly admonished in various societies. However, Twelfth Night explores the field of gender and sexuality differently by challenging gender constructs related to masculine and feminine characters. Viola, the female protagonist, goes in search of her brother but in a male character.The bigger implication of this revelation is that the society begins to accept other forms of identities such as homosexual and bisexual relations rather than sticking with male and female “constructs”.


Work Cited

Shakespeare, William, Samuel Johnson and George Steevens. Twelfth night, or, What you will. John Bioren, 1801.