Twelfth Night Present Me As An Eunuch: Female Identity in Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare

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Present Me As An Eunuch: Female Identity in Twelfth Night

(Shakespeare for Students)

Throughout Twelfth Night Shakespeare examines patterns of love and courtship through a repositioning of traditional Elizabethan gender roles. The familiar comic formula of identical twins creating confusion is employed with an added twist so that identical twins of opposite gender provide the foundation for the comic confusion. Viola, the protagonist, is stranded on the shores of a foreign land by a shipwreck. She adopts the identity of her brother, Sebastian, so that she can live in safety without a male protector. Shakespeare uses the comedy behind Viola's gender transformation to explore the notion that concepts of romantic love are not always selective by gender. In the course of the play we are presented with a series of same-gender love situations (Olivia for Viola, Orsino for Cesario-Viola, Antonio for Sebastian) that parallel "legitimate" opposite gender love relationships (Orsino for Olivia, Viola for Orsino, Maria for Sir Toby and in some respects Malvolio for Olivia). The result is a unique "comedy of gender" that uses gender and disguise of gender to reveal one of the play's chief messages: "nothing that is so, is so" (IV.i.8).

The "unnatural" love relationships in Twelfth Night highlight a major gender issue in Shakespearean drama: the role of boy players. They also bring into account the position of Elizabethan women in society and how that position was undergoing subtle changes during the period. Shakespeare's notion of Elizabethan gender roles, and in particular those of Elizabethan women, was presumably that of the accepted theological doctrine, which taught that Adam was created first, and Eve from his body; she was created specifically to give him comfort, and was to be subordinate to him, to obey him and to accept her lesser status. Thus, to Elizabethans the concept of sexual equality would have been anathema. A dominant woman was unnatural, a symptom of disorder. Shakespeare apparently endorses this belief in his comedies, returning his heroines to the accepted and "safe" role of wife/daughter once the resolution of the play takes place. However the theatre itself is a place of fluidity and artifice where "nothing that is so, is so." I will discuss the ways in which Shakespearean theatrical conventions override Elizabethan notions of the female role and in Twelfth Night, establish female characters not as two-dimensional Elizabethan archetypes but as tenacious and distinct characters with a strong sense of identity.

Viola, the chief female protagonist, is by far the strongest character in Twelfth Night . After the tragic shipwreck that has separated her from her brother, Viola disguises herself as a man for most of the play not only to protect herself, but also in order to preserve her state of free will. It can be argued that in placing his heroine in this situation, Shakespeare is using Viola as a means for examining female capabilities and instincts. The shipwreck has left her in an unprecedented, indeterminate state: she has no one to connect with at all. Lacking anyone to provide for her, she is forced to take measures to protect herself so that the understood reason for her deception is to insure herself against immediate danger, but also to retain her prospects and status for the kind of future that she would like to have. She is unwilling to accept the female role of complete passivity just as Olivia is unwilling to submit to Orsino's advances because she enjoys playing her role as "lady of the manor." Viola enjoys her life and position as a man, and does not reveal who she is until the last scene of the play. Curiously, she also voluntarily accepts the role that society would impose on her again at the close of the play: that of a wife. It is important to note however, that she freely chooses this role and does so out of her own sense of self. For Viola, it is a personal choice based on her desires. She is in love with Orsino and keeping the pretence of her male identity is no longer necessary, as she desires to...

(The entire section is 2,977 words.)