Present Me As An Eunuch: Female Identity in Twelfth Night

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2977

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).

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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 be his wife.

Shakespeare's female characters have frequently been criticised as two-dimensional and unrealistic portrayals of subservient women, a notion that clearly overlooks the complex contradictions not to mention the acting challenges inherent in roles such as Portia, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. The general assertion has often been that the roles of women in his plays were prominent for the time and culture that he lived in. Little conclusive evidence exists concerning the actual involvement of women with the Elizabethan stage. Women were not permitted to act on the stage, with the occasional exception of women at court taking part in special, private performances for Elizabeth and her guests. By the reign of James I it was not uncommon for the ladies at court, including Queen Anne, to take part in the masques that were a popular form of court entertainment. It does seem however, that the appearance of women on the public stage was not altogether unknown. Coryat's Crudities of 1611, recounting experiences in Venice comments: "I saw women acte, a thing that I never saw before, though I have heard that it hath beene sometimes used in London". 1 It is therefore clear that although they took part in plays on the Continent, particularly in the popular Commedia dell'arte plays, it was not the norm for women to act on the public English stage. Boys or young men whose voices had not yet changed acted the women's parts, and it is this convention of contemporary Shakespearean theatre practices that in many ways contributes to the development of positive and powerful female characters in Shakespearean drama.

Boys acting as women disguised as boys provide the strongest visual symbol of Feste's comment in Twelfth Night that "nothing that is so, is so" (IV.i.8). Several of Shakespeare's comic plays, of which Twelfth Night is just one, capitalize on the effect of boys acting women, who then take on disguise as boys. Sylvia (Two Gentlemen of Verona), Portia, Nerissa and Jessica (The Merchant of Venice), Rosalind (As You Like It), and Imogen (Cymbeline) are other well-known characters. Shakespeare often exploits the extra layer of irony available in this situation by having the character refer to his/her/his male/female attributes. Much of the ironic humour of Viola's situation comes from her own wry acknowledgement of her assumed manhood. In Act II scene ii when Malvolio catches up with her after leaving Olivia's house, she meditates on Olivia's motives in sending the ring to her. She quickly anticipates Olivia's feelings: "Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her" (II.ii.18), but goes on to contemplate the possible complexities of the situation: "How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly, / And I, poor monster, fond as much on him, / And she, mistaken seems to dote on me" (II.ii.33-35). Shakespeare is setting up a double level of humour: the humour inherent in the age-old love triangle, but also the humour of a male actor wooing a boy actor playing a girl, who is wooing a boy actor playing a girl who is posing as a boy, who in turn is a boy actor playing a girl posing as a boy who is in love with the first male actor! The humour thus worked on an entirely different level for Shakespeare's audience than it does for a modern audience.

By placing boy actors in these complex levels of cross-dressing humour, Shakespeare, along with the other dramatists of his time was flouting biblical law and incurring considerable opposition from the Puritan faction. Their argument against the practice was based on the biblical verse Deuteronomy 22.5 in which it is stated:

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

The notion of boys playing women clearly went against this law, yet the playhouses continued to uphold the practice, and in some cases they had their supporters. John Case, a defender of the drama on Humanist grounds pointed out: "It is not necessarily indecorum for a man to wear the dress of a harlot on the stage, if his object is to expose the vices of harlotry." 2 The idea that drama could function as a means for moral instruction was not a new one; indeed the Church itself sanctioned drama for that purpose in the medieval period. However Case's cautious endorsement raises another possibility: that women in drama could be presented in an alternative way to the traditional view of women and womankind; that boy players actually legitimize women as strong, thinking individuals.

In order to explore this notion further it is useful to look briefly at the way women were viewed socially and iconographically at this time. The Medieval church in Europe established a view of women that was split between the ideal of the Virgin Mary and her weaker counterpart Eve, or the anti-type to the ideal, the Whore of Babylon. The Elizabethan church continued this tenet, supported by the general distrust of women portrayed in frequently misogynistic Medieval and Renaissance literature. Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One depicts the French heroine Joan of Arc as a witch, a devil-woman in league with Hecate and a "foul accursèd minister of hell" (I Henry III, V.vi.93); but Queen Elizabeth ("Gloriana," "the Virgin Queen," "Good Queen Bess") is portrayed variously in literature as a female ideal. It is for this reason that Shakespeare's plays frequently demonstrate that men have difficulty seeing women as something between these two extremes: if they are not perfect they must be whores and/or witches. This goes some way to explaining the abrupt swing between love and hate in such characters as Claudio (Much Ado About Nothing), Othello (Othello), and Leontes (The Winter's Tale). The accepted hierarchy of the sexes was that women were the lesser sex because of their unpredictability.

The female in Elizabethan society was not only subordinate to the male because of her unpredictability but also because of her nature as the "gentler sex." A woman was considered to be fit for homemaking and child-bearing; she was considered to have no interest in, or ability to, understand politics and her virtue was at all times protected, firstly by her father, brother, or guardian and subsequently by her husband. For a woman to show an interest in current affairs, to express opinions or even to write literature other than a personal diary was to exhibit unladylike and indecorous behaviour. The major female figurehead to escape the shackles of contemporary Elizabethan womanhood was Elizabeth I, who became a powerful image of female authority despite her unmarried state and who commanded respect for her hard-headed intellect in all manner of political, religious, social, and artistic affairs. The presence of such a figurehead on the throne of England created an interesting situation for the literary and dramatic worlds in terms of the way they could now portray women in general. For the dramatic world, the move away from allegorical representations of character to more three-dimensional characters also allowed for more diversity in the ways women were portrayed, and the use of boys in the women's roles seems to have been part of this move. It is hard to imagine that a male representation of a woman, particularly given the social and religious history, could be anything other than stereotypical, however, in order to refute this, it is necessary to return to Shakespeare's text.

The inherent humour of boys playing girls is exploited in many ways throughout the play. In Act III, scene i, Olivia displays the confusion created for both characters and audience as she takes on the traditionally male role of wooer in an attempt to win the disguised Viola, whom she knows as Cesario. Viola, too, is in an unusual position, being firstly dressed as a boy and secondly sent to woo Olivia on behalf of Orsino. The sexual ambiguity of both Viola and Olivia in this scene highlights the way in which both women are supposed to be behaving and are not. Neither young woman is displaying behaviour appropriate to females of the era: Viola because she is dressed as a man and not chaperoned, and Olivia through her overt interest in a young "man" with whom she has no acquaintance. Judged by the morals of the time, both women, had they been real people, would be labelled whores. However the play neither passes judgement nor censure on them. Arguably, this is because the "women" that Shakespeare's audience were seeing on the stage were well known to actually be male. If a man plays the part of a woman then the female character and behaviour become hypothetical rather than actual. Through Viola Shakespeare seems to be celebrating the female potential for honour, loyalty and truth as opposed to censuring the behaviour of a whore.

The approbation given to boy actors such as the celebrated Nathan Field, suggests that their portrayals of women were at least realistic enough to be believable in comic situations and to arouse appropriate levels of pity and fear in tragedies. In 1582, Stephen Gosson complained in his Epistle to Sir Francis Walsingham about the practice of boys playing women, and in doing so, highlights an interesting point about the success of the boys in these roles:

The Law of God very straightly forbids men to put on women's garments… In Stage Playes for a boy to put one the attyre, the gesture, the passions of a woman is by outwarde signes to shew them selues otherwise then they are, and so with in the compasse of a lye… 3

His comment, designed as it was to challenge the existence of the boy players on a theological level serves to defend them on a dramatic level. Gosson's observations suggest that the boys are not simply putting on the clothing of a woman they are actually mimicking female gestures and passions; so much so that they are "within the compass of a lie." This type of characterization is a huge development from the two-dimensional figures of the morality plays and early imitative comedy that used classical "stock" characters and plots. The notion that the boys were starting to imitate female voices, movements and habits suggests a much greater attention to the detail of characterization. Therefore, despite the "fact" of the male actor behind the female character, what the audience sees is a "woman" exemplifying behaviour outside of the normal female spectrum without becoming the two-dimensional "virgin Mary" ideal or the "devil-woman." In the case of both Viola and Olivia, Shakespeare can be said to have moved them beyond the extremes of Elizabethan womanhood to a point that is both acceptable and desirable to Elizabethan men; in this case Orsino and Sebastian.
Whilst it is these situations of sexual ambiguity that provide much of the comedy and also much of the lyrical poetry in the play, these two female characters also represent contradictory female role models for Elizabethan women. As already remarked, it can hardly be thought that Viola's situation in Twelfth Night can be considered a typical one for an Elizabethan woman. Her trials and tribulations in Illyria are very much the stuff of fairytale: an accident, separation from her brother, near disaster followed by despair, frustrated love, and finally love triumphant are all part of the romantic comedy formula that was starting to emerge in dramatic literature at the beginning of the seventeenth century. What is of particular note about romantic comedies is the fact that Shakespeare's women start to be portrayed in subtly different ways. Unlike characters such as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew or Adriana in The Comedy of Errors, the heroines of romantic comedy - for example Viola, Rosalind, and Portia - despite acknowledging their state as "helpless" females, prove themselves assertive, capable and intelligent. They are often responsible for creating comic misunderstandings but also challenge the stability of appearances, gender roles, and the "off-limits" territory of same-sex-desire. This also applies to the secondary female characters who start to appear as confidante and support to the heroine (Celia and Nerissa are good examples), or, as in Olivia's case, as a foil or counterbalance to the heroine. Both scenarios allow for enriched comic interaction and female dominated scenes and situations such as the battle of wits between Olivia and Viola.

Viola shares the same characteristics that Shakespeare imparted onto many of his later heroines; characteristics that make them strong, and fiercely individual. Though Elizabethan society demands certain behaviour from women, Viola, through necessity, chooses to undertake a different path to deny that behaviour. In doing so, she promotes self over public image and proves that women can be both individual and intellectual without compromising what Elizabethan men saw as the "ideal" in womanhood. Presenting Viola as "an eunuch" is a way of legitimizing her choice and free will, and at the same time liberating female characters from two-dimensional stereotypes. Twelfth Night stands out particularly well as a play in which Shakespeare, though conforming to contemporary attitudes of women, circumvented them. He did this by utilizing theatrical conventions to his advantage in order to experiment with the creation of resolute female characters with a strong sense of self and an individual identity.

FOOTNOTES

1. Chambers, p. 371.

2. Ibid. p. 251.

3. Ibid. p. 217.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Billington, Michaels, ed. Directors Shakespeare: Approaches to Twelfth Night. London: Nick Hern Books, 1990.

Brockbank, Philip. Players of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 1, 1988.

Chambers, E.K. The Elizabethan Stage. London: Clarendon Press, 1923.

Jackson, Russell and Robert Smallwood. Players of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 2, 1988.

Nunn, Trevor. Twelfth Night. London: Methuen Drama, 1996.

Warren, Roger and Stanley Wells, eds. Twelfth Night. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Wells, Stanley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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