Gender Bending

We find ourselves now, indulged in Twelfth Night, or, What You Will. And once again, Shakespeare has spun us into a very tangled web of love, death and identity switches. So what’s the point this time?

Having read to Act 3 (well 5 for tomorrow) we see that this comedy has already fallen into the Shakespearean trap and ‘natural order’ has been severely shaken. We have a lost noble girl turned eunuch, a love-sick duke, and an abstinent bachelorette who find themselves in a warped love triangle. This seems all wrong, but I think Shakespeare is once again toying with the different kinds of love that we see in society.

First, we have The Duke Orsino and Viola. In order to establish herself, Viola disguises herself as a young man and begins to work for Orsino. Orsino has been pestering the lady Olivia to marry him, but has no luck because she does not wish to see any men for 7 years. Orsino soon realizes that Viola (I mean…Cesario) is as attractive and as soft spoken as a woman, he asks her to go persuade Olivia into marrying him. But Viola finds herself in the pickle that we should have seen coming—she has fallen for the Duke. Here, we see a kind of bromantic relationship. The Duke, though blind to the truth, confides in Cesario and trusts him the most to do his bidding. Just like two best boy friends would in real life. As of now, the relationship that they have now is between two men. It could be alluding to a future romantic one, but as of now, it is purely plutonic. Though there is a woman is disguise, Shakespeare displays the acts of two men in a friendship.

Then we have Viola and Olivia (the names are anagrams for each other who knew?!) whose lives have also been completely shaken. Olivia is first apprehensive to hear another plea by the Duke’s workers when Viola/Cesario shows up at her door, and wants “the boy” sent away immediately. Viola’s speech is not what Olivia was expecting though; it is kind and sweet. And of course, Olivia is smitten with this soft spoken boy. When Viola receives Olivia’s ring, she realizes just how bad this situation is. She is in love with the Duke, who is in love with Olivia, who’s in love with her. It’s totally effed.  Viola may be dressed as a man, but the relationship between two women is stronger than her disguise. Olivia does not see her for the woman she is, yet seems to love her for her personality. Just as the strong bond of brothers exists between Orsino and Cesario, the sisterhood that Olivia and Viola share is just as important.

There is more than one purpose to this gender-bend. It is a literary device by Shakespeare; to move this play into the typical twisted plot direction of all of his comedies. But it is also his way of displaying order in disorder; to show norms in a misconstrued way. To us, it seems all wrong, but it’s just a disguise (literally and figuratively) of the norms of plutonic love in society.  


2 thoughts on “Gender Bending

  1. alexatirapelli

    I like how you pulled the idea of gender bending out of this play. And I love your introductory sentence wherein you characterize the theme as “a very tangled web of love, death and identity switches”. It fits the plot perfectly! I also loved the “warped love triangle” idea. I agree that this mirrors the mess of love that can be found in our society today as well as that which has been present throughout the existence of the world. It’s a very basic idea – that we fall for the wrong people at the wrong time all too often – but Shakespeare presents it in a complicated, romantic, and almost comical way. There is a bromantic ignorance about Orsino because he is blind to the truth of Cesario’s gender and this is also true of Olivia, who has fallen for Cesario/Viola. It’s funny and a little ridiculous how quickly everyone is able to fall in love in this story without truly knowing the other person. It makes me wonder if that was the way it happened back in Shakespeare’s time. Today, if you think someone is attactive, you show interest and sort of go for it, but I feel that people are more cautious about dropping the “L” word. In the Shakespearean plays I have encountered, however, a man or woman just decides “hey, I love this person, I’m gonna try to court the hell outta them until they give in”. Obviously this isn’t true for every single character; I have just noticed a pattern. But, back to the gender-bending point being brilliant: Shakespeare definitely uses this to his comical advantage while simultaneously proving that we all have fallen or will fall for someone who isn’t exactly what they seem at first glance…

  2. annaleasully

    I agree with you, this situation is totally “effed,” but in the realm of misunderstandings and unrequited love Shakespeare is an expert. The gender bending in this play serves the purpose of further complicating the love triangles. However, I completely agree with you that the gender bending also serves a deeper purpose. A disguise allows people to say things they might not normally say and do things they might not normally do, in the case of Viola her dressing like a man allows her to say things to Orsino that she might not say if she were not in disguise. Also, her disguise makes Olivia fall in love, the situation that Viola is in is does seem a little messy but, there does seem to be a special bond between these two women that is not necessarily romantic in nature.


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