The ambiguity of gender, as well as the powerful role gender plays is immediately introduced in the opening act of Twelfth Night. Characteristics [stereo]typical of either gender and the preconceived notions that follow are introduced and subsequently challenged, calling into question the role that gender plays, not just in the play itself, but also in our own day-to-day lives and how this effects not only the decisions we make for ourselves, but also the decisions those around us make in regards to how they interact with us. For the purposes of this blog post, I chose to focus on the representation of gender in Act One of the play.
The opening lines of the play are spoken by a lovesick Orsino, as he pines away after a woman he has never met. His overt dramatics and preoccupation with love may seem oddly humorous and un-masculine to the viewer, and this is the first behavior we see that calls to attention the idea of gender-specific behavior; the notion of what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘acceptable’ behavior for men v. women. It does not seem particularly masculine for Orsino to be so sulkily lovesick and pining away in this fashion – the dramatic nature with which he describes his longing for Olivia seems more stereotypically feminine in nature. The introduction of Orsino seems to ‘set the stage’ for the gender-swapping that will ensue. We then learn of Olivia, the recipient of Orsino’s unrequited affections. In her mourning the loss of her brother, she behaves in a way that seems appropriate for her gender – a widow of sorts, she wears a black veil and hides away from the public eye, vowing to do so for seven years. But of course, once we feel that everything is “gender-appropriate,” we meet Viola who is, perhaps, the character who best represents the question of gender that we will see continue throughout the play. Like Olivia, Viola has just lost her brother (in a shipwreck, or so she believes). This repeated scenario, as well as the alikeness of the two women’s names invite the reader to assume that Viola will react in a similar fashion as did Olivia; on the contrary. Viola, rather than hiding away, approaches her current situation in a reasoned, logical manner. She realizes that she will need a place to work and stay (lest she be a vagabond), and this leads her to the first intentional act of gender-bending within the play.
Viola’s comepletely gender-inappropriate decision to dress as a man in order to gain a place in the Duke’s court sets the play in motion. There are several explanations for why she chooses this path as well. Aside from simply needing a place to belong, this could be her form of mourning the loss of her twin brother, melding their two identities into one as a form of remembrance. Also, it appears that this is Shakespeare’s way of displaying to his audience that Viola, unlike the weak, damsel-in-distress, Olivia, is strong ‘like a man’ in her handling of her situation. The portrayal of Viola as Cesario is to say that she is strong, a stereotypically unfeminine trait; what better way to show this masculine strength than to have her dress like a man? Of course there is humor to be found in her portrayal, as she is clearly not a man, in manner or in mind.
A densely packed opening, this first act serves as an introduction to Shakespeare’s “Gender 101” and very effectively causes the reader to question their own judgments and preconceived notions relating to the topic. It is actually quite amazing that the topics and controversies found in Shakespeare’s plays can still be applicable today, and we can see that Twelfth Night, in it’s questioning of gender, is a humorous method to thereby open the door to much bigger questions and concerns; the importance of gender, the role it plays, and why it matters to society so very much that people’s livelihood and fundamental human rights are being challenged and outright neglected and abused. It appears to me that such a silly story of cross-dressing and lovesickness will ultimately lead to much more meaningful and thought-provoking discussions as we move ahead through this play.