Shakespeare; the Master of Reversing Gender Roles

[Sir Andrew] “Never in you life, I think, unless you see canary put me down. Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has; but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.” (Shakespeare 1797 Line 70-73). When I read this quote from Sir Andrew all I could think about was the topic in my Senior Seminar class. Recently we discussed the cultural stereotype that meat (animals) are food only for strong, masculine males. I think Sir Andrew plays to this ideology in the quote; he says that he has no more wit that an ordinary man and the fact that he eats beef makes his wit that much less. Yet despite what seems like a fault, Sir Andrew is still confident, thinking himself a manly man like Sir Toby and one better than Malvolio. I feel that he thinks so highly of himself because he is a meat eater. He asserts dominance over the animal he is consuming therefore he feels he can assert dominance over females and other less masculine males he encounters. We see in the beginning of the play an exchange between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, as Sir Toby is telling Sir Andrew how capable he is to woo Olivia, insinuating this because of his masculinity. It can be assumed that these men feel they do not need wit, intelligence, or compassion to gain the affection of a female. They feel that they can assert some masculine dominance and a woman will just fall into line. Similarly, Orsino makes the same moves in trying to obtain Olivia to be his wife. He thinks that he can just send her strongly worded letters and gifts to somehow make her  fall for him. He never goes himself to try to talk with her and get to know her, he just thinks she will fall right into his lap because he is a rich, masculine male. He even sends Viola, who is dressed as a male, Cesario, to do his bidding for him. Ironically, Olivia does not fall for any of the overtly testosterone filled males trying to pursue her, she falls for Viola as Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Viola (Cesario) because he/she has wit and actually listens to what Olivia desires. For reasons that are not obvious to Olivia, Viola (Cesario) does not throw himself/herself at her in spectacles of manly grandeur. She/he treats her like a human being, not something that can be had, won, or purchased like a good or animal. I feel this play, makes a strong statement about masculinity and sexism. It is clear that Shakespeare is playing on the idea that woman are not going to want the manly man who is devoid of interest in their significant other’s feelings, wants and thoughts. I feel the ideas of feminism are especially captured within a character like Maria, a strong female who does not succumb to the foolish behavior of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. She does not dote on their jokes about her and continues to be a strong feminine influence on Olivia. I really have enjoyed the gender role reversals in this play thus far, and similar to many other of Shakespeare’s plays, it still speaks to current events in our lives.

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One thought on “Shakespeare; the Master of Reversing Gender Roles

  1. caitoconnor13

    Personally, I would really love to see what Shakespeare would do with the concept of homosocialization and potential homosexuality in this play, as he did in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What if Olivia was aware of Viola’s disguise, and then stayed in love with her and they rode off into the sunset together as a lesbian couple? It would be really interesting for Shakespeare to use his really harped on concept of deviance from norms (as he does with Malvolio’s “madness,” and with all the crossdressing in the play) and took it and ran with it and normalized things that are considered abnormal by society. I really like what he does with the complicated web of relationships, but I wish that maybe even just one of them could be made normal (perhaps using Plato/Socrates as models for justification) as he did in our last reading.

    I would find his reversing of gender roles to be moderately progressive if he stuck with it and didn’t make it a point of societal deviance and then basically put everything back together again–reestablishing a binary, heteronormative and perfectly married life among all the characters. But I think it is obvious that he does it for shock value, and doesn’t really believe that the dismantling of patriarchy, homosexuality, or mental illness (three things evident in his writing) should be seen as normal at all. It’s hard for me to not be skeptical of the writer’s intent, considering the structure of his writing as well as the time it was written in.

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