Gender Roles in Twelfth Night

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Born on approximately April 23, 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, William Shakespeare is considered by many to have been the greatest writer the English language has ever known. His literary legacy included 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and five major poems. Among his many plays is the notable, Twelfth Night, a romantic comedy, placed in a festive atmosphere in which three couples are brought together happily.

The play opens with Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, expressing his deep love for the Countess Olivia. Meanwhile, the shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as a man and endeavors to enter the Duke’s service. Although she has rejected his suit, the Duke then employs Viola, who takes the name of Cesario, to woo Olivia for him. As the play continues, Cesario falls in love with the Duke, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola disguised. Maria, Olivia’s servant woman, desires to seek revenge on Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. “To the delight of Sir Toby, Olivia’s uncle, and his friend Sir Andrew, Maria comes up with a plot to drop love letters supposedly written by Olivia in Malvolio’s path. When she does, they observe him, along with Fabian, another servant, as Malvolio falls for the bait. Believing that Olivia loves him, he makes a fool of himself” (Napierkowski 3).

The plot deepens as Cesario proceeds to woo Olivia for the Duke. It is only the second time that Cesario appears at Olivia’s home when Olivia openly declares her love for Cesario. Throughout this time, Sir Andrew has been nursing a hope to win Olivia’s love. When he plans to give up hope of her love, Sir Toby suggests that Sir Andrew fight with Cesario to impress Olivia. Cesario, however, refuses to fight. At the same time, Viola’s brother, Sebastian, who is also shipwrecked, makes his way to safe lodging in Illyria with Antonio the sea captain. After the fight between Cesario and Sir Andrew begins, Antonio intervenes to save Cesario, whom he takes for Sebastian. But the Duke’s officers promptly arrest Antonio for a past offense. Then, Olivia later comes upon Sir Andrew and Sebastian bickering at her home. Olivia, thinking Sebastian is Cesario, leads Sebastian to marriage in a nearby chapel. Finally, Cesario inevitably reveals that he is Viola and Sebastian recognizes her as his sister. The Duke reciprocates Viola’s love offerings and proposes to her. Olivia assures Malvolio...

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...e independent thinkers and advocates for their rights as women. In a time where women were not even able to act on the stage, Shakespeare created two strong characters that challenged the very ideals of Puritanical, Elizabethan society.

Works Cited

Dobson, Michael. “Twelfth Night” in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Dominic, Catherine C. “Twelfth Night” in Shakespeare for Students. Book II. Detroit: Gale, 1997.

Fritze, Ronald. Historical Dictionary of Tudor England, 1485-1603. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Green, Renton. "Twelfth Night: Present Me As An Eunuch: Female Identity in Twelfth

Night." eNotes to Twelfth Night. Seattle: Enotes.com LLC, October 2002. Ed. Penny Satoris. 20 February 2005 .

Jones, Elizabeth. Cliffs Noted Hardbound Literary Libraries. Shakespeare Library Vol. I. Traverse City: Moon Beam Publications, 1990.

Malcolmson, Christina. “’What You Will’: Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night” in Twelfth Night. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Napierkowski, Marie Rose. "Twelfth Night: One-Page Summary." Shakespeare for Students. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998. 1 March 2005 .
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