Gender and Cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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In theatre, a “breeches” role is one where an actress cross-dresses, appearing on stage in male clothing. Heroines in breeches roles are predominantly limited to playing youths, retaining their femininity within this in-between state (Mann, 228). Malvolio describes Cesario as “Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy” (I.v.149-50). Twelfth Night, through these breeches and androgynous characters, explores how gender is fashioned. In exploring this androgyny, Shakespeare looks back to Ovid’s myths of metamorphosis and of Hermaphroditus, incorporating a set of attitudes regarding love and union between men and women (Slights, 327). Viola’s gender performance is used to demonstrate that sexual and romantic attraction “is not an inherently gendered or heterosexual phenomenon” (Charles, 124). Cultural meanings gender attached to a sexed body are “theoretically applicable to either sex” (Charles, 122). Judith Butler argues that the “production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural constructions designated by gender” (qtd. in Charles, 122). Gender is a social construct that varies within each society, related to but not identical to one’s sex (Rackin, 30). Signifiers of gender and meaning are as various and constantly shifting. Some critics argue that if genders roles can be simulated like in these play, “then they have no natural validity and are no more than role-playing or masquerade” (Mann, 228). In this play, social construction of gender and sexual identities are dramatized (Charles, 122). Clearly established in Act 1.2 is Viola’s plan to disguise herself as a man, and all her actions within the play are understood in relation to this disguise. When the audie... ... middle of paper ... ...ct 2.4 becomes an emotional centre of the play, pushing the relationship between Orsino and Viola/Cesario further than previously seen. In reading the dialogue, one can fully appreciated the diverse passions felt between the characters. Predominate throughout the play is the interplay and ambiguity of gender and sexuality. In cross-gender casting the characters of Viola and Orsino, this theme became the most predominate in our performance. In doing so, we were able to appreciate the difficulties of playing cross-dressed characters, engaging in the Elizabethan practice of a male actor playing a female role. Through the performance feedback, we were able to consider, explore, and question both planned and subconscious choices in portraying gender through costuming and speech that brought deeper meaning to the themes of gender and sexuality and to the text as a whole.
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