In Shakespeare's plays Twelfth Night and As You Like It both of the lead female characters dress as men. Both plays are comedies and the change in gender is used as a joke, but I think it goes much deeper. A woman can become a man, but only if it is not permanent. The affect of the change cannot be too great because she must change back to female once everything is settled. They are strong female characters, but must become men to protect themselves and ultimately solve the problem of the play. In the book Desire and Anxiety: The Circulation of Sexuality in Shakespearian Drama Valerie Traub calls the characters, "the crossed-dressed heroine who elicits and enjoys multiple erotic investments" (Traub 17). They can only acts this way when they are dressed as men. They return to their passive and nonsexual ways when they change back to women's clothing. In both plays the women are not in their own lands, Viola being shipwrecked on a strange land and Rosalind being banished from the court and wandering in the forest. Both women disguise themselves as men for protection. On the way to the forest Celia says to Rosalind, “Now go we in content/ To liberty and not to banishment” (1.3.137-138). Liberty in this line is the freedom they get overcoming the restrictions of a female role (Erikson 22). Dressing as a man is the way the women protect themselves, but as the plays progress the roles they play as men begin to influencing their actions and attitudes.
The definition of a man by what he wears is so strong that in Twelfth Night Orsino still refers to Viola as her male name Cersario even after he learns she is a woman and decides to marry her. "Cersario, come/ F...
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...e roles are right. Men are manly taking care of their women by marrying them and women are in their correct roles under their husbands.
Erickson, Peter. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare’s Drama. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.
Greenblatt, Stephen general ed. Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eiasman Maus eds. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender In Shakespeare’s England. Cambridge: University Press, 1996.
Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulation of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London: Routledge, 1992.
More of the definition of a female’s role in Shakespearean England can be found at http://drama.pepperdine.edu/shakespeare/romeoandjuliette in the essay Female Sovereignty in Renaissance England.
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