Essay on Love and Gender in Twelfth Night

Essay on Love and Gender in Twelfth Night

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Love and Gender in Twelfth Night

     Shakespeare's Twelfth Night examines patterns of love and courtship through a twisting of gender roles. In Act 3, scene 1, Olivia displays the confusion created for both characters and audience as she takes on the traditionally male role of wooer in an attempt to win the disguised Viola, or Cesario. Olivia praises Cesario's beauty and then addresses him with the belief that his "scorn" (3.1.134) only reveals his hidden love. However, Olivia's mistaken interpretation of Cesario's manner is only the surface problem presented by her speech. The reality of Cesario's gender, the active role Olivia takes in pursuing him/her, and the duality of word meanings in this passage threaten to turn the traditional patriarchal concept of courtship upside down, or as Olivia says turn "night to noon" (139).


            Perhaps the biggest upset to the traditional structure is the possibility that Olivia may be in love with a woman. Shakespeare allows his audience to excuse this by having Olivia be unaware that Cesario is actually female. Yet, Olivia's attraction seems to stem exactly from the more feminine characteristics like Cesario's "beautiful scorn" and "angry lip" (136-137). Olivia's words allow an audience, particularly a modern one, to perhaps read her as suspecting or even knowing that Cesario is female, yet choosing to love him/her anyway.


            Olivia's description of Cesario's beauty, both here and upon their first encounter, praises typically feminine qualities, but curiously doesn't question Cesario's gender. The comparison of love to guilt tempts the readers mind to wonder if Olivia is guilty about her love for such female attributes. Olivia's oath on maidenhood ...

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...ess Ltd, 1972. 222-43.

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Ed. Floyd Dell, New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1927.

David, R. W., ed. The Arden Shakespeare: Love's Labour's Lost. London: Methuen, 1951.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1975.

Erasmus, Desiderius. In Praise of Folly. Trans. Hoyt Hopewell Hudson, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Hotson, Leslie. Shakespeare's Motley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Potter, Lois. Twelfth Night: Text & Performance. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Zijderveld, Anton J. Reality in a Looking-Glass: Rationality through an Analysis of Traditional Folly. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.


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