Gender And Cross Dressing In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

1937 words - 8 pages

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 audience is introduced to Viola, there is never any doubt in her heterosexuality and her female/feminine subjectivity (Howard, 431). All of Viola’s actions as Cesario, including her interaction with Olivia, are understood in relation to her womanhood. Despite Viola’s male dress and her confidence, she always remains female for the audience regardless of her appearance: “constant asides and speeches remind us that her fears or desires are those conventionally ascribed to women and girls” (Lindheim, 682). Through his comedies like Twelfth Night, Shakespeare “refused to reinforce the prevailing view of women as fixed and stable entities in the Elizabethan social hierarchy” while inviting a “critical reading of gender roles as permanent designations of womanhood and manhood” (Kelly, 82). As twins, Viola is able to disguise herself as an exact double of Sebastian. When Viola’s disguise is revealed, the male identity does not disappear, but materializes in Sebastian (Chu, 10). This allows for an easy transference of affections for Olivia and a tidy conclusion to the play. Viola always has the ability to remove her disguise to marry Orsino. Despite the various attractions between characters throughout the play, when the disguises...

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