Many of Shakespeare’s plays involve some form of disguise as a plot device and in my opinion the two which use this to the greatest effect are ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘As You Like It’. In addition, of all of Shakespeare’s works these two plays are two of most significant with regards to relying on gender confusion for comic effect. In this essay I will explore both the similarities and differences that can be found within these plays and the significance of their uses.
Firstly, it is important to put the play into context. At the time when Shakespeare wrote both plays women were not allowed to perform on stage, thus every character was played by a man. The use of male actors for every part contributes greatly to the confusion of the audience and also for many of the actors on stage. It brings about the idea of uncertainty of gender, also illustrating that gender is something that can be ‘performed’ and impersonated through the means of costumes, voices, mannerisms; in other words, disguises. Gender is something that can be influenced, with regards to how you act, as appose to something that you are, referring to the more physical aspects that are associated with the different genders.
The relationship between performance and gender is even more complex in both ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘As You Like It’, more so than most of Shakespeare’s other plays. These complications are expressed well by Andrew Normington, the director of a recent production of ‘As You Like It’ by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who continue to perform Shakespeare’s works as they were originally presented, with all the characters represented by men. He writes, “A boy plays a girl, who disguises herself as a boy, and pretends to be a girl in order to woo a boy, who doesn’t know that the boy is in fact the girl he has previously fallen in love with. In turn, the girl disguised as a boy attracts another girl, also played by a boy, who doesn’t know the object of her desire isn’t a boy”. Though Normington is specifically referring to As You Like It, this confusion is mirrored greatly in ‘Twelfth Night’, although here only one character uses a disguise so as to pretend to be of the opposing gender.
The plays also show how constant changes in gender, through the means of both disguise and pretence, make the characters’ sexual identities more unstable. For example, in ‘Twelfth Night’ many of Cesario’s character traits that attract Olivia are those that are more feminine than she has previously seen in other men. For example, when she says, “what a deal of scorn looks beautiful in the contempt and anger of his lip”, this refers to qualities more likely to be found in women. This also leads us to wonder, especially for a modern day audience, that Olivia may suspect that Viola is female, yet she chooses to love him/her despite this. One could also suggest that this is an indication that male/female relationships are unsatisfactory, thus Olivia is searching for something different. The lack of...