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Twelfth Night, or What You Will Theme of Gender

Gender is a biggie in Twelfth Night, and the play brilliantly demonstrates how gender, a socially constructed identity, can be "performed" and impersonated with the use of voice, costume, and mannerisms. The theme is largely explored in relation to Shakespeare's profession as an actor and writer for a transvestite stage (in Elizabethan times, all-male acting companies performed the roles of women). The relationship between gender and performance is particularly complex in Twelfth Night because the part of Viola is played by a boy actor, who is cross-dressed as a female character, who disguises herself as a young man. Of course, the text also meditates on the relationship between gender and desire as it explores the erotics of androgyny.

Questions About Gender

  1. Why does Viola disguise herself as a boy? How does Viola's gender-bending "Cesario" disguise create comedic situations in the play? What is Viola's response to the way other characters treat and respond to "Cesario"?
  2. We know that Shakespeare wrote for an all-male stage, which means that Viola's role was played by a boy actor who had to convince the audience that he was a woman who disguised herself as a man. How does this complicate or challenge our notions about "masculinity" and "femininity"? Is it possible for a person to have both characteristics? Why or why not?
  3. What does Duke Orsino say about women's capacity to love? Is there evidence in the play to support or disprove Orsino's opinion?
  4. Why does Sir Toby Belch convince Sir Andrew Aguecheek to challenge "Cesario" to a duel? What does this suggest about Toby's ideas about what it means to be a man?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Twelfth Night's representation of cross-dressing suggests that gender is a fluid social category rather than a fixed identity.

When Sir Andrew Aguecheek challenges "Cesario" to a duel, the comedic situation that ensues suggests that bravery has nothing to do with being anatomically male, which challenges traditional ideas about men and masculinity.

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