20 April 2017
Gender, Sexuality, and Shakespeare
In the Elizabethan era, the time period in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, the cultural outlook on gender was very black and white. Actions and attitudes were either seen as masculine or feminine. Women were to be patient, silent, and obedient. Men, on the other hand, were strong, courageous, and bold. Defining these gendered roles also made it easier for an audience to separate male and female characters in an all-male cast (Gerlach). Like gender, sexual orientation was also not socially questioned outside of the norm of heterosexuality. The terms homosexual and heterosexual didn't even exist yet. Shakespeare questioned these gender and sexual ideals within his plays, especially in Twelfth Night. When Viola dresses up in masculine clothing and takes on the identity of a boy, the normalcy of Olivia, Viola, and Orsino's lives are turned upside down without them even realizing. This paper will take a look at the themes of gender and love, and specifically how Shakespeare challenges the heteronormative ideas of Elizabethan society in Twelfth Night by creating characters with gender identity questions and homosexually fluid tendencies.
In Twelfth Night, Viola finds herself shipwrecked in Illyria believing everyone else is dead, including her twin brother Sebastian. Originally wanting to go work for Olivia but finding that she couldn't, Viola dresses up as a boy, takes on the name of Cesario, and goes to work as a page under Duke Orsino. Orsino is involved in unrequited love with Olivia, who has no interest in him but, instead, falls in love with Cesario, unknowing that he is actually Viola. Orsino also confesses some attraction to Cesario and after hearing that he is in fact Viola in disguise, agrees to marry her before even seeing her as a woman. Another aspect of this tangled love triangle is Sebastian, who survived the shipwreck after all, and Antonio, who saved Sebastian and pronounced his love for him. Olivia marries Sebastian on accident, thinking he was Cesario, but this delivers a happy ending for all couples since Viola was also madly in love with Orsino.
Shakespeare challenges a lot of different ideals about love in the Elizabethan era, and one in particular is that it was very uncommon to marry above/below your societal rank. However, this kind of ambition is shown in Mavolio's plot to win and marry Olivia because of the trick Maria planned with Sir Toby. It also added to the love triangle of the plot. I think this particular development within the play helped give the audience a laugh at Mavolio's expense and didn't necessarily influence culture when it came to marrying outside of your class, especially since Mavolio didn't actually win Olivia's hand. This idea is also seen somewhat in Taming of the Shrew, when Bianca marries her tutor, who is actually Lucentio in disguise. Bianca's father is surprised and exasperated with his daughter for marrying her tutor because...