Power: Women of “The Twelfth night”
During the time in which Shakespeare wrote, his views on woman had differed from those of which we uphold today. In our modern-day society women hold an almost equal position with having the same rights, status and independence as men. But, when compared to women in the 16th and 17th century women had extremely different and tougher circumstances. In the past centuries it was the men who held the power in courtship. Women at the time were only seen as pawns in order to help heighten a man’s political and social stature. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night we see that the concept of power comes from the social ambition that each character desires to achieve throughout the play. And it is most predominant with the female characters. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare demonstrates through comical satire and gender role reversal how characters of different perceived classes act in order to expose the unjust power structure in their own society.
Twelfth Night begins with a comical take on the gender role reversal of Lady Viola. Lady Viola disguises herself as a eunuch to travel independently in the society without a male support. Since she also wanted to serve Duke Orsino who had all male servants, she had to disguise herself as a man. She states to the captain “Oh, that I served that lady And might not be delivered to the world, Till I had made mine own occasion mellow, What my estate is. (Shakespeare 1.2.39-42)” This setup by Viola is what creates the complicated plot between Olivia and Viola. She knowingly is making the conscious decision of taking a gender opposite of her own, and this allows a unique freedom for Viola to test the boundaries of power in the courtship she seeks. This not only allows Viola to test the boundaries, but also Olivia. By feminizing the male suitor, Shakespeare can explore the implications of a woman dominating the relationship. By having Olivia court after Cesario who in actuality is Viola, this would extinguish the traditional gender structure if Viola were really a man. Viola being of female origin causes Olivia’s purpose to be less provocative and in turn be more comical to audience.
When we are first introduced to Olivia she assumes a masculine role. Her position of head of the household automatically gives her power over Cesario, even though she is a woman. In using her power as head of household she prevents Cesario from delivering Orsino’s message to her. Olivia then puts Cesario on the defensive and states to Cesario “Is’t it not well done?” (Shakespeare, 1.5.235) in doing this she uses her sexuality and flirtations to move the conversation away from that of Cesario’s original intent. Oli...