Romance and Gender Positions in Twelfth Night

by Laura Jastrem '99

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night examines patterns of love and courtship through a twisting of gender roles. In Act 3, scene 1, Olivia displays the confusion created for both characters and audience as she takes on the traditionally male role of wooer in an attempt to win the disguised Viola, or Cesario. Olivia praises Cesario's beauty and then addresses him with the belief that his "scorn" (3.1.134) only reveals his hidden love. However, Olivia's mistaken interpretation of Cesario's manner is only the surface problem presented by her speech. The reality of Cesario's gender, the active role Olivia takes in pursuing him/her, and the duality of word meanings in this passage threaten to turn the traditional patriarchal concept of courtship upside down, or as Olivia says turn "night to noon" (139).
Perhaps the biggest upset to the traditional structure is the possibility that Olivia may be in love with a woman. Shakespeare allows his audience to excuse this by having Olivia be unaware that Cesario is actually female. Yet, Olivia's attraction seems to stem exactly from the more feminine characteristics like Cesario's "beautiful scorn" and "angry lip" (136-137). Olivia's words allow an audience, particularly a modern one, to perhaps read her as suspecting or even knowing that Cesario is female, yet choosing to love him/her anyway.
Olivia's description of Cesario's beauty, both here and upon their first encounter, praises typically feminine qualities, but curiously doesn't question Cesario's gender. The comparison of love to guilt tempts the readers mind to wonder if Olivia is guilty about her love for such female attributes. Olivia's oath on maidenhood also tempts the reader toward a lesbian reading by hinting that Cesario would also understand maidenhood (141). When Olivia declares that not even "wit nor reason"(143) can hide her passion, she suggests that she would love Cesario even if it were against logic, as a same sex couple would be. Despite the unacceptability of a same sex romance in Shakespeare's time, the hints toward this reading seem visible enough to have been thought of then as well as today. Although probably not intended to the extent of a lesbian courtship, the situation of a woman wooing another woman presents a comical picture for the audience, perhaps even more so in the Elizabethan era with two male actors wooing each other as women. Shakespeare is able to pose the question of homosexual love by using "Cesario" as a shield to protect both the characters within the play and the audience from having to deal with the question directly.
Although he avoids denying the Elizabethan romantic conventions with an openly homosexual plot, Shakespeare does upset the norm by having Olivia act as suitor and having the "man" act as the object of desire. This role reversal is not hidden since Olivia plainly says "I woo"(145) as she addresses Cesario. The way in which she speaks to Cesario mimics the contemporary traditions perfectly. Cesario's refusal sets up the classic situation of the beloved as an object of unattainable perfection for the lover to praise. Olivia's speech is in rhymed couplets separating it, along with Viola's response, from the typical blank verse of the rest of the play as if they were intended to be poems standing on their own. Olivia swears by "everything" (141) that her passion cannot be restrained even by reason while simultaneously admiring Cesario's resistance (143). She follows the patriarchal formula perfectly, the only exception being her gender. Olivia's absurd situation of wooing a disguised woman makes her doomed to fail despite her ability to replicate the correct discourse.
On the contrary, perhaps Shakespeare's intention is to show that it is the very discourse which causes the failure. The foolishness of the scene; a male actor playing a woman, wooing another man playing a woman, who is playing a man, appears to poke fun at the entire convention. By swearing on "everything" Olivia devalues the things that she swore upon before and suddenly seems rather supercilious. The repeated use of the word "reason" and the ambiguous structure of the last line muddle Olivia's meaning to the point where it would be difficult for Cesario to choose whether or to not to comply and to what he would be complying to. Read in this manner, the passage becomes a satirical enactment of a traditional courtship. The gender switch serves to emphasize the impossibility of love within a structure which demands that the object of desire must refuse in order to remain desirable.
To cushion the mockery of the traditional discourse, an additional message can be extracted from Olivia's speech. The unhappiness of Olivia's impossible situation could be seen as a lesson for taking on the wrong role. By leaving her place as object and becoming the actor Olivia is unknowingly chasing after someone she can never have. When Sebastian appears, a male replication of Viola, then all the problems seem to evaporate because the proper gender roles have been restored. Yet without Sebastian, without the true male, chaos reigns and reason breaks down.
As if following the loss of order in the situation, the word "reason" seems to lose power within Olivia's speech. First "reason" (143) is not strong enough to contain her passion. Then she urges Cesario not to take his "reasons from this clause" (144), presumably indicating he should not base his decisions on her revealed passion, but should instead "reason thus with reason fetter" (146). Cesario should "fetter" the logic of not returning her love with the "reason", the explanation, she offers. By having "reason" fetter itself, it becomes helpless. The "fettering" of the word "reason" parallels the loss of reason, of logic, within the action of the play. It is Olivia's speech, her attempt to take the active "male" role which "fetters" reason. When she upsets the convention of female passivity, chaos is the result until Sebastian comes and saves the day. It is unclear whether Shakespeare is mocking the structure of the traditional courtship, reaffirming it with the message that when women step out of their proper roles that chaos results, or quite possibly proposing both.
Rather than resolving anything, the last line of the passage continues the ambiguity found throughout. "Love sought is good, but given unsought, is better" (147). Olivia could be saying that it is good for her to give love, but even better that she is giving it without reciprocation. This meaning would coincide with her weariness of suitors and with the standard of unfulfilled worship of the beloved. However, she may be asking the opposite, saying that she is happy to seek love, but would be even happier if it were given to her without her having to go after it. This would support the interpretation that she is not in her proper role, and will be happier if she returns to the traditional state of passivity.
The last line also returns to the problem of Cesario/Viola as both man and woman. One could read that it is better to love a member of the same sex and not have the love returned than to be hounded by suitors. The line might be read as the concluding lesson to a sarcastic representation of courtship; to follow the conventions is good, but to have love returned is much better. The opposite lesson, to follow the tradition of unreturned love, is equally plausible. Perhaps the line sends and follows both messages. Love is sought from Viola and never received, but "given unsought" by Sebastian who is truly unsought because he doesn't even exist for Olivia until the end of the play. By having Viola and Sebastian be virtually interchangeable, both variations can be enacted. Interestingly, neither option is faithful to the lover/beloved doctrine. Giving love without reciprocation would follow the doctrine, but in this case it is between two women. When Sebastian arrives the norm seems to be restored, but love is fulfilled when Sebastian consents to be ruled by Olivia. Even with all the problems supposedly solved, the gender role question is still present for Olivia seems never to have entirely relinquished her active "male" role. Twelfth Night tackles many uncomfortable issues regarding love and gender which Shakespeare never truly resolves for his audience. Instead he leaves the questions open, but contains the discomfort with humor, disguise, chaos and a happy ending.

Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Other Sample Essays

Back to Course Information