Gender Reversal in the Twelfth Night

by | Dec 8, 2005 | 0 comments

Author note: This was an academic paper I wrote while in college. Please be kind. I was a baby writer. wink

           Viola’s transformation into Cesario, though the most prominent, is not the only example of gender reversal in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Throughout the play, characters actions and attributes defy the normal view on how they should act based on their gender.

            Women are normally portrayed as docile and obedient, caught up in their own beauty.  They are considered weak and unimaginative.  This is not the case with the women of Twelfth Night.  Though there are only three women in the cast, they are central to the plot and each crosses the boundaries of her gender in different ways.  Olivia is described by the captain as “a virtuous maid” ( I, ii, 36), but her actions, especially her blatant pursuit of Cesario leaves quite a different picture.  When Viola hears of Orsino her first thought is the “he was a bachelor then.” (I, ii, 29), not a sentiment we expect to hear from a woman who was just stranded in enemy territory.  Maria is a little more difficult to pin down.  She has more power over the men in her household than she should, yet she seems to be the most stereotypical female in the play.  Each female not only reaches across their gender boundaries, but also how their world views them. 

            Viola, upon realizing she is stranded in a land of enemies, does not lament her situation, but comes up with a plan to survive.  Women, especially aristocratic women, are generally depicted as being weak and unable to form opinions on their own, much less concoct a plan to save their own lives.  Viola not only does this but does so with little help.  Once she has put her plan in place, her rescuer no longer aids her.  It isn’t until later that we find out the Captain “is in durance, at Malvolio’s suit” (VI, i, 255) and Viola, in turn, becomes the Captain’s savior. 

            Viola’s dealings with Olivia are another example of gender reversal.  Believing that anyone, especially a woman, would woo another woman on the behalf of the man she loves would be difficult to believe.  Had Viola sabotaged Orsino’s love for Olivia and pursued her own case, that act would have been more stereotypical of a woman.  Instead Viola does her best to make Orsino’s case to Olivia, even when she realizes Olivia is in love with her. 

There are many reasons why Viola would do this.  Viola is of a lower status than Orsino and may feel she has no chance at love even if she were to reveal herself.  Orsino tells her “prosper well in this, and thou shalt live as freely as thy lord, to call his fortunes thine.” (I, iv, 36-38)  If she were to succeed, it would give her more freedom to move about as she pleased.  Another reason could be that she enjoys the joke, illustrated in the lines “my master loves her dearly, and I, poor monster, fond as much on him; and she, mistaken, seems to dote on me. What will become of this?” (II, ii, 28-31) However, the simplest explanation for Viola’s actions is that should she refuse to see Olivia or sabotage her, there is a good chance that Orsino would find out.  Viola would not chance being separated from Orsino, especially when she knows Olivia shows no interest in Orsino.

            Olivia and Viola are two people that could easily be confidants were Viola not dressed as a man.  Viola is shocked when she realizes Olivia has fallen for her alter ego saying “Poor lady, she were better love a dream”. ( II, ii, 21)  There is no reason for Viola to distrust Olivia, but it never enters Viola’s mind to give up her disguise to Olivia or Orsino. 

            Viola would obviously rather live her life as Orsino’s manservant than not be around him at all.  Though this is not exactly against the feminine stereotype she lets many opportunities to tell Orsino the truth slip past.  Even when she is faced with Orsino’s dismissal of her, Viola keeps her secret hidden. Instead, Viola takes small opportunities to teach Orsino about how women love.  As his manservant, Viola is able to express her feelings to Orsino and goes as far as saying “perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship” (II, iv, 106).  Viola is also irritated that Orsino continues his pursuit of Olivia despite Olivia’s refusal of him.  By hacking away little by little at Orsino’s perceived love for Olivia, Viola is able to place herself closer to Orsino. 

            When Viola attempts to woo Olivia in the name of Orsino, Olivia stops her, saying “Come to what is important in’t.  I forgive you the praise.” (I, v, 144)  Despite this, Viola continues on about Olivia’s beauty and Olivia in return bashes her attempt by itemizing her own face.  Women are usually portrayed as being caught up in their own beauty.  They are often more than willing to hear praise even if it comes from an unwanted source.  Olivia, however, is not interested in being loved for her beauty.  Keeping control of her household comes before love and that is illustrated when she asks Sebastian, “Would thou’dst be ruled by me” (IV, i, 53), not a particularly romantic way of asking someone to marry you.   

Olivia’s treatment of Orsino’s advances seems out of character for a woman of Olivia’s status as does her dismissal of her own beauty.  She is a woman of high social status, therefore, stereotypically, Orsino would have been the man to pursue, but Olivia takes to Cesario without hesitation or thought of social status.  Of course, Sir Toby, states that “She’ll not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit.” (I, iii, 84) which is indicative of women who like to be in control.  Olivia’s need for control explains her attraction to Cesario.  Despite her attire, Viola is still feminine in action and speech.  Olivia would have no reason to fear Cesario taking control.  It is also the thrill of the hunt, which is alluded to at the beginning of the play.  For the same reason Orsino is infatuated with Olivia, Olivia becomes infatuated with Cesario.  It illustrates the old “we love what we can’t have” saying.

            Olivia is forward in her pursuit of Cesario, more so than would have been accepted at the time. Though she says, “I have said too much unto a heart of stone and laid mine honor too unchary on it.” (III, iii, 153-154) we don’t really believe she is uncomfortable with her actions.  Her blatant pursuit of Viola in anything but ladylike.  Olivia becomes Orsino where Cesario is concerned.  She throws herself repeatedly at Cesario despite being rejected, but in the same breath condemns Orsino for his advances.  Olivia comes out of mourning to pursue a relationship with Cesario.  Though she is actually sad at the passing of her father and brother, being in mourning gives her power that she would not normally have had.  It is assumed that Sir Toby is her closest living male relative and taking into consideration his drunkenness and greed it would not be unthinkable for Olivia to fear being an available bachelorette.  Being in mourning gave her an excuse to control her own love life.     

            Normally, ladies-in-waiting, are portrayed as being protective of their mistresses.  There is no indication that Olivia mistreats Maria in any way.  Despite this, Maria has no qualms about placing her mistress in an uncomfortable situation in the gulling of Malvolio.  Often, servants are little more than background characters, but in Maria’s case she is the driving force behind one of the main plots in the play.  She is vehement in her hatred of Malvolio, finding him arrogant and self loving and on that “vice in him will [her] revenge find notable cause to work.” (II, iii, 118) 

Though her actions may not be out of character for her gender, her willingness to carry the revenge to a point where Malvolio may very well go mad is void of sympathies that are usually attributed to women.  She not only is willing to carry it that far but urges it “lest the device take air and taint.” (III, iv, 101)  Chances are, Maria knew that Olivia would find out she played the biggest part in the scheme.  Sir Toby would be a good match for Maria, despite his drunkenness.  It is possible that Maria truly loved Sir Toby, but it is more likely that Maria married Sir Toby for that exact reason Olivia refused to marry Orsino, his social status.

The men of Twelfth Night are a far cry from the robust, knights in shining armor, that we’ve come to expect from aristocratic men.  As a collective group, they are whiney and easily duped, characteristics usually attributed to women.   

“If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die.” (I, i, 1-3) is not a line one would expect to be the first of “A noble Duke, in nature as in name.” (I, ii, 25)  Orsino’s first speech sounds as if it should be coming from a love sick woman rather than a Duke.  In comparison to Olivia’s speeches, Orsino seems feminine.  As a matter of fact, he does little but whine about his unrequited love for Olivia throughout the entire play. 

Tired of playing middleman, Viola finally poses the question “But if she cannot love you, sir?”  and Orsino reacts that he “cannot be so answered”. (II, iv, 84-85)  He refuses to accept that Olivia could not love him because his love is “more noble than the world.” (II, iv, 78)  Normally, women are the ones who hold on too strong to unreturned love.  Orsino, however, feels “there is no woman’s sides can bide the beating of so strong a passion as love doth give” (II, iv, 90-93) his heart.  Orsino’s speech sounds more like a woman than a man. 

Not that men don’t love as hard as women, but even today, men are seen as most likely to cheat in a monogamous relationship.  Men are also stereotypically less likely to love a woman who does not return that love.  Women are usually the ones shown lamenting over a lost love or unrequited love, not men.  Though Orsino believes he is speaking to a man, it is unlikely that a Duke would reveal such a weakness to someone lower in status, especially since that someone has only been in his employment for three months.  

Upon being faced with Cesario’s possible betrayal, he is content with directing Cesario to “take her, but direct thy feet where thou and I henceforth may never meet.”

(V, i, 156)  At the time, Cesario is Orsino’s servant and Orsino would be well within his rights to challenge Cesario to a duel or kill him outright.  As a matter of fact, considering his professed undying love for Olivia, it would be expected.  Instead, he reacts more as a crushed school girl. 

His undying love for Olivia changes all too quickly at the end.  The entire play revolves around Orsino refusing to take no for an answer, yet when Olivia asks him “to think of [her]as well a sister as a wife” (V, i, 289)  he is “most apt t’ embrace (her) offer.” (V, i, 290) without hesitation.  One moment Orsino is telling Olivia  “why should I not, had I the heart to do it, like to th’ Egyptian thief at point of death kill what I love?” (V, i, 104-106) and the next he is agreeing to her friendship.  One explanation could be that Viola’s speeches of love resonated with Orsino.  He realized his love for Olivia was merely fascination.  Through her loyalty as Cesario, Viola showed Orsino what love truly meant.  Other than that, the simplest explanation is it needed to happen.   

Sebastian’s reaction to his rescue is far different than Viola’s.  Where Viola pulls herself up by her bootstraps, so to speak, Sebastian is despondent.  He grieves for his sister and tells Antonio that unless he is willing to “undo what (he) has done” (II, i, 25), meaning take away the rescue, then he will go to Orsino’s court alone.  Little is seen of Sebastian throughout the rest of play and his fight with Andrew and Sir Toby is not a battle that particularly tests his bravery.  Olivia actually steps in the middle of Sebastian and Sir Toby.  Usually, a man would be taunted for allowing a woman to take up for him, but this is not the case.  Neither Sir Toby nor Sebastian seem at all bothered by Olivia’s actions.  He is easily seduced by Olivia and at that point seems to forget Viola.

Women are normally accused of choosing love over family more than men, not that Sebastian necessarily forsakes Viola, but going from mourning his sister’s death to accepting Olivia’s proposal so quickly is more stereotypical of a woman.  That fact is illustrated in the play itself.  Olivia’s emergence from mourning does not seem as out of hand as Sebastian’s.    

Antonia’s relationship with Sebastian seems the most out of character display of affection than any other in the play.  The other characters’ relationships can be reasoned out.  Orsino’s infatuation with Olivia could be because of her beauty and status, Viola’s love for Orsino because of his handsomeness and how much of his heart he’s willing to sacrifice, Maria’s actions because of her hatred of Malvolio, Olivia’s love of Viola as Orsino because of his youth and she basically sweeps her off her feet, but Antonio is as opposite of what we would expect to see out of a reputed pirate as can be.  He does not merely protect Sebastian, as could be understood of someone who is the rescuer, but acts as though he is in love with the boy.  He begs Sebastian to stay to no avail, then says “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.” (II, i, 24)  Even if Sebastian were taking on a father-like figure role, it still seems over the top.  Just as it’s accepted to see a group of women go to the bathroom together, it would be equally unacceptable for a group of men.  There is a bonding that happens between women that is not shown very often with men.

Antonio follows Sebastian “come what may” ( II, i, 33), despite the danger that faces him at Orsino’s court.  The most out of character action is Antonio giving Sebastian his money because he feels Sebastian’s money should not be used for “idle markets.”

(III, iii, 46)  One would expect a man to hand over money to a woman to purchase luxuries, but not for a man to give over his money to another man.  Then he puts his own life at risk again when he intervenes between Cesario and Andrew saying, “If this young gentleman have done offense, I take the fault on me.” (III, iv, 40-41) 

Sebastian also seems rather fond of Antonio.  “How the hours have racked and tortured me since I have lost thee,” (VI, iii, 98-99) seems over the top, especially since he doesn’t seem to even think about Antonio when faced with Olivia.   Antonio and Sebastian’s actions are often mistaken for being of a homosexual nature, but taking the entire play into account Antonio is merely the most prominent example of gender reversal.

Andrew is the most outwardly feminine male character.  Before we even meet him he is described as a “foolish knight”. (I, iii, 75)  He is simple minded, constantly misunderstanding words and phrases and wishes he had “bestowed that time in the tongues that [he had] in fencing, dancing, and bearbaiting.” (I, iii, 72-73)  He is easily baited into actions that he cannot defend, such as the fight with Cesario.

 As long as he felt he could beat Cesario, Andrew was ready for the fight.  His note of challenge is laughable and when he does finally confront Cesario, he is easily psyched out by Sir Toby’s words before even trying to fight.  Even after that, he allows Sir Toby to urge him into another battle, but this time with Sebastian, and finds himself beaten.  He is not a good loser and immediately places the blame elsewhere, despite the fact he pursued the matter.  Women are usually portrayed as the ones being cheated out of their money by an unsavory character.  However, Sir Andrew is the only character tricked in the play without using some device.  He is tricked on his own stupidity.

Sir Toby, being Olivia’s uncle, should be the head of the household.  However, his drunkenness allows Olivia to be in control of the household.  She sees him as a thorn in her side and feels “he speaks nothing but madman” (I, vi, 80), but her dismissal of Sir Toby leaves him open to engage in less than honorable ventures. 

Sir Toby brings Sir Andrew into the house to woo Olivia.  He knows he’s a fool, illustrated in the line “I’ll ride your horse as well as I ride you.” (III, iv, 221-222), and that Olivia would never go for him.  Sir Toby is merely duping him out of money, “two thousand strong or so.”  and when the conflict between Cesario and Andrew arises he is more than willing to urge it, saying “there is no love-broker in the world can more prevail in man’s commendation with woman than report of valor.” (III, ii, 25-26), which is yet another stereotype of women.

Sir Toby is Malvolio’s better, but rather than stand up to him and put him in his place, though he does tell Malvolio to “rub [his] chain with crumbs” (II, iii, 93) reminding him of his position, he chooses to deal with Malvolio in an underhanded way.  This is more suggestive of a lady of the house rather than a man.  In this respect, Olivia and Sir Toby’s positions have been switched.  Despite his scheming, it is Sir Toby who decides to be “well rid of this knavery” ( IV, ii, 51), not because he feels sorry for Malvolio, but because he feels he is “so far in offense with [his] niece that [he] cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot.” ( IV, ii, 52-53)

At first meeting, Malvolio is a harsh man, but seems to be the most level headed of the bunch.  It is not until later that we find he practices elegant conduct when alone and fantasizes about a match between him and Olivia.  He takes everything she says as some kind of secret code and feels “she uses [him] with a more exalted respect that anyone else that follows her.” (II, v, 20-21)  While it may be true, it is more likely she treats him such because he seems the most sane of everyone around her, but in truth he has severe illusions of grandeur and dreams of “calling his officers about [him], in [his] branched velvet gown; having come from a daybed, where [he has] left Olivia sleeping.”

( II, v, 37-38)

   He has no qualms about putting others in their place and elevating himself to the status of head of the household.  When he finds the letter, his turn is so quick it is almost absurd.  He goes from a man who berates Maria for giving “means for this uncivil rule”

( II, iii, 96) to a man so completely mad with love he is unable to recognize fantasy from reality.  Men are usually known for taking things at face value.  Women are usually accused of finding hidden meanings, but Malvolio twists the words in the letter saying “If I could make that resemble something in me!” (II, v, 95) until he finds a connection, albeit a horrible one.

  Women are usually the ones who are destroyed and degraded when they reach too far above their station.  Though we do not know if anything would have happened to Maria for her part in the plot, no one seems to take Malvolio’s gulling as a disturbing event.  Olivia speaks more to him like a wounded puppy than a man.

The entire play is a fight against stereotypes, both with gender roles and social status.  Olivia, as an unmarried lady, should be the one actively pursuing a good match, but she is not.  Viola, being stranded in enemy territory, should be thinking about something other than love, but she makes her decisions based solely on her love for Orsino.

Viola says, “How easy is it for the proper false in women’s waxen hearts to set their forms” (II, ii, 23-24) when she realizes Olivia has fallen for her alter ego.  Maybe this illustrates why she continues with the wooing of Olivia.  She recognizes her own attraction to Orsino and feels her “frailty is the cause” (II, ii, 26).  The statement itself is contradictory to the actions of the female characters.  Not one of the characters could be accused of being frail in action, but they are quick to love.  However, so are the men.  The point being, everyone is susceptible to falling in love with a “proper false”, even men.



Shakespeare, William.  “Twelfth Night or, What You Will.”  In The Longman Anthology British Literature Volume 1B.  edited by David Damrosch.  New York: Longman 2003.