Socially Constructed Gender Roles In Twelfth Night

Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ inhabits the liminal space between a licenced misrule of Saturnalia and austere social structures that govern its society. Once rigid institutions of gender and love are destabilised within the play through archetypal representations being triumphed by deviating forces of change. The epitome of a Petrarchan lover, Orsino’s poetry which fails to elicit female desire, as well as Viola’s subsequent romantic success suggest that previously established institutions of love fall outside conventions of heteronormativity, into a realm of ambiguity. Structures of gender that determine the dynamic of hierarchy are rendered hollow at Viola’s performance of masculinity. Ultimately, the ambiguity of socially constructed gender roles are alluded to by the play’s reliance on comedy as means of enduring the absurdities of reality, branding social constructs as an empty force and carrying the dramatic trajectory of the plot to play’s poignant end. 

Viola’s triumph in wooing Olivia over Orsino’s conventional text suggest that socially constructed languages of love as perpetuated by gender roles are futile. The play’s investment in love is immediately apparent within the first two introductory scenes, Orsino’s languorous speech on love in which foreshadows his later union with Viola, who is washed upon the shores of Illyria seeking the protection of a male disguise. Love gratifies the existence of the characters as well as propels the momentum of the plot, espousing the belief that “journeys end at lovers meeting”. Orsino’s words on the emotion in his monologue clearly align himself with Petrarchan lovers of the past, evoking conventional images of “sweet sounds” and “bank of violets” to delineate love’s “high fantastical form”. The currency of his poetry in the play’s romantic economy however fails to earn its worth when it is unable to win the heart of his “beloved”, the Countess Olivia; further denounced at Olivia’s dismissal of his “heresy” as well as her subsequent self-deconstruction into “divers schedule” in mock fashion of his worship of her “fine frame”. Orsino’s role as the masculine wooer crumbles at the staleness of his words and the strict reliance on their faded ability. In stark contrast, Viola’s success in winning Olivia’s hard won affections by “stepping out of Orsino’s text” to a space of spontaneoceity and earnesty suggest that love escapes pre-scripted gender roles and in fact breathes with vivacity outside of heteronormativity’s dominance; that Orsino’s failure lies not with his love but the language used to express it, and the gender roles that underline it. Orsino’s failure in achieving Olivia’s heart in contrast to Viola’s success alludes to the irrelevancy of socially constructed gender roles within the economy of love. 

Viola’s performance of masculinity demonstrates the ambiguities that saturate institutions of gender. Crucially employed by Shakespeare is the tumultuous conceit of the “hungry” sea, as a metaphor for “inconstancy”, ambiguity, and fluidity in ‘Twelfth Night’, birthing Viola and her “monstrous” disguise. Initially an act of self-preservation, Viola’s donning of male attire and behaviour which triumph Orsino in courtship suggest that gender is a performative act untethered to definitions of the self. Furthermore, Orsino’s instinctive affections that favour Cesario above his other servants within a matter of days, as well as his appropriation of the sea in his language in describing the “spirit of love” suggest that he too wishes to escape the confinements of his male archetype to inhibit this fluid space, recognised even by Feste that men like him should be “put to sea”. Unlike Antonio, whose past as a notorious pirate allows him to traverse both land and ocean and, metaphorically, in between social structure to maintain a fierce masculinity whilst able to indulge in his tender love for Sebastian, Orsino’s adherence to his Petrarchan archetype as necessary to fulfill the marriages of the play ultimately deny him that privilege. 

Orsino’s accusation towards Antonio being a “salt-water thief” therefore harbors deeper connotations of a bitterness at being suffocated by strict gender roles. Viola’s return to her “maiden weeds” is particularly significant; just as she completes the performance of her disguise, the first utterance of her name in the play’s entire by Sebastian in “thrice welcome, drowned Viola” evokes Viola resurfacing from the fluidity of her gender into the barren social constructs of the play, fulfilling her narrative role in the provisional weddings constructed by Shakespeare which, in isolating Antonio in his refusal to submit to the gender constructs, ring sinister. Viola’s performance of masculinity suggest the ambiguities of gender. 

Ultimately, rigid constructs are deemed absurd as revealed by the play’s reliance on folly as means of endurance. Directly from the onset of the ‘Twelfth Night’, folly and the succumbing to the absurdities of the play catalyse the dramatic trajectory of the play, as witnessed through Viola’s brazen donning of masculinity as the only means of her survival. The ease of her disguise begin the deconstruction of gender as an intrinsic part of the self, and is employed by Shakespeare as a tool of comedy as well as a distraction from the darker forces at play. Juxtaposing this is the stagnancy perpetuated by Orsino, who’s “love thoughts lie rich canopied in bowers”, and Olivia, willing to isolate herself for “seven years heat” to mourn for her brother, systematically structuring their lives away from the undesirable momentum of reality. Viola’s entry into their lives shatters this stagnancy, and introduces them to the folly of the world through the ridiculousness of her male pretense. Constructs of gender and their narrative significance begin to breakdown when the appropriation of which catalyse the movement of the plot, ultimately exposing its hollowness and absurdity. 

Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ intrudes on a wider social analysis through its appropriation of gender triumphing supposed inherent significance of the self. Through Viola’s success both in her disguise and her language of love, gender constructs is illustrated to be hollow and irrelevant to love itself. 

16 August 2021
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