Viola’s Gender Roles in Twelfth Night

Last Updated: 02 Aug 2020
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The fluidity and ambiguity with which Viola presents gender is central to the drama of Twelfth Night. But to what extent are Viola's gender roles essential to the comedy of the play? The arrivals of Viola and Sebastian in Illyria serve as the catalysts for drama in Twelfth Night. The presence of twins of different sexes yet identical in appearance is a dramaturgical device crucial to the comic resolution, whilst being somewhat farcical.

It is the misunderstandings which Viola’s cross-dressing inevitably causes which make her inverted gender roles so essential to the comedy of the play. Through her disguise, she assumes typically male roles such as of the ‘fool’, and the comic value of her double identity is heightened through the questioning of the gender conventions of Shakespearean theatre.

Yet, Viola’s disguise brings with it a strain of melancholy, lessening her assumed gender roles’ comic impact on the play. Viola’s cross-dressing subverts normality in the respect that she abruptly assumes typically male roles such as that of the Fool. Her first meeting with Olivia as a messenger of Orsino’s love is marked by her different approach to courtship.

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She launches into a preprepared speech of compliments with a poetic apostrophe: ‘most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty’, only to break into prose to check that she is indeed speaking to Olivia. Viola’s repeatedly her speech as conventionally courtly, as it is ‘excellently well penned’ and ‘tis poetical’; yet, these comments essentially refer to its artificiality.

In fact, juxtaposed to the opening of the play, this whole meeting is a parody of Orsino’s cliché approach and indeed the conventions of courtly love. Viola deflates the romantic pretensions of Orsino’s embassy, and such ridicule of the ‘male archetype’ by a woman is highly comical for its suspension of the accepted inferiority of women in society.

Yet, somewhat more absurd is the fact she has also unintentionally assumed his positions of Olivia’s courtier and indeed of a character of great power and superiority, as her actions free both Orsino and Olivia of their rigidity. Furthermore, it is such witty manipulations of others that prove her to be a kind of fool.

Act Three Scene One is marked by Viola and Feste’s repartee of attempts to surpass each other’s wit; Viola’s reply to Feste’s comment ‘Now Jove in his next commodity send thee a beard’ is ‘I am almost sick for one, though I would not have it grow on my chin’. Both comments are pointed references to gender and are thus dramatic irony;

Feste’s taunting of Cesario’s lack of virility may also serve as a comical meta-theatrical reference to the boy actor playing Viola. However, there is a degree of pathos to Viola’s admission, as the beard she desires if not her own is surely that of Orsino; thereby, she emphasises the complications of her disguise in pursuing her love interest.

Yet, most prominent is Viola’s parallel to Feste as a Fool. They have a mutual appreciation of each other’s wit, as Feste comments: ‘I think I saw your wisdom there’, whilst Viola appreciates the intelligence behind his foolery: ‘for folly that he wisely shows is fit...’ She realises the irrationality around her and employs it to her advantage in choosing to cross-dress. Certainly, the whole nature of her disguise itself questions the gaps of seeming, being and knowing, of which the Fool typically explores. Such challenges to male roles make her gender ambiguity amplify the comedy of the play.

Viola was played by a boy actor under the conventions of Shakespearean theatre, and this physical fact adds a level of confusion heightening the comedy of her gender roles. Such misplacement is denounced by Olivia’s remark in Act One: ‘you are now out of your text / but we will draw the curtain and show you the picture’ and certainly by the repeated allusions to Cesario’s femininity, such as Orsino’s remark on her appearance: ‘all is semblative a woman’s part’.

Olivia’s unveiling is a pivotal moment as it represents the end of the mourning for her dead brother and essentially ‘allows’ the comedy to commence for the audience. It is an ironic act to a character ‘veiled’ herself, and meta-theatrical reference of ‘curtain’ indicates the misplacement of the actor of Viola as much as the character.

For as much as her disguise is her own ploy, it is Shakespeare’s dramatic device. Orsino taunts Cesario for his lack of virility, yet he may also be commenting on the male actor’s credibility for the ‘part’ of a woman. No matter how convincing the boy actor was playing Viola, the audience is continually aware that there is a male body under the disguise of a woman and thus a double sex reversal is taking place in Viola’s disguise.

Yet, the ‘curtain’ could be symbolic of the uncovering of much more radical approaches than the conformities of Elizabethan theatre. Much of the play’s comedy comes from Shakespeare’s trifling with homosexuality. In Elizabethan England, the idea of such relationships would have been unusual and considerably more absurd than a modern audience may appreciate.

The misunderstandings caused by Viola’s cross-dressing are the root of what audiences of the day would have seen as comic ambiguity. The audience knows Olivia unwittingly desires a woman when she is drawn to the young servant, and we see the relationship between Orsino and Cesario develop throughout the course of the play; indeed, some modern productions show the bond between them in overtly homosexual terms to heighten the comedy. In keeping with the conventions of Elizabethan comedy as a whole, the play resolves in heterosexual marriage; yet, despite references to Viola in female clothing, this never actually happens.

Orsino’s parting lines are: ‘Cesario, come - / For so shall you be while you are a man’. Distinct references to her male alias yet none of her feminine form still denote a comic male to male relationship. For, whilst the fact the use of a male actor for Viola is humorous in itself, it is the radical implications of this role which make Viola’s character so vital to the comedy of Twelfth Night. However, despite the obvious comic implications of her disguise, from Viola’s double identity arises sexual conflict and the potential for tragedy.

In her aside at the end of Act 2 Scene 2, she sympathises with Olivia, remarking ‘poor lady, she were better love a dream’, emphasising that as an object of Olivia’s desire she is unattainable. She understands because as Cesario her love for Orsino cannot be reciprocated. He insinuates her gender ambiguity in the previous act: ‘For they shall yet belie thy happy years, / That say thou art a man’. For whilst the disguise grants her access to both parties, the price she pays is the loss of any gender identity, as she cannot be a woman to Orsino or a man to Olivia .

She frequently alludes to her gender disparity, such as when Olivia confesses her love in Act Three Scene One, as Viola’s reply is: ‘I am not what I am.’ Her response is dramatic irony at its most explicit and effectively summarises the extent of her travesty in inciting Olivia’s affections. However, this statement is typical of her expression throughout the play; such evasions and wordplay are because she cannot speak of her real self.

To the audience, it is somewhat striking that her real name is not pronounced until the very last scene, when Sebastian greets her: ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola.’ The play’s resolution aligns with the conventions of comedy in settling misunderstandings and proving a ‘happy ending’; there is no sense of Viola’s individual identity until the reunion with her brother, when correct gender roles are asserted.

However, the tragedy of her character is heightened further by the fact Orsino does not even mention her real name in his parting line. Overall, while some critics argue Viola is the most developed of the characters in Twelfth Night, for she is not constrained to a stock character, this inevitably adds an oblique side.

Her gender roles may heighten the comedy, but the emotional toll of the disguise which she calls a ‘wickedness’ should not be ignored, and detract her from the role as a simple asset in the play’s comedy.

To conclude, the inversion of her gender roles is radiant of the ‘carnival spirit’ so prevalent in Twelfth Night. We see that the play’s comedy is very much enhanced by Viola’s cross-dressing, in as much the gender conventions her masquerade breaks as the inevitable misunderstandings.

However, we see also that cross-dressing has certain tragic implications, true to the nature of comedy harbouring a dark underside. Thus, her gender roles are to a limited extent essential to the comedy of the play.

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Viola’s Gender Roles in Twelfth Night. (2016, Jul 03). Retrieved from

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