Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is a little like Brussels sprouts.

Bear with me.

Like Brussels sprouts, many people grow up with an aversion to Shakespeare. A lot of people think they like neither, though they never necessarily give them a chance.  Something about their names, Shakespeare and Brussels sprouts, has come to be associated with that which is undesirable or unattainable. Likely causes are bland preparation and dull teachers; however, a teacher in love with Shakespeare can talk about his plays intelligently and make them accessible to any reader, which produces the same effect for his work as a 400-degree oven, garlic, salt, and pepper do for Brussels sprouts.

At least, this is what I learned this semester in my Shakespeare class.

One of the first plays that we read for that class was Twelfth Night. Written in the second half of his career, about 1601, this play didn’t quite fit neatly alongside A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the comedies or with Hamlet and Macbeth in the tragedies. Twelfth Night, as well as Measure for Measure, fit into a new category often referred to as “problem comedies.” Though still comedies, they are darker; in Twelfth Night, for instance, while everyone else gets married at the play’s conclusion, Malvolio closes with a vow of revenge.

The most interesting aspect of this play for me, however, connects back to the novel Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides that I wrote about last, and its discussion of gender. At the heart of Twelfth Night lies an intriguing commentary on gender roles, and it features my personal favorite of Shakespeare’s women, Viola.

Viola, believing her twin brother to be dead, decides to honor him by risking her life to dress like him and work for Orsino, Duke of Illyria. Meanwhile, Orsino fancies himself in love with a Countess called Olivia. Unfortunately for him, Olivia cannot be bothered by his excessive expressions of love (which is actually what he wants because he’s all about the chase, anyway) as she is so busy making a show of mourning for her dead brother.

This is where Viola comes in. She uses her cross-dressing, gender-bending role ambiguity to resolve this classic Petrarchan stalemate between Orsino and Olivia. By befriending Orsino as a male they see each other as equals, so when she falls in love with him (and he with her, once he finds out she is a woman), they present the alternative idea of a companionate marriage.

Of course, after being sent with messages of love from Orsino to Olivia, the Countess falls in love with Viola (disguised as Cesario at the time). This is presumably due to Viola’s unique perspective of the situation as a woman in a man’s clothes, but as the play is a comedy, luckily for Olivia, Viola’s believed-to-be-dead twin brother comes back for her to marry.

Whereas most of Shakespeare’s women fall into the “obedient” stereotype of the Medieval view of women, the ones that do have some sort of drive or agency tend to be evil or otherwise unpleasant (ahem, Lady Macbeth). Viola, however, uses the means she has available (cross-dressing, naturally) in order to present a positive, influential female character. And I think that in itself is enough to make this play worth reading.

As an interesting side note, if you’re wondering what on earth the title “Twelfth Night” has to do with the play, the 12th night of Christmas is the Feast of Epiphany, also known as the Medieval feast of fools. It is a secular holiday when all social distinctions are erased for a day (within reason, of course). On the Twelfth Night, boundaries break down and dissolve gender and social divisions. Oh, and don’t forget the food, drink, and music in quantities beyond the limits of reason. ;)


* This post would not be possible without everything I learned from that Shakespeare class with Dr. Miller-Tomlinson. Before this spring, I definitely fell into the “Shakespeare isn’t for me” group, something I am not trying to overcome. :)

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One thought on “Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

  1. Another strong — but positive — woman is Shakespeare is Rosalind in “As You Like It”. She has a lot of fan boys, including myself I suppose, for managing everything but the yearnings of her own heart which are, of course, unmanageable. Portia in “Merchant of Venice” has many good qualities, but I’m not sure they can out weigh her prosecution of Shylock, literally, which she undertakes without qualm or hesitation. However, overall, I’m partial to Viola. She seems to me the bravest, having lost so much in the shipwreck– so she thinks — but still going on. I don’t think much of her choice in men, however. The Duke has a dark heart and I don’t imagine the marriage came to good.

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