Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s hilarious plays that covers the fragility or shiftiness of gender when a girl dresses up like a boy to gain passage across the sea and ends up serving the Duke in his court. Twelfth Night in act V, scene 2 presents a great argument in the gender debate. The debate in essentially on what a man can do and what a woman can do. This clearly plays out when Viola wooed both Olivia and Orsino, but the situation changes when Sebastian walks in on the party. This act mainly enables the audience to understand that the role of a man or a woman is not as cast in stone as the society may want people to believe. The play paints the blurry lines that divide men from women by indicating how convincing a girl can be when pretending to be a man. According to the play, gender roles are simply constructs and are not entirely binding as one may have expected. While incidence of romance play out on various occasions in the play, the position that Viola occupies and the reactions that her actions elicit, signify the biases that women faced in the Shakespearian era. 


Scene 2 is centered on Viola, who is also the same person as Cesario, a witty servant who is sent to woo Olivia and ends up marrying her and wooing the Duke Orsino instead. In order to appreciate the social constructs on gender at the time when the play was written, one must appreciate that in the play, Viola needed the disguise in order to gain the passage at sea and later to find work at the Duke’s court. As a woman, it becomes clear that her chances at success in either context were very slim and this is what prompted her to play the role of a boy despite being a rather attractive young woman herself. The message that can be derived from the young woman’s potential identity crisis is that at the time, one had to be male in order to get more opportunities at success. In act V, Viola would not have survived the time at sea let alone getting to the Duke’s house as a servant. The friendships that she cultivates with people who think of her as a man play a significant role in getting her to the Duke’s court. This situation presents pertinent information about the status and plight of women at the time. Women were considered as playthings and their worth was thus limited to housekeeping among other demeaning roles that Viola hoped to escape for as long as she could. Viola would not have chosen to be a man for so long if she had enjoyed being a woman from the start. In addition, the fact that she plays this role very convincingly for a long time indicates that she had spent much time studying men and learning how they are supposed to act within the various circumstances in which she was likely to find herself. Therefore, even though, , Viola admits in the end that she is a woman and is engaged to be married to Duke Orsino, there is more about Viola that remains easier to associate with masculinity than femininity.



Sebastian is Viola’s brother and for the most part the two interchange to play Cesario but in this scene, Sebastian walks in while Viola is there and thus clears the air on the existence of a male version of herself who may have helped to convince the people in the room that she is a man and not a woman. Sebastian in this scene is not in on the gender debate. Rather, he is just a willing accomplice and brother to Viola and he ends up as the husband to Olivia. As a character in the play, Sebastian was more of the puppet that was playing to Viola’s tunes. However, there are some underlying issues between Sebastian and Antonio and these bring out an element of homosexuality in a largely heterosexual play. Sebastian represents a part of the audience and the society that stays on the sidelines and only participates in the main action by the will of others. 

Duke Orsino

Orsino presents a situation in which there is a very blurry line between male and female. The Duke is a largely complicated person in the play considering that he starts out liking Cesario and sending him to woo Olivia and in the process, he grows so fond of her masculine character that even when he confesses his love for her he still refers to her by her masculine character. He had known Viola as a man for a long time and when he discovers in this last scene that she is in fact a woman, he automatically confesses to loving her. This means that Orsino must have started falling in love with her as a man. The undertones of homosexuality are not the only reason for Orsino’s complex nature. In the scene, Orsino also claims that he felt betrayed by Cesario and that he would love to kill ‘him’ and Viola willingly submits to his will and claims she would let him do as he pleases with her. 


In this scene, Olivia exhibits some element of power in her defiance of the Duke. She declares that Cesario is her husband and asks him to stay, and yet the Duke had spent a lot of time trying to woo her both before and after the arrival of Cesario. The surprise in the Duke’s response in this case indicates success on her part at defying him, while also putting Cesario in a difficult position. Throughout the scene, Olivia is presented as the powerful woman who has the means to stand and haggle with men, to negotiate her position not only with the Duke but also with Cesario, Malvolio, the clown and even Fabian and the priest. In many ways, Olivia represents the modern woman who would in due time be able to stand for herself and maintain her position even in the face of such controversy. Viola had just been fooled as well by the Viola/Sebastian act and she did not dwell on the emotional part of her response. She goes on about the rest of the scene like she was not at all hurt and in the end she remains married to Sebastian as Viola takes on the role of the Duke’s beloved


Antonio is a limited character in this story, as he is mainly relevant in the sense that he is looking for Sebastian and that he is somewhat attracted to the young man all through the scene. Antonio in this case may have helped Viola at some point but he was interested in her brother and not her. This play focuses on heterosexual relationships and thus Sebastian ends up with Olivia, as Antonio remains an outcast, with his desires silenced as if non-existent. At the time, homosexuality existed except that it was swept under the rugs. Even the Duke showed some homosexual inclinations in his persistent referral to Viola as Cesario while declaring his attraction to her. Antonio brings out the other side of the masculine gender, the side perceived as weaker based on their attraction to other men. Cultures that shun homosexuality are usually those that believe that women are lesser beings than men and thus that men should prefer to be with the women because they can dominate over them. 


Twelfth Night has many other themes but in this case, the main concern was gender and sexuality. The blurry lines in the definition of gender roles as presented by Viola indicate that a man is in many ways similar to a woman, and the characters of Duke Orsino and Antonio seem to agree considering they also seem to have trouble discerning the difference between male and female. All the characters in Act V work together to bring out the fact that the social constructs and biases related to gender were simply relative to whoever was doing the definition. In the Duke’s case, Viola could be a trusted male servant or a beautiful and witty ‘queen’ and he would love her or him all the same.