Characters Description, Crossdressing Identity and Gender Roles in Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a romantic comedy by William Shakespeare, written around 1601- 1602. It is believed that the play was written to perform in twelfth night, which is a festival of Christianity, celebrated on the last night of the twelve days of Christmas. It is believed that the story of the play is derived from an Italian play entitled Gl’Ingannati (or The Deceived Ones), written in 1531, which features twins who are mistaken for each other. It is an excellent play, which explores issues such as gender, cross-dressing identity and the importance of clothing. The play focuses on the twins Sebastian and Viola, who are separated in a shipwreck. It is an interesting blend of the sadness of separation between brother and sister, romance as each of them falls in love. It is a comedy full of mostly gentle sarcasm and irony, and an excellent happy ending with the reunion of the brother and sister. In the play there is an interesting complexity of mistaken identities, cross-dressing, and the inclusion of foolish characters, and a couple of affectedly grand characters who get what they deserve. This popular comedy has the theme of sexual transgression committed by the protagonist of the play, Viola. She disguises herself as a eunuch with both the masculine and feminine qualities and challenged the stereotypical social norms of gender and identity.

Character Description of Twelfth Night

The play consists of many major and minor characters, which plays some important roles in the plot.

Major Characters

  • Viola is the central character and protagonist of the play. Viola is a young woman of noble birth. In the beginning of the play she is discovered shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, separated from her brother Sebastian. In the play, Viola disguises herself as a young man to serve Orsino, the Duke of Illyria.
  • Orsino is the Duke of Illyria. He is a powerful nobleman, handsome, virtuous, brave, wealthy, loyal and devoted; in short he is everything that a woman desires for in a husband. He is lovesick for the beautiful lady Olivia, and often compares his love for Olivia with music. But he becomes very fond of his page boy Cesario, who was actually Viola in disguise.
  • Lady Olivia is a beautiful and wealthy lady of aristocratic birth who lives in Illyria. She was courted by Orsino, the Duke of Illyria and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Various men are attracted by Olivia, because of her beauty and wealth. They wish to marry her but she vowed not to marry or receive any man, or go outside for seven years, in mourning for her recently died brother. However, she falls in love with Cesario (Viola in disguise), the young page boy of Orsino.
  • Sebastian is also one of the major characters of the play. He is the twin brother of Viola, who was separated in a shipwreck and Viola supposed that he is drowned in the sea. But he has been rescued by a ship captain, Antonio and later they reach Illyria, where Viola lives in disguise as a young page boy of Orsino. In the end of the play, he met Olivia and they married.

Minor Characters

  • Malvolio is the head servant of Olivia’s house. He is often portrayed as the main antagonist. He is very efficient in his duties and responsibilities. But he is also a vain and pompous man who dreams to marry his mistress to rise above his social class.
  • Sir Toby is Olivia’s uncle. He is a drunkard who lives in Olivia’s house. However, Olivia does not like and approve of his unruly behaviour, heavy drinking and late night carousing or friends.
  • Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a comic character of the play. He is a friend of Sir Toby, who attempts to court Lady Olivia. He thinks himself as a brave, witty, young, good at language and dancing, but actually he is a fool.
  • Antonio is a sea captain who rescues Sebastian after his Shipwreck. Antonio accompanied Sebastian to Illyria, he is very fond of Sebastian.
  • Feste is a clown or fool, who served in Lady Olivia’s household. He is expert in making jokes, funny comments and singing old songs.
  • Maria is also a servant in Olivia’s house. She is a clever, devoted and attentive to Olivia. She loves and marries Sir Toby.
  • Fabian is a servant in Olivia’s household.
  • Valentine and Curio are gentlemen attending on the Duke.
  • A Sea Captain, who is Viola’s friend.

Background of the Play

At the beginning of the play, Viola, the protagonist of the play survives a shipwreck but loses her twin brother, Sebastian. She reaches in Illyria, where she cross-dress herself as a young boy, named Cesario and enters into the service of Duke Orsino.

Orsino is love-sick for Lady Olivia, but she does not return his affections. Orsino sends Cesario as a wooer to convince Olivia, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario instead, who is actually a girl. In the meantime, Viola as a page boy of Orsino develops a close friendship with him and ultimately also falls in love with him. Thus, the story revolves around the love triangle created by mistaken identities. In this love triangle, Orisno is in love with lady Olivia, Olivia is in love with Cesario, who is actually Viola, and Viola is in love with the Duke.

In the end of the play, the confusions which arise from mistaken identities are resolved and Viola reveals her true identity. Viola finds her brother Sebastian and finally Orsino proposes marriage to Viola.

Elizabethan Society, Drama and Cross-Dressing

Elizabethan era had witnessed patriarchy in society. During the Elizabethan era women were restricted to perform on stage, only men mostly the young boys were allowed to act on stage, until 1660. Before this time acting for women were considered immoral and actually illegal. Therefore young men usually played the female roles and dressed on woman’s clothing. The most vivid examples of cross-dressing were those that took place on the commercial stages of London.

Renaissance society and culture experienced male-domination and patriarchy was powerful during the 16th and 17th century. This male-dominated society assumed women as inferior. According to this stereotypical system women represented virtues like silence, obedience, patience and sexual chastity, and their relationships with male was determined with these virtues. Therefore during the Renaissance, many women cross-dressed in male attire to break the stereotypical gender hierarchy and these courageous steps of women were considered transgressive in patriarchal society.

In the theatrical world, cross-dressing was seen especially conducted by young male boys. Though they were men who dressed as women for the stage, but those actors, acting as woman when again cross-dressed as man in the play, it was seen with reaction by many people as a threat to patriarchal society.

Shakespeare’s plays provide a wide reflection on Renaissance socio-political context from different perspectives, many of his plays concentrates on the issues of gender and sexuality including its deviations. Some critics suspect his role as a representative writer of Elizabethan era about whether he gave voice for the suppressed women of patriarchal society or just portrayed the gender stereotype of men-women relationships in the male dominant society. However, it is clear that he had created a wide range of female character through his plays which were intelligent, brave, and rebellious than conventional male characters of Elizabethan time. Many of these characters, by disguising themselves in male attire tried to break the stereotypical social and cultural norms of gender and sexuality imposed by patriarchy.

Cross-Dressing Identity and Gender Roles in Twelfth Night

Shakespeare presents an interesting account of the manipulation and erection of gender and identity in Twelfth Night. The play develops its exploration with the twins, Viola and Sebastian. In the play, the issues of identity are much more complicated in the latter part because of their gender differences.

From the very beginning of the play the protagonist, Viola disguises herself in male attire, from which all the play’s confusion and misunderstanding arises. The play consists of so many love relationships and gender roles. Viola after surviving a shipwreck and losing her twin brother, she comes to the country of Illyria. She realizes the difficulties and problems faced by women to survive in a male becomes the page boy of Orsino, the Duke of Illyria.

The role of gender and cross-dressing identity in Twelfth Night can be discussed from three major perspectives.

The Performative Aspect of Gender Intelligibility- In the play Viola (Cesario) plays the role of a wooer on behalf of “his” master, Orsino. Cesario addresses Olivia with charming words to accomplish his mission:

“Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty,_ I pray you, tell me if this be the lady of the house, for I never saw her: I would be loath to cast away my speech, for besides that it is excellently well penned, I have taken great pains to con it. Good beauties, let me sustain no scorn; I am very comptible, even to the least sinister usage.” (Act I, scene v)

In their very first encounter, Cesario effectively plays his part as a wooer and makes it clear to Olivia that he acts on behalf of Orsino. But surprisingly Olivia could not identify Cesario and falls in love with him, who was actually a girl disguised in male attire.

“How now! Even so quickly may one catch the plague? Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections With an invisible and subtle stealth To creep in at mine eyes.” (Act I, scene v)

Olivia says like plague, love creeps quickly and stealthily into her heart right after her first encounter with Cesario. It is also an important matter from the fact that though Olivia took a vow to live in seclusion after the death of her brother, but she relinquishes her vow and falls in love with a girl in disguise as a man. This incident represents the blindness of love.

Though Viola impersonates as a man in the play, she reflects timid and soft personality which somehow undermines the usual masculine features. Therefore, we should think of, the representation of Cesario as having lack of some masculine features despite the male appearance is a reminder of her underlying female identity. In the play, the character of Olivia can be seen as a counter-example of gender stereotype. She is brave, active and outspoken. She plays an active role in her love relation with either Cesario or Sebastian, which is representative of Shakespeare’s unconventional heroines, who are not afraid of stereotypical social and cultural patriarchy.

In the play, Orsino describes Cesario’s feminine appearance and physical features:

“Lip Is not more smooth and rubious; thy smell pipe

Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,

And all is semblative a woman’s part” (Act I, scene iv)

Orsino’s description of Cesario’s beauty emphasized the underlying feminine characteristics of Viola’s male disguise. She disguises herself as a “eunuch” with both masculine and feminine qualities. In the play, we can see that Cesario’s feminine qualities and physical appearance attracts both Orsino and Olivia.

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The Fashioning of Identity through Clothing- During the Renaissance, there were significant attempts to maintain social order according to different social ranks of people and sexes. Even the dress codes were maintained which resulted in a kind of hierarchy of society. The imposition and construction of one’s gender identity mostly depends on the male or female attires, which is clear in case of Viola’s disguise. In the play, we have found a double meaning sentence where Cesario says to Olivia-

“I am not that I play”. (Act I, scene v)

On the primary level it means Cesario is not a young man “he” appears to be. On the secondary level it indicates the boy actor, playing the role Viola, is actually not a woman he dramatizes.

In Act II, scene ii, Viola calls herself “poor monster”, lamenting her poor situation of being a man in appearance and woman in reality. On the secondary level, it also talks about the boy actor being a woman in appearance and man in reality. It indicates the construction of one’s identity with the assumption of clothes.

The Elusiveness of the copy and the original- Viola disguised herself as a young man by copying her supposedly dead brother Sebastian. After Antonio mistakenly recognized Viola as Sebastian, she reveals her role model which she used as a mirror image for her male disguise:

“I my brother know

Yet living in my glass; even such and so

In favour was my brother, and he went

Still in this fashion, colour, ornament, For him I imitate”

In the final act of the play, everyone including Orsino, Olivia and Antonio are confused regarding the true identity of the twins. In the final recognition of Viola and Sebastian, Orsino describes about the identical similarity of the twins:

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,

A natural perspective, that is and is not!” (Act V, scene i)

This description of Viola’s disguise as a man simply shows that she is a copy of her brother.

Furthermore, Antonio’s remark of the division of self further illustrates the difficulty to identify the original from the copy:

“How have you made division of yourself?

An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin

Than these two creatures.” (Act V, scene i)

Cesario and Sebastian are like mirror reflection of one another to the other characters. To the other characters of the play, Sebastian is a reflection of Cesario, but to Viola, herself, her male disguise Cesario is a reflection of her supposedly dead brother Sebastian. In the end, the character of Cesario created from disguise is assimilated into the twins, and the character of Cesario is subsumed by Sebastian. The transference of Olivia’s love from Cesario to Sebastian is also important from the fact that Viola impersonates her brother Sebastian when she disguises as Cesario. Since Olivia can’t marry Cesario, who was actually a woman, so she married to Sebastian as a replacement of the former.

Cross-Dressing in Shakespeare’s Plays and Their Criticisms

William Shakespeare used the element of cross-dressing in many of his plays. He usually adopts the concept of cross-dressing or impersonation in his plays in order to provide the female characters more freedom and liberty in a strict patriarchal society. The female characters disguised as a man can enjoy the freedom in society because she can move freely, speak freely and experience the reality of life with her wit and intelligence. Perhaps we can say that Shakespeare’s plays popularized the concept of cross-dressing. In fact Phyllis Rackin in her essay “Shakespeare’s Cross-dressing Comedies” said,

“Of the thirty-eight surviving plays attributed to Shakespeare, about one fifth involves cross-dressing. In seven of these plays female characters disguised themselves as young men”.

We can find the female protagonists cross-dressing in plays like The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Many critics of Shakespeare’s comedies mainly focused on the themes of cross-dressing, gender and the role of boy actor, who performed female character in the play. Critics have made some attempts to study and understand the probable reasons of cross-dressing and gender identity in Elizabethan society.

The feminist critic and the author of Shakespeare and the Nature of Women and Alice to the Lighthouse, Juliet Dusinberre provided an optimistic view of the female characters of Shakespeare’s comedies. According to her, Shakespeare in portraying witty and high-spirited heroines, transcends patriarchal social prejudices about women and sees “men and women as equal in a world which declared them unequal” (quoted in Hidalgo 1987:167)

British historian of the early modern period, Lisa Anne Jardine says that playing a woman’s role “is an act for a male audience’s appreciation”, consequently the boy actor is considered a sign of homosexual energies in the theater, an object of male desire. Stephen Orgel also says “the basic form of response to theater is erotic”, hence we can say that there is some kind of homosexual eroticism in the performance of a play.

The play Twelfth Night is a magnificent example of such aspects, which explores sexuality, gender, the fashion of clothing and most importantly cross-dressing.


Viola’s idea of cross-dressing reflects the construction of gender identity through gender performance and clothing. The confusions created by the character of Viola-Cesario throughout the play also suggest the fashioning capacity with male or female attire. This comic play also reflects social and cultural mindset of Elizabethan people. When Viola reaches Illyria, she not only assumes new identity as a young male boy but also assumes new gender and new pattern of sexuality. This male disguise helps Viola to survive in a world of male dominance; her male disguise helps to take equal role and responsibilities as a man breaking the stereotypes of patriarchy and allowing freedom, power and authority. In the end, we can see that the fictional character of Cesario is subsumed by the character of Sebastian, Which facilitates Olivia’s love from Cesario to Sebastian. By analyzing the different aspects of this play, we could say that cross-dressing not only liberated Shakespeare’s heroines but also expanded the Elizabethan mindset by uncovering the SHE. It liberated the woman and their possibilities which had been dominated by gender politics for a very long time.

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