Swerving Women in “Twelfth Night”

August 30, 2022 by Essay Writer

When Lady Olivia first beseeches Viola, a girl disguised as the male page Cesario, to love her, the two share a repartee that seems to question Cesario’s affection for the countess. But as Viola responds to Olivia, “you do think you are not what you are” and “I am not what I am,” it becomes clear that the conversation is about more than emotion; it concerns Viola and Olivia’s identities and how easily they could be shaped to the other’s wishes (3.1.137 and 139). Throughout William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, characters are most secure in an identity based on conformity; loathe to be individual because it takes them away from a comfort zone of tradition and accepted social mores. But for Olivia and Viola especially, the lure of individuality (defined as difference and/or uniqueness from a social norm) tempts both to take on male characteristics to distinguish themselves from the binds of their natural sex. Though both are caught in a paradox that Stephen Greenblatt describes as drawing Viola and Olivia equally towards conformity and individuality, Stephen Orgel identifies the eventual collapse of a reliable social/sexual system as the most dangerous consequence of shifting easily between genders and identities. In the play, each woman plays a character incongruent to societal expectations – Viola straddles the awkward crux between boyhood, womanhood and manhood while Olivia is unknowingly attracted to the sexually enigmatic Cesario. Eventually, Viola’s unconventional disguise and Olivia’s off-kilter desire leads them to an unanticipated, but satisfyingly conformist conclusion, with both attached to men. But long before that point, both women have already begun reacting to the perversity of their situation; because they have difficulty dealing with the uncertain feelings evoked by out-of-order sexuality, Viola and Olivia turn to rule-bound tradition to balance the “swerving” motion of their affections and actions. Olivia relies on the concrete boundaries of law to straighten out her uncomfortable sexual confusion, for example. Greenblatt points out that when Viola denies her marriage to Olivia, “the issue is defined not in psychological but in legal terms. A priest is brought in to testify to the procedural impeccability of the ceremony he has performed” (67). Viola, meanwhile does not measure her true self through ambiguous feelings or experience; she identifies herself through standard guidelines of “What countryman? What name? What parentage?” (5.1.225).But characters have innate urges to break boundaries; if they are too restricted by systemic beliefs and actions, they are more likely to burst out of “normal” roles into madness or excessive productivity. Difference and individuality, at least according to Greenblatt, are necessary mechanisms to achieving ordinariness. Most people, he claims, have extremely mundane desires – to obtain money, respect, and love – which they only recognize after experiencing surprising twists in their lives. Greenblatt’s theory finds modern example when former teenage rebels inevitably join the ranks of middle-class office workers raising families. This may explain why Malvolio is so eager to don yellow cross-garters and “acting this in an obedient hope” in order to obtain his end goal of a successful union with Olivia with the trappings of esteem (5.1.331). Feste’s uncharacteristic embodiment of a minister seems to give him comparable pleasure, because the incident allows him a glimpse into a “decent” profession so unlike his own. For Olivia and Viola, only the frustration of Olivia’s initial lust for Cesario and the denial of Viola’s natural femininity can lead both to a societal and personally acceptable outcome, such as their heterosexual love matches. The “swerving” that Greenblatt describes is in full swing, “a source of festive surprise and a time-honored theatrical method of achieving a conventional, reassuring resolution. No one but Viola gets quite what she or he consciously sets out to get in the play, and Viola gets what she wants only because she is willing to submit herself to the very principle of deflection” (70).The paradox of Greenblatt’s argument is this: that everyone thinks they seek normalcy, but when they pursue it through traditional venues, they are met with bafflement and failure. This is Antonio’s situation, where all the affection and devotion he could muster still prevents him from winning Sebastian. On the flipside of the paradox, when people pursue a twisted purpose, such as Toby and Maria’s prank on Malvolio, they find routine (in this case, marriage) waiting at the end. “An enacted imbalance or deviation is providential,” Greenblatt explains, “for a perfect sphere would roll straight to social, theological, legal disaster: success lies in a strategic, happy swerving” (68).But if a “concrete individual” such as Olivia or Viola “exists only in relation to forces that pull against spontaneous singularity and that draw any given life, however peculiarly formed, toward communal norms” as Greenblatt explains, the women’s individuality is threatened (75). Olivia’s disdain for Orsino, surprising because of his attractiveness, turns out to be less of a personality quirk for Olivia and more of a plot device to allow the secure pairing of Olivia/Sebastian and Orsino/Viola – again, Nature’s balancing act at work that is only possible through what Orsino calls “a natural perspective, that is and is not” (5.1.210). Furthermore, Viola’s playacting, while apparently convincing to other men, cannot cover up her female qualities: “thy small pipe / is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, / And all is semblative of a woman’s part” (1.4.32-34). Though she tips her identity off balance with her men’s clothes, Nature steadies her, Greenblatt writes, because “prodigies challenge the conventional classification of things, but they do not make classification itself impossible” (76). But beyond Nature’s external efforts to bring Olivia and Viola to a culture-wide equilibrium, the women’s individuality is also difficult to maintain internally. Both leading women, though notable for Olivia’s power and Viola’s charade, are still kept from true uniqueness because they are haunted by what Greenblatt terms “the persistent doubleness, the inherent twinship, of all individuals” (78). Shakespeare uses the women to dramatize all humans’ inner struggle between a dominant, “normal” personality and the complementary perverse negative: Viola spends the bulk of the play as sort of a stunted character, missing half of her identity, a supplement to her twin. Cesario is essentially a hybrid of Viola and Sebastian: “all the daughters of my father’s house, / and all the brothers too” (2.4.120-121). Olivia’s identity is also constantly tied to her male counterparts. According to Valentine, she is consumed by her “brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh / and lasting in her sad remembrance” even as she absorbs both her brother and father’s positions (1.1.30-31). Individuality suffers due to the intrinsic male/female duality of each person’s identity, that, in Greenblatt’s words, “perceptions of gender doubleness were almost always closely linked to a belief in an internal power struggle between male and female principles. Proper individuation occurred as a result of the successful resolution of the friction between the competing elements” (78). So for Viola especially, the struggle to stand alone as an individual becomes a not so much a battle to differentiate herself from Sebastian, but to fully suppress the part of her personality that nurtures her own male qualities (which Sebastian happens to resemble). Greenblatt recognizes the human drive to somehow express individuality, even if one’s ultimate destiny is to be like everybody else. But when a woman’s individuality encroaches on biological gender and she uses sex to assert her uniqueness by taking on male characteristics, her deviance from the comfortable, solid norm of male/female difference becomes cause for even greater anxiety. The sense that gender, thought to have a constant set of distinctions based on genitalia and temperament, is actually variable can be alarming, Orgel writes. Our confidence in our culture’s stability is at stake, he claims, so “we want to believe that the question of gender is settled, biological, controlled by issues of sexuality, and we claim to be quite clear about which sex is which – our genital organs, those inescapable facts, preclude any ultimate ambiguity” (19). The specter of choice – that women can masquerade as men and men could fall in love with boys dressed as women – endangers the rigid Elizabethan gender hierarchy and the class system it supports. Cesario’s presence, for example, disproves Orsino’s understanding of gender and relationships, especially when he orders Viola to “make no compare / between that love a woman can bear me / and that I owe Olivia” (2.4.100-102). Also, Orgel points out that with malleable identities, “in the Puritan tracts it merges with a general fear of blurred social and sexual boundaries, of roles and costumes adulterating the essences that God has given us” (26). The perception that gender switching or becoming a hermaphrodite is as easy as changing clothes is also disconcerting; as Orgel notes, “On Shakespeare’s stage it is a difference we would regard as utterly superficial, a matter of costumes and mannerisms; nevertheless, the superficies produce a difference that is absolute – gender disguises in this theatre are represented as all but impenetrable” (18). Without altering her personality, Viola need only put on men’s clothes to essentially become male to others as well as herself. By the time she realizes that Olivia is in love with her, Viola has already stopped thinking of herself as a woman; instead, she declares “I am the man” twice in one passage (2.2.25 and 36). What is interesting, finally, is that a woman’s ability to become a man or a man’s inclination to harbor or exhibit female tendencies might be the most significant threat of all to individuality, more so than the harm done by established principles about gender or Greenblatt’s “internal twin” theory. After all, without a reliable identity (i.e.: Olivia as a cold-hearted countess or Viola as a pretty young girl), everyone is a phantom, passing through classifications without barriers, always moving without any governing authority. In a situation such as this, all people become similar in their forever fluctuating difference.WORKS CITEDGreenblatt, Stephen. “Fiction and Friction.” Shakespearean Negotiations; the Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: UC Berkeley Press, 1988.Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, or, What you Will. Ed. Roger Warren and Stanley Wells. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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