Twelfth Night and Gender Identity

Audra McDonald, Anne Hathaway, and Raúl Esparza pose as Olivia, Viola, and Duke Orsino in Shakespeare in the Park’s Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is my personal favorite Shakespeare play. I read it for class in the 10th grade. At first, I approached this play cautiously. I have never read, listened to, or watched a Shakespeare play in my life—but I presumed that the language would be difficult, and the topics uninteresting to me.

And wow, was I wrong.

As we read along, I found myself completely invested in Viola’s story—the way she turns herself into ‘Cesario’ to navigate high society, how she manages to get a Countess to fall in love with her, and how she manages to fool Duke Orsino into thinking she was a man. I was interested in the way she navigated her relationship with not only Olivia and Orsino, but with her gender, as well.

The reason why I became absolutely obsessed with this play was because how it tackled gender and sexual identity, though maybe not completely outright, but it’s there! You just have to read closely, and watch closely.

Tamara Lawrance and Oliver Chris pose as Cesario and Orsino, in the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night.

Viola dressing as a man, and turning herself into ‘Cesario,’ addresses gender fluidity in such an amazing way—and brings up so many possibilities for newer adaptations of Twelfth Night and so many more possibilities for actors playing Viola. In Shakespeare’s time, for example, all roles in his plays were played by men. So, in turn, Viola was played by a man, playing a woman, who was trying to pass as a man. A bit confusing, isn’t it?

This shows that… does gender actually matter in Twelfth Night? What is gender actually? A person’s gender identity is what that person makes of it, and Twelfth Night showcased this perfectly. People fall for Viola, and people fall for Cesario—no matter the gender, Viola’s self is what wins people over. Even in the end, Orsino tells Cesario (technically still Cesario), that, once he gets his old clothes—he can be Viola once more. It’s almost as if gender is something you can put on, then take back off again, a perfect explanation of gender fluidity.

“I am all the daughters of my father’s house, And all the brothers too—and yet I know not.”

Act II, Scene 4

As I discussed before, Viola’s gender fluidity allows for so many newer adaptation of Twelfth Night. A particular favorite of mine is Shakespeare in Clark’s Park’s production Twelfth Night, which, in the end, had Viola renaming themself to Vi, and forgoing gendered terms, possibly being nonbinary.

Johnny Flynn and Mark Rylance as Viola and Olivia. This is a more traditional take on Twelfth Night, as this production at The Globe had an all-male cast, just as Shakespeare did.

Taking these age-old plays and turning them into something relatable, modern, completely realistic in this day and age is extremely important. It’s how you get younger generations to read and analyze these works of literature and interpret them for themselves. Relating to Viola’s journey of self-discovery is exactly how I felt myself so connected to this play. Though, obviously, it is not a completely perfect dissertation on gender and identity, but I believe it made leaps, especially during Shakespeare’s time. People conflicts with identity, sexuality, and gender, didn’t just start in modern times. It has been happening for a very long time, it’s only recently we’ve been able to give these labels names.

Twelfth Night explores these themes in a great way, and relating to the characters makes this play so much more meaningful.

1 thought on “Twelfth Night and Gender Identity

  1. Great post! Recently I’ve learned a lot about how newer performances of old plays have had the creative liberty of gender bending some characters in the play, and transforming the play so it can be analyzed in a different way. It’s good to see specific examples of this kind of phenomenon, and people reacting to it in a positive way.

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