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Gender Roles In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

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Gender from Then to Today

The societal role of women within british literature is a recurring theme seen across the centuries. Whether it be Guinevere in a lustrous affair with Sir Lancelot, to the Wife of Bath battling gender norms, to Viola fighting for work in a man’s world we see the importance of gender identity. In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night we see how the main character Viola, undercover as Cesairo, experiences the nature of being both a woman and a man during the Elizabethan era. With the comparison of Viola to Olivia we see the stark difference between a feminine female to one who is a musculine.

Women across generations have been depicted in western culture as feeble, meek, and emotional. Shakespeare himself introduces the notion having Cesario describe Olivia, under the jurisdiction of Duke Orsino, as a woman with, “Diana’s lip is not more rubious. Thy small pipe / Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound / And all is semblative a woman’s part. (I.iv.)”. Something in theory the main character, Viola, in Twelfth Night possesses in a physical sense knowing that, “thy constellation is right apt for this affair” (I.iv.71). But, Viola seems to not possess these qualities in personality due to her will to survive. With this in mind, Viola in desperation strategically decides to enter the man’s world in order to, “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as happily shall become / The form of my intent” (I.ii.100). By entering a man’s world Viola learns more about her position in the world and the relationships between men and woman than she might have begged for.

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The biggest lesson that Olivia learns between men and women is the definition of love and grief that is shared between the sexes. We see that men’s love is physical, as discussed between Orsino and Cersario describing that male attraction is more, “giddy and unfirm, / More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn, / Than women’s are” (II.iv.65). While we see with Olivia the desire for emotional connection, in this case shared grief with Cesario, or rather Viola, sharing their grievances at the hands of their brother’s deaths. But, between the sexes we see that love is both overpowering and infectious stating that, 'If music be the food of love” (1.1.1-3) and, “But come what may, I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (II.i.101-102).

In all, Viola learns the advantages and disadvantages of being both a man and woman when it comes to love and relationships. We see that both men and women are fast to fall in love and thus suffer the consequences of that love as well. Cesario describes to Olivia in her soliloquy that, “I am the man. If it be so, as ‘tis, / Poor lady, she were better love a dream / Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much. / How easy it is for the proper false/ In women’s waxen hearts to set their form! / Alas our frailty is the cause, not we, / For such as we are made of, such we be” (II.ii.25-32). But, in contrast to love we see that men and masculinity are quick to jealousy and anger as, “I am sure no man hath any quarrel to me. My remembrance is very free and clear from / any image of offense done to any man” (III.iv.231-253).

Men and women alike have their strengths and weaknesses due to their gender roles when it comes to strong emotions such as love, lust, jealousy, and anger. When it comes to these emotions that men and women are allowed to feel and act upon we see how gender roles are developed and inequalities are created. Although Twelfth Night was written during the Elizabethen era the value of the story still reigns true to today.

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Gender Roles In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. (2021, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
“Gender Roles In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2021,
Gender Roles In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2023].
Gender Roles In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Dec 8]. Available from:
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