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The View On Women In William Shakespeare’s Play Twelfth Night And John Milton’s Poem Paradise Lost

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William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, challenge the traditional conservative views of women. Twelfth Night demonstrates a radical and powerful presentation of women as they control and dominate the actions of the characters and plot line. Paradise Lost provides an interpretation of the Biblical text of the fall of man, as the poem presents Eve as a heroic figure willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good. However, Twelfth Night and Paradise Lost fail to fully complete the task of presenting women as no longer inferior to men, as the female characters remain in a subordinate and oppressive state.

Literature shapes society’s values and attitudes by often challenging or reinforcing the ingrained beliefs about how one should act or feel. One of the most discussed topics in literature is how we think of women and gender relationships, with some writers providing an alternative perspective to the traditional conservative assumptions of women’s position within society, whilst others support the inferior status of women. In modern day society, we continue to strive towards obtaining gender equality for all; thus, by examining classic works such as Twelfth Night and Paradise Lost, we can assess how literature has progressed over the years, or determine if it has remained conservative. Although Twelfth Night and Paradise Lost are not seen as a natural pairing to compare due to their drastically different contexts, it is important to assess if Milton offers an interpretation on women and gender relationships that follows along the same lines of thought pioneered by Shakespeare.

Throughout this essay, I wish to show that both texts present a radical interpretation of women’s position in society by challenging traditional stereotypes and gender roles. However, Shakespeare presents a more progressive view as the play not only confronts traditional stereotypes of women, but also sexual relations and women disguising themselves as men. In comparison, Milton was confined to the restrictions of the Biblical text, as he could not drastically alter the events of the fall of man and the role of women.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, there are three main female characters who perform a leading role in the plot development: Viola, Maria and Olivia. Literature prior and during the Renaissance period portrayed women with a lack of power and agency over the plot line, as men performed the leading roles and influenced the outcome of events. Women were viewed as inferior objects controlled by men who held little purpose other than the production of offspring. Women’s lack of social status and authority was reinforced by societies’ perception regarding their lack of intelligence and incapability to perform the same roles as men. However, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night challenges traditional beliefs of women’s social status by establishing the female characters with power and influence over others (including men), as the female characters are the main motivators of actions and the most complex. Shakespeare’s descriptions of women in Twelfth Night can be deemed as radical due its demonstration of a society in which women are no longer oppressed and instead hold power and authority.

Shakespeare provides Maria (a maiden at Lady Olivia’s household) with agency to construct the subplot of the play, driven by her hatred and animosity towards Malvolio, which led to his downfall. The scheme engineered by Maria reveals Malvolio’s intentions for falling in love with Olivia, as she wrote a letter addressed to Malvolio that tricked him into believing that Olivia had written a love letter expressing her feelings towards him. When Malvolio receives the letter he does not question whether he is being deceived by someone, and most definitely not a woman. Malvolio expresses his excitement after reading the letter “Remember who com- / ended thy yellow stockings and wish to see thee ever / cross-gartered” (2.5. 143–145). Malvolio’s desire to receive love and affection from Olivia stems from his powerful ambitions to become a member of the noble class. Maria’s affectionate letter fills Malvolio with hope of a better life, “I will wash off gross acquaintance, / I will be point-device the very man” (2.5.152-153). Maria demonstrates her power to persuade and control Malvolio’s emotions with the intention to make Malvolio suffer. The complexity of the sub-plot deepens as Maria collaborates with Feste to persuade Malvolio he is in a state of insanity. Maria locks Malvolio in a small dark chamber and Feste declares him a madman “Then you are mad indeed, if you be no better in your wits than a fool” (4.2. 88–89). Maria’s ability to control and manipulate a male character’s emotions and actions, emphasizes the radical change that Shakespeare suggests for women’s position within society. A society in which women are the agents of change and can exert power over those men who have dominated and caused women to live in a subordinate position.

Shakespeare describes Viola as a complex female character who challenges the gender identity norms by disguising herself as a man who works for the noble class and educates Orsino who resembles societies stereotypes regarding female inferiority by demonstrating the true nature of women as intelligent and powerful. Viola conceals her true identity to obtain work for the prestigious upper class, requesting the Captain to “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke. / Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.” (1.3. 51-54). Women disguising themselves as men, and vice versa, was not heard of nor pursued in the Renaissance period; thus, Shakespeare contests the role that gender performs in one’s identity and worth, as Viola becomes respected in her male disguise. Orsino represents the derogatory perceptions of women that society holds, as he expresses that women are unable to love and are inferior to men. Viola refutes the belief of female weakness by claiming “We men may say more, swear more, but indeed / Our shows are more than will; for still we prove / Much in our vows but little in our love” (2.4.116-118). Viola expresses that men make grand gestures and flatter women into falling in love, but their love is not sincere, nor more worthy than the love women express. Viola educates Orsino by refuting the belief that men are superior in love and courtship, as their love is no more genuine than women’s, thus, they are more equal than Orsino believes.

Shakespeare challenges the traditional gender relationships by proposing a society in which same-sex relationships could transpire. After the large climax of the play when Sebastian and Viola are reunited and the misunderstandings are resolved, Orsino confesses his love for Viola (Cesario). He declares his love and willingness to wed Viola “If this be so, as yet the glass seems true, / I shall have share in this most happy wrack. / Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand time / Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.” (5.1. 265–266). The gender confusion between Viola and her disguise as Cesario remains as Orsino addresses her as “Boy” in his love declaration, implying that he is attached to Viola’s masculine qualities that he is familiar with. Shakespeare has structured this into Orsino’s speech for the reader to question who he is in love with, the beautiful young man Cesario, or the beautiful young women Viola. For a man to fall in love with another man would be abhorrent and frowned upon by Renaissance society as same-sex relationships were not accepted nor explained in literature. Therefore, Shakespeare proposes a society in which there are same-sex relationships, confirming that Twelfth Night is a progressive text that defies conservative societal life.

Twelfth Night assesses the power of gender roles and relationships within courtship through the actions of Viola, Olivia and Orsino. During Viola’s (as Cesario) first encounter with Olivia, she is instructed to repeat the prepared speech by Orsino. Instead, Viola (as Cesario) tells Olivia what she would do if she was in love with her: “Make me a willow cabin at your gate / And call upon my soul within the house, / Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love, / And sing them loud even in the dead of night; / Hallow your name to the reverberate hills,” (1.5. 254-258). Viola (as Cesario) is suggesting that she would be outside of Olivia’s gate day and night expressing her love. Shakespeare explores the rich implications of women understanding and dominating a relationship of love by demonstrating high levels of understandings of what women desire. This contrasts the initial representation of women’s capability to love and present passion towards men that Orsino expresses in the opening scenes. Shakespeare is reinforcing the possibility of same sex relationships, as with Orsino falling in love with Viola (as Cesario) in her masculine form, Olivia develops feelings for Viola (as Cesario) as her true identity being a female.

Furthermore, Shakespeare demonstrates Viola’s power to influence others with her ability to persuade Olivia to remove herself from a state of mourning and hiding. Based on Viola (as Cesario’s) request, “Lady, you are the cruel’stshe alive / If you will lead these graces to the grave / And leave the world nocopy” Olivia removes her veil and reveals herself (1.5. 227-229). This symbolic moment represents Olivia’s transition from grieving the death of her brother to being present in the living world. Shakespeare demonstrates the power and influence that women can have on others, that they are able to change the course of actions, and are not just mere unintelligent humans with the sole purpose to reproduce.

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However, upon close examination of Twelfth Night, Shakespeare fails to end the poem in a progressive nature, as the women in the play return to their subordinate and oppressive state within society. In the final scenes of the play, it is revealed that Maria marries Sir Toby, Olivia marries Sebastian, and Viola marries Orsino. Although the female characters had a moment of freedom, during which they obtained power and control, escaping form their subordinate position, they eventually returned to an oppressive patriarchal institution that subordinate’s women into serving and being dominated by their husbands. Although, Shakespeare provides a radical and progressive view of women throughout the production of the play, the play returns to a conservative and oppressive position of women.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Milton’s Paradise Lost are both great works from the Renaissance era that open up non-traditional ways of thinking about the place of women within society. Twelfth Night is a play set outside of England in a fantasy world that is a parallel to the country and societal life by which Shakespeare experiments new ways of living and thinking. The imaginary setting of Twelfth Night permits Shakespeare to suggest new ideas about how one should live life and the possibility of new gender roles and relationships. In comparison, Paradise Lost is providing an alternative representation about one of the core ‘myths,’ meaning the story that we as a society believe in and use as a blueprint for our way of thinking and as guide to how we should act. Milton is dealing with charged material regarding the fall of man that he is unable to change; however, there is an attempt to divert society’s attention away from the conservative traditional thinking of women. Twelfth Night and Paradise Lost are bound together by their effort to raise awareness about the discriminatory and prejudiced views about the place of women within society. Women become empowered during certain parts of the play and the poem providing them with control and agency over others. Shakespeare pioneers an interpretation of gender roles and relationships that Milton has the opportunity to develop in the poem Paradise Lost. Shakespeare displays a society whereby women are categorized as smart, powerful and the agents of change. Olivia is smart and intelligent as shown in her ability to maintain order within her household and delegate the responsibility of work. Likewise, Maria and Viola embody their power and demonstrate their abilities to create change as Maria provides a subplot for the play and Viola exerts power over Orsino’s way of thinking. Therefore, by comparing Twelfth Night against Paradise Lost raises the question: does Milton provide a progressive piece of literature similar to the works of Shakespeare?

Paradise Lost details the events of Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden, whilst presenting a different interpretation of the traditional Biblical text of the fall of man. Milton’s version of the fall of man challenges the conservative ways of thinking about the place of women and gender roles within society. Although Milton does not change the entire story of the fall of man, he evokes a new way of perceiving it. Paradise Lost provides a complex perspective regarding the culpability of Eve in the fall of man, as the in-depth analysis of the events mitigate her responsibility and reduce the blame worthiness of her actions.

However, Milton remains to represent the traditional stereotypes of women as inferior and subordinate to men due to their lack of intelligence and spiritual purity. Upon initial examination of Adam and Eve’s relationship, it is apparent that Eve is subordinate and inferior to Adam based on the circumstances from which they are created, which asserts the dominant position of man, as Adam was created from God’s image. Whereas Eve was created based on Adam’s request, “Of fellowship I speak / Such as I seek, fit to participate / All rational delight, wherein the brute / Cannot be human consort; they rejoice,” and God grants Adam’s desire of having a companion (8. 389-392). Eve is created from Adam’s rib, suggesting that she is already inferior as her creation was from man, whereas Adam’s is formed by God. It is also important to examine the awakening of Adam and Eve.

Adam recalls his awakening to Raphael “Soft on the flow’ry herb I found me laid / In balmy sweat, which with his beams the sun” (8. 254-255). He woke in the surrounding of sunlight and God aware of who he is and knowledgeable about Earth. Conversely, Eve woke up alone in the shade, “I first awakened, and found myself reposed / Under a shade of flowers, much wond’ring where” (4. 450-45). Evidently, God did not bestow upon Eve the same knowledge as Adam, as she is unaware of her identity and her surroundings; therefore, their awakenings reinforces the female inferior and subordinate position within society. Not only did Eve wake in the shade, whereas Adam in the sun, but her misunderstanding of the reflection she sees in the water, with which she becomes mesmerized with, demonstrates her vanity and foolishness. Eve’s depiction as described by Milton emphasizes the patriarchal society which operates to dominate women and label them as inferior.

Furthermore, Milton compares the importance of Adam and Eve, concluding that Adam holds more spiritual purity and importance in comparison to Eve, reinforcing her subservient position. Milton assesses the different roles that Adam and Eve acquired, “Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d; / For contemplation hee and valor form’d, / For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace, / Hee for God only, shee for God in him:” (4. 295–311). Adam is perceived to be more spiritually pure as he was created from God, in comparison to Eve who was created for Adam’s pleasure, suggesting that Eve is further away from God’s grace. Milton’s assessment implies that gender roles are unequal and imbalanced, further suggesting that the Bible promotes unequal roles by proposing that the female is of lesser importance, causing her to submit to man. Milton explicitly states that Eve is a subordinate figure to Adam, “Of nature her th’ inferior, in the mind / And inward faculties, which most excel” (8. 541-542). This inferiority and dominance that Adam holds over Eve is reinforced throughout Paradise Lost, however, there are moments that demonstrate an alternative way to address Eve’s position.

Upon close examination of Paradise Lost, it is apparent that Milton challenges and explores a different interpretation of the Biblical texts in regards to how we view women. Milton provides three different interpretations of Eve: Satan’s perspective, Adam’s perspective and Eve’s perspective on herself. Satan views Eve as inferior and subordinate to Adam’s command, by which he rules and dominates her actions. Satan claims that they are not equal as Adam governs Eve, “Not equal, as their sex not equal seem’d;/For contemplation hee and valour form’d,/ For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,/ Hee for God only, shee for God in him;/ His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d/ Absolute rule”(4. 294–99). Milton includes the Satan’s view of Eve to highlight that this misogynistic wrong view of women is the product of the fallen mind. Milton provides Eve with the status of the first love poem writer on Earth which immediately grants her status and power. In this love poem it is implied that she sees herself as inferior to Adam, but is content in her status “to know no more / Is a woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise” (4. 637-638). However, Milton could be posing that the lower social status and importance that Eve has been provided leads her to believe she is of less worthiness in comparison to Adam.

In the closing two lines of her love poem, Eve questions what the stars are suggesting that she wishes to learn more “But wherefore all night long shine these, for whom / This glorious sight, when sleep hath shut all eyes?” (4. 657-658). Milton is implying that women are inquisitive and wish to become more knowledgeable, rejecting previous assumptions of women being incompetent and unable to acquire more information. Similarly, Milton provides Adam’s interpretation of Eve as he wishes to have an equal who he could share his thoughts and joy with and develop a companionship. He wishes to have a companion who he shares reason and intellect with, as the animals in the Garden of Eden do not possess such attributes. Therefore, Milton implies that Adam desires an equal companion but Eve’s qualities hold less importance in comparison to Adam due to their creation and connection with God.

Furthermore, Paradise Lost mitigates Eve’s culpability and blame regarding the fall of man, by suggesting that Adam persuades himself to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam realizes that he cannot live without Eve and begins encouraging himself to join her in sin, “From this delightful fruit, nor known till now / True relish, tasting; if such pleasure be / In things to us forbidden it might be wished, / For this one tree had been forbidden ten.” (9. 1023-1026). As Adam decides to eat from the Tree of Knowledge with little influence from Eve, Milton suggests that we cannot blame women for the entire destruction of the fall of man and we cannot continue to blame women for our setbacks in life, as Adam performed the same role as Eve in their sins. Paradise Lost presents Eve as a resemblance of Jesus’s sacrifice earlier in the poem, as she is willing to give her life in redemption for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, demonstrating her strength, power and selflessness. Milton depicts Eve as a heroic figure as she wishes to accept full responsibility and blame as she recognizes her choices of disobeying God “On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe, / Me me only just object of his ire” (10. 935-936). In doing so, she is prepared to receive God’s anger and punishment to prevent Adam from suffering. However, it is possible that Eve’s desire to eat from the Tree of Knowledge was rooted in her characteristics of inferiority and naivety. God gave her these characteristics which developed her vulnerability to be persuaded by Satan to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Satan uses his flattery “A goddess among gods, adored and served” to gain Eve’s trust and manipulate her into disobeying Gods wishes (9. 547). Therefore, it is suggested that if Eve were a man, she would not have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge as she would not have been so naive to give into temptation.

To conclude, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Milton’s Paradise Lost represent the progressive views of gender roles and relationships, through the embodiment of the character’s actions and descriptions. Twelfth Night provides a radical interpretation on challenging the traditional and conservative views that oppress women and confine them to a subordinate position. Shakespeare pioneers his work to allow other writers to expand upon his presentation of a society in which women have more equality and control. Milton’s Paradise Lost attempts to incorporate the characteristics of women being smart, intelligent and the agents of change, as presented in Twelfth Night, but is restricted to elaborate due to the confinements of the Biblical texts. Therefore, although Paradise Lost can be seen as a progressive text, there is still an apparent chain of command regarding certain attributes of Eve’s descriptions and actions that remain conservative and traditional. Overall, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night remains the most progressive due to its radical and challenging nature of traditional gender stereotypes.

Works Cited

  1. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2018.
  2. Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2018.

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The View On Women In William Shakespeare’s Play Twelfth Night And John Milton’s Poem Paradise Lost. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-view-on-women-in-william-shakespeares-play-twelfth-night-and-john-miltons-poem-paradise-lost/
“The View On Women In William Shakespeare’s Play Twelfth Night And John Milton’s Poem Paradise Lost.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-view-on-women-in-william-shakespeares-play-twelfth-night-and-john-miltons-poem-paradise-lost/
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