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Twelfth Night By Shakespeare: Societal Standards And Gender Roles In The Elizabethan Era

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Throughout William Shakespeare’s time during the Elizabethan Era in the late 1500s, societal standards and gender roles were not like how they are in most of the world today. Women in the Elizabethan Era were raised to believe that they were inferior to men. The Church enforced this, quoting from the bible to ensure that this principle was widely followed. Women were to obey not only their parents but any other male relatives of their family. Disobedience was seen as a crime against their religion. Marriages were arranged for them in order to increase the wealth and social ranking of the family and continue the family bloodline. Women were seen as a typical housewife without the ability to express themselves freely. Women were not allowed to work by themselves, nor could they live alone if they were not married. Men had it a lot less rough than women, as they were the ones that hold all the power and authority. Men were groomed to be the head of the family. They were to provide for their families and improve the lives of all members of the family. There were also homophobic attributes to the Elizabethan era, such as the belief that homosexuals marrying will threaten the sanctity of marriage according to religious beliefs. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, he challenges these gender norms with the characters and the plot.

In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare complicated the gender role of Viola by having her disguised as a male. Viola is the primary character used to display Shakespear’s defiance of the Elizabethan gender roles and societal norms. After hearing about her brother Sebastian’s assumed death and her father’s death at her arrival in Illyria, she is left all alone. The captain explains how Lady Olivia is going through something similar to her. He claims that Olivia is going through mourning claiming that she will never leave her room for seven years and creates a huge deal out of it. However, she soon overcomes this and decides that she wants to preserve her brother’s identity by adopting his masculine persona, and becomes Cesario. With her new persona, she decides to work under Duke Orsino, the ruler of Illyria, as a servant of Lady Olivia.


I prithee, and I’ll pay thee bounteously,

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

(Shakespeare 1.2 55-58)

In this part of the play, Viola talks to the Captain about wanting to conceal her identity, which will end up being Sebastian, her presumably dead brother. Here, it is shown that Viola is willing to give up her womanhood to assume the role of her “dead” brother. In the theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s plays, it was a standard that men were to play the roles of the characters, even if it meant having to play as a woman. Women were not allowed to perform in theatre and would be arrested if they did. The audience may not recognize what is going on during the live performance, but Shakespeare subtly slides in his message of defying social standards and beliefs by making Viola a transvestite because she takes the role of her brother. Shakespeare most likely tried to challenge his audience by making us question what is considered to be masculine or feminine.

Later in the story, Viola (as Cesario) is sent as a messenger of Orsino and encounters Olivia. Orsino is in love with Olivia but doesn’t go directly to her to confess his love. He consistently sends messengers to display his affection for her, and Olivia wants no part in having a relationship with Orsino. After first encountering “Cesario”, Olivia starts to develop feelings for him and doesn’t really know what she wants to do about it. Shakespeare wants to mess with the audience because of the conflict of Olivia falling in love with “Cesario”.


I do I know not what and fear to find

Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.

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Fate, show thy force. Ourselves we do not owe.

What is decreed must be, and be this so.

(Shakespeare 1.5. 315-319)

When she meets Cesario, it seems that she has caught affection for him, although Cesario’s original intent was to speak for Duke Orsino, who wanted to be with her. However, Olivia constantly rejects him, yet Orsino still sends messengers to deliver his love confession for her. Here, Olivia seems to have forgotten about her mourning for her dead brother. Olivia recognizes this when she states “I do I know what and fear to find”. This means that she knows that what she is doing is unusual and admits that she is falling for Cesario. She talks about fate and talks about how she is willing to accept whatever for coming events occur. She says that fate brought Cesario to her and will let fate decide what happens later in the plot. The irony in this affection for “Cesario” is that Olivia does not realize that he is actually Viola. To some, this can mean that she is technically gay, which heavily went against religion and societal conformity in the Elizabethan Era.

Later in the play, we learn that Sebastian, who was assumed to be dead in the beginning of the play turned out to be alive. He washed up to the shores of Illyria along with Antonio. Antonio is a sailor that rescues Sebastian and it seems to be inferred that Antonio may have ended up falling in love with him. Shakespeare does not state this homosexual relationship explicitly, however it can be heavily implied that this is occurring between Antonio and Sebastian. Some may see their relationship as a strong male bond, but the way that Shakespeare writes Antonio’s lines more likely infer a deeper affection for Sebastian.


The gentleness of all the gods go with thee!

I have many enemies in Orsino’s court,

Else would I very shortly see thee there.

But come what may, I do adore thee so

That danger shall seem sport, and I will go

Antonio is a wanted man in Illyria and states that is not important to him and is still willing to travel with Sebastian around Illyria because of his affection for him. Antonio cares a lot for Sebastion and is willing to go through whatever length to be with him. In Elizabethan standards, women are supposed to be inferior to men. However, having two people of the same sex in a relationship, specifically men, would mean that they have equal obligations, meaning neither party is inferior. Homosexuality was looked down upon, so the conundrum was uncommon during this time.

The Elizabethan Era can be seen as a toxic time for societal standards and gender roles. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare attacks these problems through the characters in the play. He uses Viola to defy the perception of gender roles, as well as send a message to the audience asking what exactly makes a person masculine or feminine. Antonio and Sebastian are used to make the audience question what the threshold is of strong male bond compared to an intimate affection for another man by a man. Today, society is more accepting of what was seen as abnormal and wrong back then. Shakespeare uses these characters to convey his opinions of what he thinks about gender roles and societal standards.

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Twelfth Night By Shakespeare: Societal Standards And Gender Roles In The Elizabethan Era. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
“Twelfth Night By Shakespeare: Societal Standards And Gender Roles In The Elizabethan Era.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Twelfth Night By Shakespeare: Societal Standards And Gender Roles In The Elizabethan Era. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Sept. 2023].
Twelfth Night By Shakespeare: Societal Standards And Gender Roles In The Elizabethan Era [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Sept 30]. Available from:
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