Gender Roles in Shakespeare Plays

Keywords: twelfth night gender, gender in shakespeare, shakespeare gender roles

To answer this question I will refer mainly to As You Like It and Twelfth Night. As well as the texts of the two plays I will also refer to two stage productions – Filter’s production of Twelfth Night at the Lowry in Manchester (2010) and the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s As You Like It in Leeds (2010) – and films of the plays by Nunn and Branagh. Critical writings by Terry Eagleton, Valerie Traub, Jonathan Bate and Sean McEvoy will also be referred to.

Debates around the social construction of gender have become ubiquitous in the study of the social sciences over the past fifty years. Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Feminism and Queer theory have all favoured the argument that humans are culturally constructed rather than biologically determined. This theoretical shift has had a great impact on literary criticism and on our resultant understanding of canonical works. Shakespearean plays which had formerly been read as deterministic in their tone have been re-read in a new light as a result of widespread scepticism towards cultural practices which serve to benefit dominant groups. This shift in attitudes has changed irrecoverably the way in which many of the plays are performed. For Valerie Traub this change in the way Shakespeare’s work is performed is a direct result of a wider scepticism towards discourses which regulate our behaviour into supposedly normative parameters:

‘If directors once felt authorised to manipulate Shakespearean plays to foster conservative interpretations of social roles, today’s stage and film productions do so at their peril – for audiences increasingly recognize Shakespeare’s interpretations of gender and sexuality are as complex, various and fascinating as our own bodies and selves.’ Camb. Comp. p144

Shakespeare’s plays have therefore become a powerful ally for those who doubt the veracity of the traditional conventions of gender roles, which both embody and sustain the power structures in a patriarchal society. Both As You Like It and Twelfth Night demonstrate in their cross-dressing antics, the ways in which we each recognise and exemplify the conventions of our gender in order to be identified with our gender type. The enduring hold of our gender role is then shown in both plays to be contingent upon the continued recognition and performance of them. Close reading of the subversion of gender expectations in each play demonstrates Shakespeare’s prescience in questioning a standardised notion of male and female roles if we wish to exist within an egalitarian society. He clearly understood how our formative cultural experiences etch these standardised notions deep within the self, as Terry Eagleton states:

‘The body for Shakespeare is not this crude biological datum but an inseparable unity of fact and value: to be a human body, biologically speaking, is also to be constrained to behave in certain culturally and ethically sanctioned ways, to feel one’s flesh and blood inscribed by a set of discursive norms.’ P.100

So it is that As You Like It and Twelfth Night prompt a certain level of initial discomfort, or a foreign sensation, through the attempts of Viola and Rosalind to break the hold of their gender type. Yet as their new role is embraced and their characters are given the liberty of full expression, the gender divide is visibly diminished, the foreign sensation evaporates and the gap between genders appears in its true light: as a learned performance which can be equally unlearned. Qualities which are stereotypically attributed to a particular gender type are shown to be no more or less prevalent in their binary opposite. This is evident when Rosalind initially decides to go out into the world as a man:

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‘We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside/ As many other mannish cowards have/ that do outface it with their semblances.’ (1.3.114)

She highlights the fact that cowardice is not necessarily a female trait, for there are cowardly males, just as she herself proves that there are bold women. Her recognition that such differences cannot be easily categorised into gender types is indicative of how Shakespeare’s creates characters which are unpredictable and wavering in the true human sense. The blending of stereotypical male and female characteristics is shown most potently in the transformation, both inside and out, of Rosalind and Viola in their cross dressing antics. Although Orsino isn’t aware of it he describes the attraction of this blend of male and female characteristics – the allure of androgyny – in his assessment of Viola dressed as Cesario:

‘Dear lad, believe it/ for they shall yet belie… and sound/ and all is semblative a woman’s part.’

Despite the sense of exuberance in both plays at this questioning of standardised notions of gender, an alternative argument can be made that the cross dressing elements only serve in the end to reinforce the legitimacy of the status quo. Since cross dressing is a traditional plot element of the comedy genre in Elizabethan theatre its inclusion may be said to be obligatory rather than an authorial choice. This would tie in with several other factors in Shakespeare’s work, which may denote a certain over-eagerness on the part of modern day directors to showcase modern day scepticism towards social convention.

When Jacques in As You Like It, versifies the seven ages of man, from cradle to soldiering to senility, he also mentions the female equivalent which is limited to just three: maid, wife and widow. Each of these stages corresponds to a woman’s marital status at any given time, which is also a central feature of Twelfth Night and As You Like It, where Viola and Rosalind are still primarily conscious of their need to secure a marriage partner, even in their liberated state. The denouement of both plays allows closure for the Elizabethan audience by restoring the women to their rightful place, having passed from stage one to stage two of their restrictive existence. The hiccup of their newfound social mobility, as a result of their gender swap, is overcome through marriage.

This argument is perhaps reinforced by the fact that there are only two occasions in Shakespeare’s plays where men cross dress into women (name the occasions) and on each occasion the men in question are the butt of jokes. If Shakespeare’s key purpose in including cross dressing as plot elements was to demonstrate the constructed nature of gender roles so as to propose a more egalitarian social order, surely the male gender shift into a female would suggest the same underlying assertion. Traub outlines the important differences in Shakespearean gender swaps:

‘Shakespeare depicts male characters as uncomfortable descending into femininity, while female characters enjoy the elevation of status their temporary manhood permits.’ P141 camb.

There must remain some uncertainty then as to Shakespeare’s original motives when using cross dressing in his plays, and yet there can be no doubt that it is through her gender shifting and role play that Rosalind exposes illusions about romantic love, showing that the formulaic patterns of love are not to be imitated as they are based upon falsehoods. Rosalind’s intuitive understanding of love’s flawed promise and her foresight in planning the fate of other characters in the play to their advantage also belies the prevalent scientific theory of the Elizabethan era – that females were merely imperfect males. Despite the aforementioned reservations, Rosalind’s wisdom and intelligence clearly presents the opposite view of women to that in The Taming of the Shrew, as it shows that the type of woman that one should desire is both wayward and incorrigible.

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It seems suitable that Shakspeare chooses ‘the auspices of a pastoral green world,’ (p.140 camb comp.) as a natural setting for Rosalind to experience a temporary release from the strictures of family or culture and question social conventions. The idyllic retreat of the Forest of Arden becomes a place in which new romantic and social possibilities can flourish, often as a result of fundamental subversions of identity and gender. This leads to Rosalind as Ganymede taking the role of instructor in love, directing Orlando on the most productive ways to woo her own female double – a real social anomaly!

In As You Like It and Twelfth Night, disguise in the form of cross dressing, becomes both a means of self-discovery and a mechanism to highlight the injustice of organising a society based on stereotypical expectations. This change in their character as a result of imagining themselves as male highlights the nature of role play both in performance and in real life, as Eagleton suggests, ‘every self-presentation is for Shakespeare a kind of play acting.’p.90 That is not to say that such role-play doesn’t have a positive transformative effect. The freedom of expression so often denied to women is embraced by both Viola and Rosalind, and used to better their own situation and that of others.

In The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s performance of As You Like It the play was kept in period but the adaptation of the text and the interpretation of character were notably contemporary. The text was not treated like a sacred tome as some productions have done to their detriment, but was chopped and changed to create the comedic effect the play should strive for. The resultant atmosphere of unpredictability was enhanced by the subtle use of music, which often set up dramatic cues in scenes of great emotion or drama. These musical shifts from one mini-narrative to another, coupled with a set which made the audience aware that the forest is a dramatic illusion, created the sensation that we were experiencing several smaller plays within a large play. This framing of mini-narratives, where characters were forced to adjust their behaviour according to their circumstances throughout the play, made the dilution of gender roles far more acute as a suggestion of our social constructedness, rather than being merely a comedic plot element. Rosalind assisted greatly in this effect by shifting ably between her vulnerable self and the masquerade character of Ganymede. These fluid switches, which went largely unnoticed, demonstrated the way that we expect specific semiotic mannerisms and figures of speech commensurate with binary gender roles, learnt through observation in our formative cultural experiences, in order to recognize someone as male or female.

These shifts from Rosalind to Ganymede were so natural and convincing that Orlando often seemed in danger of loving Rosalind as Ganymede as much as he loved Rosalind herself. The ensuing confusion created a genuine tension in his exchanges with Ganymede and allowed the audience to see him wrestling with his own sexuality, at the same time as attempting to prove to be a worthy suitor. Orlando’s internal struggle brought to the fore the way in which the play allows subconscious homosexual urges to be sublimated by directing them towards a woman dressed as a man. The homosexual connotation would have been even more acute in Shakespearean performances when those urges would have been channelled towards a male actor playing a female character who is then disguised as a man. The production conveyed this tension in the text convincingly and allowed the audience to get the full flavour of how Shakespeare may have been expressing desires which he felt within himself.

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Branagh’s As You Like It :

Filter’s production of Twelfth Night was a showcase for the plasticity of Shakespeare’s play’s, demonstrating how they can be moulded to suit the level of inventiveness and the mood which the director wishes to convey. Although the political and social messages were tuned low, the play’s exuberance and wild inventiveness overcame any tentativeness which those expecting a more traditional interpretation may have been feeling. The only problem with the production’s anarchic nature was the small cast, which meant it was much easier to lose track of the narrative and the characters with many of them doubling up.

Trevor Nunn’s film version of Twelfth Night tends to play down the play’s suggestions about gender roles and its homosexual overtones, using glances and actions alone to refer towards the gay and lesbian subtext. Despite this subtlety the film’s setting in a 19th century rural Illyria, which is given a melancholy wistful air through the music of Feste, allows the divide between genders to be expressed in an extreme fashion when Viola makes her switch, through the extreme resultant changes in her clothing and social attitudes. The period choice allows Viola to fully express the scale of the journey she must make in her transformation, as well as the dangers that may await her in doing so, when she is shown in silhouette binding her breasts and putting on men’s clothing to become Cesario. Her transformation indicates that she intends to disguise herself not as a boy, but as a eunuch in order to shield herself entirely from all manner of sexual threats. To ward off such dangers she must also relearn her most basic actions in a male form, walking and yawning, as well as new skills such as fencing and developing a carefree male etiquette which is most clearly demonstrated in her comedic attempts to converse with Orsino whilst he bathes.

Since Feste is given the voiceover in both the prologue and epilogue he is given an almost omniscient presence, apparently knowing all ends in each scenario. His god-like aura seems to tie in well with the texts ‘awareness of the fragility and vulnerability of the possibilities of happiness,’ as he fully anticipates only the partial fulfilment of each character’s desire, even in a best case scenario. This is most evident in the play’s central plot in which Viola’s liberating transformation into a male, allows her a newfound power of personal expression which she must in the end relinquish to take her place with Orsino.

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