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Gender Roles and Gender Relations in Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night"

Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.

Malvolio and the Countess by Daniel Maclise, 1859

Malvolio and the Countess by Daniel Maclise, 1859

What Were the Gender Norms for Men and Women During Shakespeare’s Time?

The themes of gender roles and gender relations frequently appear in William Shakespeare’s plays and are readily apparent in Twelfth Night. The character Viola learns firsthand how gender identity plays a crucial role in how one is treated by other men and women when she assumes the identity of a man named Cesario. During the Elizabethan era, roles for men and women were predetermined, and women had many more limitations than did men. In Twelfth Night, Viola is able to circumvent these limitations placed upon her by society by dressing in male attire and taking on the role of a male in order to obtain a job. The way in which the main character, Viola, is treated and perceived by the other characters and how she acts while taking on a male persona demonstrates how differently men and women relate to one another based on the perceived differences between the genders.

Viola in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Stipple engraving by W.H. Mote, 1836, after Meadows after W. Shakespeare.

Viola in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Stipple engraving by W.H. Mote, 1836, after Meadows after W. Shakespeare.

Historical Context

Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual, based on his sonnets in which he proclaimed his love for a young man. Homosexuality was looked down upon in Elizabethan culture as it was seen as a deviation from standard gender norms, but that didn’t stop him from exploring themes of gender identity and questioning traditional gender roles in his plays. Viola’s feelings for Orsino could be viewed as having homosexual connotations because she was taking on the role of a man (Arias Doblas). Likewise, “Viola's successful wooing of Olivia” in the play can also be interpreted as homoerotic because Viola is actually a female and Oliva becomes attracted to her. Though Olivia believed Viola to be a male, she still became attracted to someone who was actually a female (Ake). The way Shakespeare played with traditional gender roles in his plays may indicate his feelings regarding gender roles and gender relations in society.

Scene from Twelfth Night - Francis Wheatley February 1771

Scene from Twelfth Night - Francis Wheatley February 1771

Gender Roles and Gender Relations in Twelfth Night

Shakespeare used the characters and plot to communicate his ideas about gender relations to the audience. The main character is able to shed societal expectations by disguising herself as a male. As a woman, Viola believed that there was no way that she would be able to find work in order to survive, so she decided to take on a male persona. This reason for taking on a male persona is important because it demonstrates how differently men and women were treated when looking for work during this time period. Men were afforded more freedom to take on different types of jobs, whereas women were expected to get married and stay at home to raise children. According to Phyllis Rackin, during Shakespeare’s time, inequalities between each gender were “[s]actioned by law and religion and reinforced by the duties and customs of daily life, they were deeply embedded in the fabric of culture (Rackin, 27).” Men and women were seen as being completely different, and the idea that either can take on either type of role went against the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time.

In “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night," Casey Charles claims that Elizabethan society was more patriarchal, homophobic, and misogynistic than today’s society, but that this polarized view of gender existed to mask “a decided anxiety about what is feared to be the actual fluidity of gender.” That is to say, the strict gender roles enforced by Elizabethan society hid a deep-seated fear that men and women aren’t really that different from each other when cultural roles are stripped away. The ways in which men and women relate to one another were based completely on traditional gender roles, and the idea that gender could be fluid was threatening to Elizabethan ideas of gender relations. Charles goes on to discuss the fascination with the idea of “hermaphrodites” and individuals who possess both male and female traits during this time period (Charles, 124-5). This idea of an individual who walks the line between male and female is represented by Viola in Twelfth Night. Though there were some women who did cross-dress during this time period, particularly in urban settings, it was frowned upon because it violated traditional gender expectations. Furthermore, male actors portrayed both male and female characters in theater during this time period, and these male actors dressed as female characters on stage were permitted to violate anti-crossdressing laws. Though this was accepted as a part of theater, that didn’t stop “antitheatricalists from railing against the transvestite theatre, which was seen as unnatural (Arias Doblas).” Elizabethan audiences would likely have been both captivated and offended by this play. It blurs the distinction between traditional male and female gender roles, but some people in this society were fixated on the idea of people who have both male and female traits.

A Scene from Twelfth Night by William Hamilton, 1797

A Scene from Twelfth Night by William Hamilton, 1797

Gender Relations in Shakespeare’s Other Works

The theme of gender relations appears quite frequently throughout Shakespeare’s works. Twelfth Night is often compared to As You Like It, which also features a cross-dressing female protagonist. The Merchant of Venice and The Two Gentlemen of Verona also feature cross-dressing females. These characters explore the theme of gender relations by challenging traditional gender roles and expectations. Gender relations were explored in a very different way in Taming of the Shrew. In Taming of the Shrew, a “difficult” woman at first refuses to bow down to a man, but in the end, is “tamed” by her abusive new husband. The play starts with Katherina refusing to follow traditional gender expectations, but in the end becomes a dutiful wife after being manipulated by her husband, Petruchio. Petruchio eventually breaks Katherina psychologically by withholding food and sleep from her, as well as employing various other methods of psychological control in order to get her to bend to his will and become a dutiful wife. The way in which Katherina relates to men changes throughout the course of the play and is completely different to Viola’s relationship with the men in her life. Gender relations are portrayed in different ways in Shakespeare’s works.

The theme of gender relations is still very much part of today’s culture. We still see the same themes that Shakespeare used in his plays play out in contemporary popular culture. Two examples of works of contemporary culture with a similar theme to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night are the films Motocrossed and She’s the Man. In addition to featuring similar themes, both of these films are loosely based on Twelfth Night, illustrating the enduring influence of Shakespeare’s work. As with the original play, the plots of both Motocrossed and She’s the Man revolve around a young girl who takes on the persona of a male in order to blend in to a male-dominated section of society. Unlike in the original play, however, the stakes don’t seem to be as high for the girls in either adaptation as they are for the original Viola, who feels she must present herself as a man in order to survive after her brother’s alleged death.

Scene from the play "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare: Olivia, Sebastian and a priest. Painting: W. Hamilton; Engraving: W. Angus

Scene from the play "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare: Olivia, Sebastian and a priest. Painting: W. Hamilton; Engraving: W. Angus

Modern Day Progress

The theme of gender relations endures because, even in our contemporary culture, men and women are treated differently based on their genders, even if attitudes regarding gender roles are beginning to change. Women are still seen as being weaker than their male counterparts in the workplace and men are still seen as the stronger sex. These different stereotypes of each gender still color the way in which we relate to each other based on gender and women are still seen as less capable in certain professions and activities than males. Shakespeare’s legacy continues to influence modern culture because his plays were based on themes that common people could easily relate to, and continue to relate to even today. Because of the universal themes in Shakespeare’s plays, his work will continue to influence future generations.


Ake, Jami. "Glimpsing a "Lesbian" Poetics in Twelfth Night." Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900 43.2 (2003): 375,394,555. ProQuest. Web. 6 May 2016.

Arias Doblas, María Del Rosario. "Gender Ambiguity and Desire in Twelfth Night." University of Málaga, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2016. <>.

Charles, Casey. "Gender Trouble in "Twelfth Night"." Theatre Journal 49.2 (1997): 121. ProQuest. Web. 6 May 2016.

Motocrossed. Dir. Steve Boyum. By Ann Austen and Douglas Sloan. Perf. Alana Austin, Trever O'Brien, Riley Smith. Disney Channel, 2001. Amazon Video.

Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare And Women. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2005. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 6 May 2016.

Schalkwyk, D.."Is Love an Emotion?: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra." symploke 18.1 (2010): 99-130. Project MUSE. Web. 6 May. 2016. <>.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1996. Print.

She's the Man. Dir. Andy Fickman. Prod. Lauren Shuler-Donner and Ewan Leslie. By Ewan Leslie. Perf. Amanda Bynes, Channing Tatum, and Laura Ramsey. DreamWorks Distribution LLC, 2006. DVD.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber