Crossdressing in Twelfth Night

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Cross-dressing: Twelfth Night Human society places a great deal of emphasis on the manner in which we perceive a person outwardly, expressed very succinctly in the idiom that “the clothes make the man.” This simple phrase imbues our garments with a great deal of power, not only to convey our self-image, but also to distort that image through a simple shift of wardrobe. Even in the early seventeenth century, these are conventions that did not go unseen, least of all by William Shakespeare. In a time when common law dictated that acting was a strictly male profession, it became necessary to utilize disguise as the means by which female characters could be integrated into stage works. This necessity led to a number of crossdressing plays, in which male actors playing female roles would be required to adopt a male disguise within the context of the play. This resulted in the blurring of gender lines, conveying the idea that gender and sometimes even social station are not static as determined by birth, but are rather very dynamic forces. In looking at Twelfth Night, central to this work is the crossdressing character of Viola, whose remarkable resemblance to her twin brother Sebastian facilitates her adoption of a male disguise as the page Cesario. Shakespeare utilizes this to create a bizarre love triangle. Viola-Cesario, the one who “can sing both high and low” (II.iii, 41), is loved by both the Duke Orsino and the Countess Olivia. As Catherine Belsey notes, this destroys the concept of sexual difference within the character of Viola and becomes a very liberating influence as far as sexual othering is concerned. It is, however, a self-made trap for Viola herself who says, “My master loves her dearly, / And I (poor monster) fond as much on him; / And she (mistaken) seems to dote on me” (II.ii, 33-35). Viola is able to upset the very concept of love in
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