Although Shakespeare reflects and at times supports the cultural constructs of women and men and their conflicting roles and responsibilities in society, he also questions, challenges, and modifies those representations, creating a complicated ambivalence, as one moment he is praising women, yet in another he is criticizing them, such as when Orsino refers to women as “creatures”. It is almost impossible to tie down Shakespeare’s true thoughts on women, but it is clear that he justifiably has slight misogynistic tendencies.
The role of Viola in Twelfth Night is as one of the main characters, as she embodies the dichotomy between appearances versus reality. She is a woman disguised as her brother Sebastian, and in Elizabethan times she would be played by a man on stage. “I am not what I am”, she says, and with this disguise there is much to provoke comedy, using the ambiguities of language and dramatic irony, such as when Orsino says “Come hither, boy…”, as the Jacobian audience would know of her disguise, and also “I am all the daughters of my father’s house / And all the brothers too”.
However, this disguise also leads to a highly complex theme of romantic love, as Olivia is in love with Viola when she appears as Cesario, whilst Viola has fallen in love with Orsino, yet cannot act upon this love as Orsino believes that she is a man. Although intelligent, it is questionable as to why Viola loves such a changeable, inconstant character. Viola almost exposes her real identity a number of times, such as when she is speaking with Orsino “My father had a daughter, loved a man / As it might be perhaps, were I a woman / I should be your lordship”.
She shows great intelligence, and is possibly the only character in Twelfth Night that can keep up with Feste’s wit, as she engages in witty repartee with him, holding her own in a chauvinistic society where women were perceived to be much less important than men. Arguably the greatest character portrayal within Twelfth Night is Viola’s soliloquy “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool…” In this very apt paradox, Viola seemingly effortlessly sums up Feste’s character, and in doing so is reflecting her own intelligence. In her soliloquies and asides she also alerts the audience to other character’s foibles and to the plot.
In inventing such a strong, perceptive female character, Shakespeare is effectively praising woman, and going against the social conventions of that time, raising a role model that can question the cultural constructs of femininity. In the midst of a male-dominant society, Shakespeare portrays women with strengths at least equal to those of men. By doing so, he opens the door for them politically as well as socially, well in advance of any rights being granted to women.
Another strong female character in Twelfth Night is Olivia. She is an intelligent character of court, a woman of independence and of property after her father left his possessions to her brother, and then she in turn inherited them from him. However when she marries, according to social aspects of that era, her husband will gain all of that power. She is also the object of desire from Orsino, Sir Andrew, Malvolio and eventually Sebastian. At the beginning of the play, Olivia is a cloistress in mourning for her brother, and shows excessive melancholy and extravagance that parallels Orsino. Both characters are steeped in the melancholy of sentimental love to the point of being blinded by it and both suffer from the complexities of love. But Orsino takes a passive approach to the pursuit of love, in the way that he sends Cesario to pursue Olivia, whereas Olivia takes a more active role. However, Olivia’s attempts to be reclusive seem to be more posturing than actual mourning, and this is another way in which appearances are deceptive, as Olivia soon transforms, removing her veil and asking Cesario “Is’t not well done?”
Although Olivia can be seen as a typical cultural construction of femininity, she transgresses that role and shows impetuosity in the way that she relentlessly pursues Cesario. In Elizabethan times, women could not be seen to be chasing men as it gave women wantonness, similarly the Bible was thought to be factual, and Adam created Eve for him, not the other way around. Olivia however appears to recognize that she oversteps the rules of conduct: “Have you not set mine honor at the stake?” Even though Olivia steps out of her assigned sociohistorical position, she later steps back into it by marrying Sebastian to provide the Jacobian audience with closure.
She is worldly wise in the way that she knows how money can win somebody over “I thank you for your pains: spend this for me” she says to Cesario, and she also has a good relationship with Feste the jester, albeit occasionally scolding him for being out of line, she seems to enjoy and find amusing his witty repartee. Although she is undoubtedly intelligent, she shows fickleness in the way that she swaps Cesario for Sebastian, and this also is similar to the inconstancy of Orsino. Through Orsino, Shakespeare criticizes women “For women are as roses, whose fair flower / Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour”, and the impermanence of women’s beauty.
Although Olivia seems to dislike Malvolio at times “O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distemper’d appetite.” she displays compassion and kindness in the way that she attempts to bring him back into the wedding society. This sentimentality is seen in many of Shakespeare’s portrayals of women, and is similar to the way in which Maria is presented.
Maria is Olivia’s lady in waiting, and is a character who balances the household. She tolerates Sir Andrew and Sir Toby’s folly, yet doesn’t hesitate to scold them when she feels it has gone too far. Sir Toby and Maria are having an affair, and Sir Toby boasts that she adores him. Maria is the character who single-handedly thinks up the plot to gull Malvolio, and in doing so gains the admiration of the male characters, Sir Toby says “O, twill be admirable” of the plan. She is a literary construct who embodies some of Shakespeare’s main ideas and themes. She can also be seen as some of Shakespeare’s praise of women, as in letting a female character be so intelligent, witty and quick-minded, Shakespeare is giving women qualities that were scarcely seen to exist in Elizabethan England.