Monday, October 5, 2009

Gender Roles in Shakespeare

Upon reading Twelfth Night for the first time, what I was struck with most was how similar this play was when compared with the other Shakespeare I’ve read. All of Will’s staples are there: characters donning disguises for elaborately designed plots and for often unnecessary reasons, these disguises working ridiculously well although they often consist of solely a change of garment, reflections on what it means to be a “fool” and the nature of theatre as an entertainment medium, and a fifth act where all the tricks are revealed and all is resolved. Not to say that the repetition of these staples makes Shakespeare unoriginal, the point here being that compared to several other of Shakespeare’s works, Twelfth Night is relatively tame. Take Macbeth or Hamlet for instance: they are two of the man’s most famous works but are of course chock full with murder, gratuitous violence, incest and other deviant sexual practices. Then take a look at The Merchant of Venice or Othello and we are given hints of racist practices that would be considered despicable by today’s standards. Not to say that these plays don’t have any history of being banned, because I’m quite sure that they do, but to put Twelfth Night on the same page as these others seems outrageous on the outset.
That being said, if one were to pinpoint any problematic part of the play that may cause unrest within the book-banning communities, it would seem to be the unusual gender attractions we find occurring, especially between Olivia and Viola, although to a certain extent between Viola and the Duke. The fact that a woman could find another woman attractive (despite the fact that she is disguised as a man) asks interesting questions about the nature of sexual attraction. For people who believe firmly that any romantic or sexual relations should only exist between members of the opposite sex, this play asks questions that they may find hard to answer. If I were to find a woman attractive and “pursue” her or fall in love with her only to find out that she’s hiding something in between her legs, does this say anything about me? For some people, this question is just ridiculous, but for others, it may be a little scary, especially for those who have issues with LGBT community. Not to say that the characters in Twelfth Night are part of this community, as I don’t personally think Olivia would have continued pursuing Viola if she would have found out she was a woman, but it still crosses certain lines that especially those with more conservative values might find issue with.

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