Twelfth Night Essay: The Necessity of Cross-dressing

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The Necessity of Cross-dressing Twelfth Night

The action of Twelfth Night begins shortly after a damaging tempest shipwrecks the heroine, casting her upon foreign shores. Upon arrival in this strange seaport, Viola--like the Princess Leonide--dons male disguise which facilitates both employment and time enough to orient herself in this unfamiliar territory.

Viola's transvestism functions as emblematic of the antic nature of Illyrian society. As contemporary feminist and Shakespearean scholars are quick to point out, cross-dressing foregrounds not only the concept of role playing and thus the constructed or performative nature of gender but also the machinations of power. Viola can only make her way in this alien
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In effect, we experience that state of radical identity-confusion typical of adolescence, when the differences between the sexes are as fluid as their desires for each other."5 Gender identity might well be perceived as fluid in this play, for Viola does not simply impersonate a man but a eunuch, a persona that provides access to the even more compelling privileges of androgyny, as her liminal sexual identity exposes the limitations of masculinity and femininity and allows her to move beyond gender.

Just as Viola permeates gender boundaries, Olivia, Toby, Orsino, and Malvolio's love interests lead them across class lines--another example of the ways in which standards are relaxed or social codes reversed during Twelfth Night. Olivia spurns the love of her social equal Orsino (who many critics find to be more in love with love than he is with the "marble-breasted tyrant") and lights instead on the Duke's page. Sir Toby admires Olivia's waiting-gentlewoman Maria rather than favor an aristocratic matron, Orsino is perhaps too fond of his servant Cesario and Malvolio dreams of marrying Olivia. Significantly, it is only the steward's love that is regarded as "illegitimate" or forbiddingly transgressive while the upper-class individuals are permitted to indulge their socially illicit desire. Elliot Krieger

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