The play Twelfth Night extensively deals with the idea of gender and how it forms one’s identity on a superficial level. When reading the play, we come to know how the social role of genders since that age has not changed that much.
Viola, one of the major characters in the play, is surprised by the rules which govern gender roles in society. She wonders how Olivia can fall in love with Cesario which is a disguise but not with Orsino who is trying to win her constantly.
When a woman is mistaken for a man and the plot still develops in that confusion, we start questioning the definition of gender which defines womanhood or manhood. Confusions over identity are the prime source of excitement in this play.
Without playing with gender identity, this play could not have been a romantic comedy. Viola as a woman is supposed to be reserved in an Elizabethan society but here as Cesario, her role is reversed. Her character becomes more elevated in expression when it enjoys freedom of speech as a man.
Olivia, in the beginning, plays the role of a chaste woman who doesn’t even communicate back to Orsino and it keeps saving her from his advances. She plays the mourning role which is still demanded from a woman as one of her duties.
But she transgresses this role when she falls for Cesario (although it is Viola in disguise) who is much lesser to her in social position. Viola also as a woman idealizes a man conventionally.
This ideal figure for love is also a gender-defined role. Orsino admires Olivia but he doesn’t even perhaps truly believe what he worships in her because in the end he takes Viola in an instant and it seems like his definition as a lover is what was conventionally defined as a courtly man in that age.
The infatuation of Orsino shows no real interest in Olivia’s personality. It looks like a gender role assigned to the Duke as a man. His love for her is a vision of his own manhood as a Duke.
He expresses to Cesario the nature of males and females. He speaks as a man that “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm, More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn, Than women’s are.”
Through mistaken identities, the play shows how aggressive manhood is actually foolishness and in the play it becomes comic. When Orsino becomes too sure of himself as a great lover and man, it sounds funny when it reaches Olivia and the way she perceives it.
By exchanging gender roles and identity, Shakespeare creates a fusion of possibilities. Orsino describes Cesario’s features as that of a woman. Malvolio notices the same.
Shakespeare creates something which comes in between. It is a much deeper theme that lies in many of Shakespeare’s works. Hence, gender and identity is a major thematic concern of the play.