Revolution via Violets
Equity between men and women is a deeply rooted battle. As the modern culture shifts further from patriarchal rule, it is interesting to question why females remained the submissive sex for so many centuries. When examining the play Twelfth Night, it becomes apparent that Shakespeare considered such an issue and used the character Viola and her interaction with Orsino as a vessel for gender equality.
A key interaction occurs between Orsino and Viola regarding the capacity of a woman's love. Orsino speaks to Viola (who is currently disguised as Cesario):
There is no woman's sidesVirtually Orsino states that women do not have the ability to love as men do. Viola defends her sex valiantly, saying she knows well the love women feel and the capacity of the female heart. Viola states that male and female hearts are equal in loyalty and sensitivity (II.iv.104-108). Because Viola's true female identity is hidden, Orsino considers this opinion of women openly, quite possibly for the first time in his life. Since this conversation transpired between two "men," Orsino does not feel threatened. This was merely an exchange of ideas. Viola's and Orsino's experience of such intimacy is something which seemed only possible between men (Greenblatt 1790). Perhaps Orsino does not feel menaced by Viola because of her physical appearance. She has soft feminine features but her alias "Cesario" gives Orsino an excuse for not acknowledging the threat of his natural opposite (Hunt 487). Maybe further still Viola serves as an effective vehicle for Shakespeare's gender equality campaign because her qualities are more intense than anything Orsino has ever experienced; she is a hybrid being. Viola's qualities are indeed described as tantalizing (Hunt 487). Also, it is said that Orsino "responds intuitively to Viola's womanhood, he does so because her femininity joins with a masculinity that unconsciously absorbs some of his attention and feeling" (Hunt 487). It seems quite likely too that Viola's captive nature is translated to the audience, pushing Shakespeare's cause further.
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman's heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention...
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much. Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear
And that I owe Olivia. (II.iv.91-101)
When inspecting the gender-gap issue more in depth, it seems a potential origin of inequality stems from the concept of cross-dressing in Early Modern England. A man felt at ill-ease and "monstrous" to appear portrayed as female, while a woman parading as male was considered a "whore" (Howard 424). In the Renaissance, a woman's sexual appetite was indication of both her inferiority and justification for her control by men (Howard 424). Possibly Shakespeare reversed Viola's gender role to capture the notion that women can still be decent and should not be oppressed, even though they express their sexuality. During this role turnaround Viola "upsets essentialist constructs of gender hierarchy by successfully performing the part of a man as a woman" (Charles 127). The audience experience firsthand the happy fate of Viola; she became the duke's "fancy's queen" and was reunited with her brother (V.i.375). Through Viola's example, Shakespeare shows his audience that intimacy can be achieved positively between sexes. This opens the idea of male and female equality.
Another gender equality point may be transmitted to the audience via the meanings surrounding the names Orsino and Viola. Orsino is said to mean "little bear" and traditionally during this period, the bear was thought of as a "truly melancholic animal" (Winfried 135). A common Renaissance cure for melancholy was the violet flower, or Viola in Latin (Winfried 136). A flower tames the beast? Harmony is forged between two polar entities? Orsino even speaks of "a bank of violets" (I.i.6). Yes, the message seems clear. Nature survives via equating relationships. Humans should not think themselves above nature in any regard. Through Viola's namesake, Shakespeare thrives to sew the rift between cognition of genders.
The androgynous character Viola is triumphant in design. She completes a "performance that shows gender to be a part playable by any sex" (Charles 128). She achieves her purpose of bringing balance between male and female; a Libra for the gender wars. Viola fights for a womanly cause; even Sir Toby refers to her as a "virago" or female warrior (III.iv.244). Yet she fights further still for the betterment of the sexes. With her initial feminine coercion disguised, Viola's charismatic nature and attractive looks charm characters and audience members alike. It becomes clear too that Shakespeare was beyond his time in regards to gender struggles. Hundreds of years passed before females accomplished equal positions. And the issue still rages on. Shakespeare lashed out at inequality between the sexes with not but a flower; a single Violet. The result is a message calling for gender equality which echoes through the pages of Twelfth Night.
Charles, Casey. "Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night." Theatre Journal 49 (1997): 121-141.
Charles delves into the topic of gender and sexual orientation in this selection. Here he examines homosexual and heterosexual dynamics of characters in Twelfth Night as well as the relationship of gender versus sex. Viola is discussed as defiance to the typical sex/gender of a female. This, combined with her romantic relationship with Orsino, illuminates the way Shakespeare wishes gender roles were interpreted by his audience. In the text Charles notes that those "viewing the final scene of Twelfth Night saw just how interchangeable sex as well as gender were" (125).Greenblatt, Stephen. Introduction. Twelfth Night. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2008. 1785-1791.
Greenblatt discusses the first female actors on the Elizabethan stage and the fact that women could be seen in performances. He continues on to detail significant passages throughout Twelfth Night and address key aspects about main characters like Malvolio and his yearning for Olivia. Important commentary stems from when Greenblatt comments on Orsino's expression of doubt that a "woman can love with an intensity equal to a man's" (1790). Greenblatt basically states that during this scene an intimacy is forged between Orsino and Viola which had previously only seemed possible between men (1790).Howard, Jean E. "Crossdressing, the Theatre and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England." Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418-440.
Howard portrays cross-dressing in Elizabethan England, mainly focusing on the implications the sexes encountered while involved in the act. For males cross-dressing was deemed "shameful" and "men actually wearing women's clothing [were] so totally 'out of place' that they [became] monstrous" (424). Females were regarded differently; their sexual appetites clarified their inferiority and need to be in "control by men" (424). This information plays well into the cross-dressing of Viola in Twelfth Night and the possible reaction of the audience when viewing such an act.Hunt, Maurice. "Love, Disguise and Knowledge in Twelfth Night." CLA Journal 32 (1989): 484-493.
The concepts of love, disguise and knowledge are shown to be intertwined. A flow of such concepts is established: disguise allows discovery of love; love is the pathway to knowledge. Hunt applies this to the main characters of Twelfth Night and examines the true nature of Orsino, Viola, Olivia, and Malvolio. Viola's gender role reversal and the effect of such a disguise on the romantic relationship between her and Orsino is a key discussion.Schleiner, Winfried. "Orsino and Viola: Are the Names of Serious Characters in Twelfth Night Meaningful?" Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 135-141.He [Orsino] secretly enjoys Viola's feminine beauty while the page identity -- "Cesario" -- gives him an excuse for not recognizing the threatening natural opposite to himself -- an opposite that in truth complements him. (487)
This selection provides information regarding the meaning behind the names of the characters Viola and Orsino. The particularly noble name (with respect to German cultures) of Orsino means "little bear"; however, in regard to medieval and Renaissance tradition the bear is a "truly melancholic animal" (135). With this knowledge Schleiner states, "The lovelorn duke's name could carry such a suggestion of melancholy" (135). Viola's name is depicted much differently, for Viola is the Latin word for flower violet which in the Renaissance was generally considered a medication against melancholy (136). Schleiner details the medicinal and traditional uses of the violet. He discusses ointment made from violet oil, medications derived from the flower and the healing properties connected with the violet medication, "calms, tempers and overcomes burning and bitter humors" (136-137). Schleiner even insinuates that Viola may be intended to soothe Orsino's melancholy (136).Twelfth Night. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2008. 1792-1846.