‘Semblative a woman’s part’: Why and how are considerations of gender and sexuality important in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice?

Hannah Aspinall

Shakespeare's female characters in these two major comedies seem to remodel the 17th Century notions of femininity and the woman's social role. This essay examines gender issues in the plays, looking at cross-dressing, homosexuality and issues surrounding the carnival breaking of social expectations.


During Shakespeare’s time of writing views on woman differed greatly to those which we hold today. Modern females hold an equal position in British society with the same rights, status and independence as men, whereas women in the 16th and 17th centuries had extremely different circumstances. The men tended to hold the power in their world and women were seen as commodities or “pawns” (Newman 1987: 23) for political and social gain.

Yet in these two comedies Shakespeare seems to take this notion and turn it on its head by creating female characters that rebel against the norms of society. Olivia and Portia managing their own estates and Viola disguising herself as a boy and moving about the land freely with no chaperone are two such examples of this. Although Shakespeare seems to be representing feminist ideas here, it is important to note that all the females are eventually contracted to a man in marriage. They sign away the majority of any power they held and become the perfect subservient wife for the patriarchal world.

This role reversal is what the comic form is based on; the “expectation that the delightful temporary disorder of the tale will be resolved with reincorporation into normal society” (Gay 2008: 4-5) and it can create much confusion and humour. This “temporary disorder” is represented in the title of ‘Twelfth Night’, a reference to the saturnalian festival which instantly conjures up images of the carnivalesque such as excess behaviour, dressing up and inversion of the norm. The added subtitle of ‘Or what you will’ serves to reinforce these images, the lexical choice of “will” holds connotations of desire and openly invites numerous interpretations of the play.

The title of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, on the other hand, holds no such carnivalesque connotations and names itself after one of the main male protagonists. It is interesting to note that the namesake of the title is a man, although an important character, Antonio is in fewer scenes than Portia and less of the plot action is focussed around him.

This male naming of the play highlights the idea of masculinity in these two plays. During the time of writing the idea of “masculine honour” was a widely discussed “political issue” (Headlam Wells 2000:5) and certain characters in the plays of Shakespeare represent strong masculine ideals such as Hamlet and Henry V. In opposition to this, many of his male characters are all but overshadowed by the strong female representation and this is shown strongly in both ‘Twelfth Night’ and 'The Merchant of Venice’. Orsino is one such example of this; whilst he is described as a “noble Duke” ('Twelfth Night' 1.2.25) he wallows self-piteously in his infatuation of Olivia and declares that his “desires, like fell and cruel hounds, e’er since pursue me” ('Twelfth Night' 1.1.23-24). He sends other people to do his wooing for him whilst he hides in his court and seemingly neglects his duties.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek is the ultimate opposition to the heroic masculine ideal and his incompetence as a male entity is constantly mocked to produce a comic effect. These “insinuations regarding his impotence and effeminization” (Elam 1996: 32) are placed throughout the play to thoroughly demasculinize him. Maria for example calls him a “fool” and a “coward” ('Twelfth Night' 1.3.27-28) and Aguecheek himself states unwittingly that he is “barren” ('Twelfth Night' 1.3.28).

In comparison to Aguecheek, Bassanio and Antonio in the 'The Merchant of Venice' come much closer to reaching the masculine ideal. Bassanio displays his heroic nature and use of logic in his quest to win Portia whereas Antonio proves his mettle by risking his life for Bassanio. Yet the efforts of Bassanio to save Antonio from his imminent death are fruitless and pale into insignificance next to Portia’s use of cunning; disguised as a male she uses her quick wit to rescue both the men from the predicament they are in.

The idea of a female disguising herself as a male is a key component of both the plays and would be of even more significance at its time of writing. Before the Restoration in 1660 there were no female actors in the theatre, meaning that all female roles were played by males. Cross-dressing adds comedy through the confusion that it incurs and the importance of this is shown through the fact that Portia, Nerissa, Viola and Jessica all play the part of a male at some point during the plays. Only the audience would be able to witness the dramatic irony unfolding as Olivia falls in love with a ‘man’ and Portia and Nerissa display their male counterparts in front of their unknowing husbands which adds much to the humour of the respective plays.

Cross dressing is not just a route to comedy; it also acts as a passageway to the characters desires. Jessica uses her disguise to enable her to escape the house that she views as “hell” ('The Merchant of Venice' 2.3.31) so that she can elope with her lover Lorenzo. Whereas Viola’s disguise is a longer lasting affair that enables her to travel back and forth between the two houses freely and create a strong relationship with Orsino, who shows a side to her she may never have seen as a female.

For Portia and Nerissa, cross-dressing allows them to leave their female and pastoral landscape of Belmont and enter the male world of Venice to save Antonio. Portia seems to slip into the masculine role with more ease than Viola. Where Portia displays the utmost competence in court the less masculine traits of Viola are constantly made reference to and her inability to fight in the duel serves to reinforce this view. Cross-dressing can be seen as a pathway to “realising their identities” (Greenblatt 1988: 92) and acts as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood by giving them freedoms they could not realise as a woman.

Yet the women in both plays already exercised more freedom than many females of the time; Newman terms them the “unruly women” (1987). In her article ‘Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England’ Jean Howard explains that these women hold “Challenges posed to masculine authority and the traditional gender hierarchy” (1988: 430) with their wealth, desires and opposition to marriage. This unruly element can be seen in the refusal of Olivia to enter the “erotic dance” (Greenblatt 1988: 69) that would eventually lead to marriage to Orsino and loss of her independence under his higher social and sexual status; Portia displays her unruliness by leaving her estate, entering the world of men and posing as the most masculine of positions – a doctor of law. Shakespeare also gives Portia the name of another strong female character, that of Cato’s daughter Portia from ‘Julius Caesar’ who is described as sharing the “political ideals of her father and husband” (Newman 1987: 27) which mirrors Portia’s own foray into the world of law and politics.

However, for all the independence and opportunities Shakespeare has given these ‘unruly’ females, they are all bound by male patriarchy in one way or another. Portia is trapped by her father by the test he left to choose her suitor, “The will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” ('The Merchant of Venice' 1.2.24-25) this shows the strength of patriarchy, that a woman still has less power than a deceased male. The fact that Portia has to marry whoever picks the right casket shows a fatal anti-feminist flaw in both plays – all the females end up bound to a man by marriage, albeit a man of their choosing but this still does not protect their independence.

Heterosexual love is not the only kind being represented here as many critics would argue that homosexual relationships are present within the plots of both plays. The characters of Antonio in 'The Merchant of Venice' and Antonio in 'Twelfth Night' demonstrate intensely close relationships with their respective male friends Bassanio and Sebastian and both are willing to risk their lives for them. In numerous scenes between these two couplings, the word “love” is used to describe their feelings for one another.

Another example of homosexuality is displayed through the close relationship of Viola and Orsino and the love Olivia has for Viola. Viola and Orsino share an exceedingly close relationship and even though her love for him comes from her as a female, he only ever sees her as a boy but still agrees to marry her. Viola’s disguise also creates homoerotic tensions between her and Olivia who falls in love with this male persona and came close to being “contracted to a maid” ('Twelfth Night' 5.1.258). This seems almost punitive of Shakespeare - she is doomed to fall in love with a female for her ‘crime’ of refusing the marriage proposal from a male with higher social status.

It is as both plays reach their denouement that the true gender hierarchies are revealed and any pseudo-feminist tendencies are overthrown; the carnivalesque role reversal turns back to normality with the females doting on their husbands and the males resuming their dominant alpha male roles. In ‘Twelfth Night’ Olivia is first called “uncivil” ('Twelfth Night' 5.1.110) by Orsino and then mocked for her mistake in falling in love with Viola. Viola on the other hand appears to be gaining her hearts desires, yet Orsino’s referral to himself as her “master” ('Twelfth Night' 5.1.323) in marriage seems ominous. The final line in 'The Merchant of Venice' is not celebrating Portia’s triumphant rescuing of Antonio, but a crude pun from Bassanio referring to Nerissa’s “ring” ('The Merchant of Venice' 5.1.307). This sexual innuendo objectifies women and strips them of any power they have had or intellect they have shown. These final scenes display Shakespeare returning the “unruly” women to their rightful places in a patriarchal society; the “temporary disorder” has been restored to normality.

Word Count = 1650


Elam, K. (1996) The Fertile Eunuch: Twelfth Night, Early Modern Intercourse, and the Fruits of Castration. Shakespeare Quarterly [online]. 47 (1). Available: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2871057?cookieSet=1> [Access date 28th April 2010]

Gay, P. (2008) Cambridge Introduction to: Shakespeare’s Comedies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Greenblatt, S. (1988) “Friction and Fiction” Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Headlam Wells, R. (2000) Shakespeare on Masculinity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Howard, J. (1988). Crossdressing, The Theatre and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England. Shakespeare Quarterly [online]. 39 (4). Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2870706 Accessed: 18/05/2010 10:46

Newman, K. (1987). Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly [online]. 38 (1). Available: URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2870399 Accessed: 27/04/2010 07:12

Shakespeare, W. Twelfth Night. St. Ives: Penguin.

Shakespeare, W. The Merchant of Venice. St. Ives: Penguin



Hannah Aspinall


brightONLINE student literary journal

06 Oct 2011