Twelfth Night

I am not what I play: Gender & clothing

Viola was not the only character in Shakespeare’s plays to put on clothes associated with another gender, to play a different role. Portia and Nerissa from The Merchant of Venice disguise themselves as male lawyers, Rosalind from As You Like It pretends to be a young man named Ganymede, and Viola pretends to be Cesario. Shakespeare continued the concept in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline, The Merry Wives of Windsor and other plays.

While their stories are different, all these characters don ‘male’ clothes to achieve a goal. Wearing their own clothes and with their real identity, they cannot achieve what they need to do.

Answer the following questions then complete the research task:

  • Why does Viola choose to wear different clothes and play the role of the male ‘Cesario’? What is her goal in doing this?
  • What advantages does Viola have in doing this, as opposed to displaying her true identity?

Research task

  1. Find examples of other women in history who wore ‘male’ clothes and pretended to be someone other than their true identity. Make sure you research people from different time periods and countries. Select one real-life person to focus on for this task.
  2. For your selected person, answer the following questions:
    - Where is this person from?
    - What kind of society did they live in, and what were the beliefs of this society?
    - What was expected of men and women in this society?
    - Why did they play this role?
    - What was their goal?
    - Were they successful in reaching their goal? Why/why not?
    - Did they reveal their true identity at any point?

Extension task

Now focus on fictional examples of women playing ‘male’ roles. What films, books and tv shows can you think of where female characters pretend to be men. Select a fictional character and answer the same questions as above.