Twelfth Night Differences Between Men and Women

TMA 04
‘The most fundamental distinction Twelfth Night brings home to us is the difference between men and women’. Discuss Barber’s proposition in relation to relevant passages in Twelfth Night and the views of the critics Barber and Joseph Pequigney

Twelfth night was traditionally a time for revelry and subversion; subversion of social structure and subversion of gender roles. Shakespeare’s comedy of the same name takes this theme as its setting and what ensues is a comic delight of multiple gender confusion; boy playing girl, playing boy, who is loved by both male and female.   There are darker elements too lurking within the play but a contentious issue arises from whether or not the play can be taken at face value. Is this a play simply about twelfth night revelry and its comedic fallout or, as is quite often the case with Shakespeare, does he use this opportunity afforded by the situation to say something larger about human relationships?   Whether the play brings home to us the differences between men and women, or otherwise, to a great extent rests on the answer to this.

In his critical essay Joseph Pequigney believes that on the subject of homosexuality, critics of Shakespearian comedy fall into three categories.   Those who have given the topic no thought, those who give the topic no pertinence at all and those who are willing to ascribe homosexuality to characters (Brown and Johnson, 2000, p. 219).   The critic C. L Barber has undoubtedly come down somewhere in between the first two categories.   The essential thrust of Barber’s argument is that the use of saturnalian role reversal can serve to strengthen hierarchical social structures (Brown and Johnson, 2000, p. 208). This can be achieved by providing a temporary outlet for those lower down the structure, almost like a safety valve.

In a similar fashion the role reversal in terms of gender roles can also be used to, in Barber’s words, ‘Renew the meaning of the normal relation.’ (Brown and Johnson,...