Twelfth Night

Swerving Women in "Twelfth Night"

When Lady Olivia first beseeches Viola, a girl disguised as the male page Cesario, to love her, the two share a repartee that seems to question Cesario's affection for the countess. But as Viola responds to Olivia, "you do think you are not what you are" and "I am not what I am," it becomes clear that the conversation is about more than emotion; it concerns Viola and Olivia's identities and how easily they could be shaped to the other's wishes (3.1.137 and 139).

Throughout William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, characters are most secure in an identity based on conformity; loathe to be individual because it takes them away from a comfort zone of tradition and accepted social mores. But for Olivia and Viola especially, the lure of individuality (defined as difference and/or uniqueness from a social norm) tempts both to take on male characteristics to distinguish themselves from the binds of their natural sex. Though both are caught in a paradox that Stephen Greenblatt describes as drawing Viola and Olivia equally towards conformity and individuality, Stephen Orgel identifies the eventual collapse of a reliable social/sexual system as the most dangerous consequence of shifting easily between...

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