Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

Twelfth Night Romantic Comedy English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1439 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

Reference this

In the opening scene, the protagonist Viola is shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, losing contact with her twin brother, Sebastian. For the sake of her safety, Viola decides to disguise herself as a man -a page named Cesario and serve to the Duke, Orsino. The story is complicated by a love triangle. Viola is in love with Orsino, who falls in love with the beautiful noblewoman Olivia, who in turn falls in love with Viola. In the end Sebastian and Olivia fall in love and marry. The duke realizes he has loved Viola all along when Viola resumes her female identity. Viola finally agrees to marry Orsino. Sir Toby Belch and Maria also decide to marry. Everyone has a happy ending except the arrogant, self-loved and social climber Mavolio.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service


Was Shakespeare a misogynist? This question is argued by many critics. Some opponents reason that all major female characters die in Hamlet and Othello. In addition, the famous line “Frailty, thy name is woman” stirs many debates. Others debate that that saying is not spoken by Shakespeare but Hamlet. Indeed, we cannot find out the truth as Shakespeare left no academic resources telling us what he actually thought. That is why we can only deduce from his works and the context of the times he lived in. In early modern England, chastity, silence, and obedience were regarded as the ideal characters of women (Suzanne, 1982). Women were regarded as properties in the patriarchal society. Most of them were uneducated and were married off for wealth. They took care of the household and needed to please their husbands and the social norms. Women who violate these restrictions were considered as unladylike and odd. Yet, a number of female characters in Shakespeare’s works are determined, clever, and independent. They are not presented as weak, beautiful heroines who waited the heroes to save them. Examples are Lady Macbeth, Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”, Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” and Viola in “Twelfth night”. This paper aims at examining the way Shakespeare portrays the three female characters Maria, Olivia and Viola in the play Twelfth Night.

Analysis female characters in Twelfth Night

Maria is a devoted servant of Olivia. She is opinionated and shrewd. Although Maria has a low social class, she dares to speak her mind. For instance, she says “By my troth, Sir Toby, you must come in earlier a’ nights: Your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours.” (Act 1, Scene 3). Maria directly tells Sir Toby that her lady Olivia is not fond of his behavior-‘ill’ hours. This clearly shows that Maria is not restricted by her lower social status and subordinate to Sir Toby who has a higher social class than hers.

On the other hand, Maria is portrayed as a cunning intellect in the play. She masterminds a prank to play on Malvolio, the arrogant, self-love steward at Olivia’s house. She wants to teach him a lesson because of his constant criticism, nagging and condescending attitude. “I can write very like my lady your niece: on a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands.” (Act 2, Scene 3). From Maria’s saying, we know that Maria can imitate Olivia’s handwriting. Hence, she pens a letter appearing that Olivia is in love with Malvolio. Upon reading it, Malvolio is trapped and he naively thinks that Olivia loves him. He follows “Olivia’s” instructions and behaves extremely odd that Olivia even thinks he has gone mad.

As Olivia’s maid, Maria would be considered part of the working class. It is surprising and impressive that Sir Toby ultimately chooses to marry her. As William (2004, p179) says “She fits in with Sir Toby Belch’s view of the world”. It is not exaggerated to say that it is her witty that wins the heart of Toby Belch.

When the play begins, Olivia is in deep mourning for her dead brother and refuses to see anyone for seven years. It seems that her excessive mourning is not so different from Duke Orsino’s love-melancholy. She seems to enjoy indulging in misery. Olivia, however, is not completely hopeless. She is brave enough to step beyond the confines of her woman roles in society and challenge the well-defined roles of the male world.

Olivia is a female character that ‘acts outside her woman role’. First of all, it seems that she has no real reason to reject the advances of the Duke Orsino. She even admits to his attractive qualities, saying that he is “of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth;” (Act 1, Scene 5) as well as “in dimension and the shape of nature / A gracious person” (Act 1, Scene 5). However, she is resolute and refuses to submit to the men that she doesn’t love. Besides, her strength can be seen from her ruling over her household, servants and even her uncle. In this aspect, Olivia is quite similar to Queen Elizabeth who was also a strong woman and refused all suitors.

On the other hand, Olivia is brave to express her love. She says “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit, Do give thee five-fold blazon” (Act 1, Scene 5).When she falls in love with Cesario at first sight, she works hard to woo him. She repeatedly asks him to come back to her estate by using various tricks and problems. Olivia takes on the role of the hunter where she would normally be hunted. She also breaks the rule that she should marry a man of equal social status. She does not care about the convention and continues to pursue the young servant, Cesario. From these instances, Olivia creates an image of an empowered woman.

Last but not least, Viola is a wonderful example of resolute female character on stage. Viola, being the female protagonist in Twelfth Night, is the strongest character. In a foreign and unfamiliar country, she is able to live independently without any help from a husband or guardians. Apart from that, she is highly self-controlled and does not disclose her female identity. This contrasts greatly with the emotional male character Orsino.

In the following quotation, Orsino claims that women do not have the ability to love as men do.

“There is no woman’s sides

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.” (Act 2, Scene 4)

Viola responds that she knows well the love women feel and the capacity of the female heart. She says, “Too well what love women to men may owe. In faith, they are as true of heart as we.” (Act 2, Scene 4). Viola defends that male and female hearts are equal in loyalty and sensitivity. She is depicted as defiance to the typical gender of females.

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

Howard (1988, p 424) points out that in early modern England, a man felt “monstrous” to appear portrayed as female, while a woman parading as male was considered a “whore”. It seems that Shakespeare deliberately reversed Viola’s gender role to spread a message that women can still be decent. They should not be oppressed to express their identity. Charles (1997, p127) further suggests that Viola “upsets essentialist constructs of gender hierarchy by successfully performing the part of a man as woman”. Shakespeare brings out the idea of gender equality through Viola.

The idea of gender equality is further supported via the meanings behind the names Orsino and Viola. Winfried (1983, p 135) indicates that Orsino means “little bear” which was thought of as a “truly melancholic animal” in the Renaissance. Viola is the Latin word for flower violet which was generally considered as a cure for melancholy. To echo this effect, Orsino speaks of “a bank of violets” in Act 1, scene 1. From this, we can see that Viola serves an important role as bringing balance between males and females.


Shakespeare’s woman in Twelfth night presents ideas that match to the modern roles of women.

After examining the play, one will see that Shakespeare creates resolute female characters with a strong sense of self.

Shakespeare did indeed create realistic and meaningful female characters.


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: