Male Gender Performativity in Twelfth Night

by Hessy Sanders.


In viewing a play with a feminist lens, especially one as gendered as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, one must ask Whose story is privileged? Whose isn’t? In most stagings of Twelfth Night, these questions are not difficult to answer. The play’s heroine, Viola, captivates practitioners and audience members alike through her quest for love and family. Her navigation of gender roles and identity through cross-dressing makes her a topic for discussion on gender and sexuality on the stage and in the classroom setting. Viola’s journey provides the framework for which we see Twelfth Night. The American Shakespeare Center’s 2020 production of Twelfth Night, however, engages in the discussion by taking the focus away from its heroine and placing it on its comic male characters. In doing so, it subverts the audience’s expectation to see a discussion of a gynocentric portrayal of gender performance and instead highlights the male gender performance.  

The production makes the audience aware that it knows our expectations as they enter the theater. The set consists of three mannequins, two with female anatomy and one without. We see a large frame in the shape of a skirt, adorned with vines and flowers, around each mannequin. On one hand, it signals to the audience femininity, fertility, and sophistication. On the other, it is a visual representation, in part, of Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Not only do the mannequins set the expectations for the show and provide a set, but they are also functional throughout the show while serving as a consistent reminder of socially-regulated gender performance. 

Costuming also quickly directs our focus to certain characters over others. Viola enters the stage attired as to how we generally would expect someone playing a woman. Her feminine expression is understated: a shapeless, white dress, beige shawl, and thin, blue scarf. The most overtly feminine piece of her ensemble is her hair, styled in long curls. She quickly changes into an all-white uniform, similar to that of a fencer, and assumes a male identity. Even more so than her female identity, she plays down her male identity expression throughout the play. She is almost a clean slate for gender expression. Her neutrality on gender shows us that she has nothing to prove to herself or anyone else, at least compared to her male acquaintances.

The masculine world of Sir Toby Belch, however, is a much different and interesting story. Sir Toby dresses as one assumes a Victorian man should dress: stylish, but dark, clothes to display wealth. His costume is not particularly eye-catching, but it is practical. His companion and consistent scene partner, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is something of a fop-like character and his foil by way of costuming. In contrast to Sir Toby, Sir Andrew’s costuming consists of many ribbons, pastel colors, and a phallic-shaped pouch placed over his crotch. In fashion as in personality, Sir Andrew is frivolous and self-indulgent. His clothing signals to the audience character traits historically attributed to women. The third member of their trio, Fabian, presents a traditionally masculine personality as well, though his tattered and dirty garments signal that he is a much lower status character than Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Lastly, Malvolio’s attire compliments that of his boss, Olivia, in an all-black suit. As with Sir Toby, Malvolio dresses according to his station in life; he is a seemingly practical man and dresses as such. Clothing is only the first signifier of gender performance in this production. The action that follows in the play reveals something much more complex and dark in their performance. 

The masculine world of the play, as mentioned previously, controls this particular production of Twelfth Night. Their actions sprinkle demonstrations of gender regulation and deviation throughout the play. For instance, while Sir Andrew might dress more feminine than the other characters, he compensates for this deviation with a few hypermasculine gestures. The audience particularly sees in the background of songs. During “ O Mistress Mine,” the audience sees Sir Andrew stroking the head of his phallic-shaped satchel. Though the song is about a woman, his public-facing response is to a man singing the song. This attraction is later confirmed by an intimate passing glance between him and Feste. In another instance, he rubs a mannequin’s breast during “I Needs Must Go.” He intends his hypermasculine and hypersexual gestures for comic effect, but these gestures more accurately demonstrate overt gender performativity. He is a man that needs to display sexual attraction because that is the expectation. Interestingly, though his stated purpose for being in Illyria is marrying Olivia, the audience does not see him speak two words to her in the course of the play. We see another deviation in his failed attempt to duel Cesario, in which Sir Toby and Fabian test his manhood. He corrects these deviations from gendered expectations through small actions that nod at masculinity. This correction protects him from the punishment that other characters endure for the same offenses.

While Sir Andrew corrects his deviation from normative gender performance through his actions, Malvolio’s deviation leads to far worse consequences. The masculine world, consisting of Toby and Fabian, punishes Malvolio for dressing outside of gender norms for their world: large hair, in this case as a wig, pastel clothes, ribbons, and makeup. His fashion, after the masculine world deceives him, reminds the audience of Sir Andrew’s costuming. Sir Andrew, however, makes a noticeable absence during the exorcism scene in which Sir Toby, Fabian, and Maria lock Malvolio in a skirt frame that doubles as a prison cell and convince Malvolio that he has gone mad. We see him dirty, beat down, and crying for help. In this instance, the masculine world punishes Malvolio for his deviation and locks him in their symbol for femininity and gender performativity. Though, because they regulate and enforce gender rules in Illyria, the men willingly don the same skirts themselves to conceal their identity just a few scenes earlier. The masculine world decides the rules for their gendered world, the privileged ones that get to break the rules without consequence, and the punishment for the unprivileged ones that do not understand their rules. 

As stated before, the men highlight, and more importantly, control gendered performance in this production. This focus is unusual compared to productions that showcase Viola’s journey through gender. The ASC’s performance choices are important to note, however, because they show the audience their modern society in which the patriarchy functions in the same way as Sir Toby and his friends. The male control over the play and their regulation on gender make the conclusion all the more frightening, as most characters fall into their expected gender roles. Additionally, the production’s choice to subvert the play’s expected focus illustrates that discussions on gender are not synonymous with discussions on women. Instead, it shows us that gendered performance may have more to reveal about the masculine than the feminine.


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