As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women

By Penny Gay | Go to book overview
Save to active project



Desire and its discontents

Twelfth Night’s alternative title is What You Will. What’s in a name? we might ask with Juliet. A parent’s impulse to play? In Will Shakespeare’s ‘romantic comedies’ will—meaning, for the Elizabethans, both the assertion of power and sexual desire 1 —is the principal concern of the characters and motivator of the plot. Twelfth Night, in particular, offers multiple images of ‘the mobility of desire’ 2 —a theme which was taken up enthusiastically in performance in response to the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s, but was increasingly sidestepped in the more conservative atmosphere of the 1980s.

In performances of the last fifty years, the figure of Malvolio— ‘ill-will’—begins as that of the traditional puritanical killjoy, denying ‘cakes and ale’ to the drunken Sir Toby, but develops into a disturbing image of the madman who cannot reconcile his sexual fantasies and the realities of his class position. Gender, in this play, becomes an ever more unstable mask: Orsino and Olivia behave increasingly ‘improperly’ as the play’s interest in the fluidity of sexuality is explored in performance. Viola always exists in the margins between genders: claiming first that she will present herself as ‘an eunuch’ to Orsino, she is called by him ‘boy’, wooed by Olivia who thinks she is male (or thinks she thinks so), and never herself changes out of her male costume once she assumes it after I.2. That she has an identical twin in the male Sebastian is of course a biological impossibility: it is a fantasy of desire undifferentiated, uncontrolled by the constraints of gender: the play ‘enables not only the fantasy that one need not choose between a homosexual and a heterosexual bond but that one need not become either male or female, that one can be both Viola and Sebastian, both maid and man.’ 3


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 210

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?