Women and Power in Twelfth Night

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the three female characters are each shown to have power and influence on the events of the play. This is interesting because women were generally seen as being “beneath” men during this time period, but in this play, they have a lot of influence.

One example of this power dynamic is Olivia. She, of course, is wealthy and has a very high social status. She is the most obvious example of women in power in Twelfth Night. She has various servants, and she can easily give them orders when she wants them to do something. In fact, in Act I, Sir Toby claims that Olivia herself has insisted that she will marry someone who is below her own status. He says,

“…She’ll not match above her
degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit. I have heard her
swear’t.”

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This passage indicates that Olivia intends to maintain her own power and status by refusing to marry someone who could be perceived as more powerful than her. She intends to remain a powerful woman, and she will not allow a man to diminish her power.

Aside from her obvious power and influence as a woman of status, one of the other major ways she influences the play is in her relationship with Orsino.

Despite Orsino’s many romantic advances toward Olivia, she remains adamant that she does not love him and will never marry him. This is interesting because women during this time were often expected to obey men, meaning that their own desires were often put behind men’s. However, Olivia insists upon doing what she wishes rather than relinquishing her power over her own romantic life.

However, despite Olivia’s insistence that she does not love him, Orsino believes that his love for her will eventually overpower her stubbornness. When Viola (as Cesario) points out that he would expect another woman to move on from him if he rejected her, Orsino claims that the situation is different because women cannot love as strongly or as passionately as men. He says,

“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.
Alas, their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That would surfeit, cloyment, and revolt.
But mine is all as hungry as the sea
And can digest as much. Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.”

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This passage shows that Orsino still believes his own love to be more powerful than Olivia’s wishes. Despite the fact that Olivia is a powerful woman, Orsino still believes his own will to be more powerful than hers. This indicates that Orsino still looks down upon even powerful women, disregarding their wishes in favor of his own. He continues to pursue Olivia despite knowing that she does not want to be with him.

However, despite Orsino’s continued efforts to woo her, Olivia never gives in to his wishes, maintaining her power over her own life.

Another woman who has an influence on the events of the play is Maria. Despite being Olivia’s servant, she has a major impact on the plot- specifically for Malvolio. She plays a practical joke on him which leads him to act outlandish and irrational, which causes Olivia to have him imprisoned in a dark room to treat what she perceives as his insanity. The practical joke consisted of a letter written by Maria posing as Olivia in which she pretended to be in love with Malvolio and made several odd requests of him. In doing so, she exercised Olivia’s romantic and sexual power over Malvolio and manipulated him into doing as she wished. Then, Olivia used her power to imprison him. This shows that these two women had great power over Malvolio, even when he believed it was only Olivia.

The third woman who had a major influence on the play was Viola. As the protagonist of the play, she was the one who set many of the events in motion and caused several of the plot points. Similarly to Olivia, she was born with some level of status; however, she also gained power by posing as Cesario. By pretending to be a man and acting as Orsino’s servant, she was able to do many things she would not have been able to do as a woman. One example of this is her close relationship with Orsino.

Given Orsino’s attitude toward Olivia, it is not unreasonable to assume that he does not have much respect for women. He ignores Olivia’s desires in favor of his own, disregarding her own wishes entirely and insisting that she is not capable of loving someone as passionately as he loves her because she is a woman. However, despite this, Viola is able to bond with him. By posing as a man, she elevates her own status in his eyes and puts herself in a position of higher power than she previously might have been with a misogynist. Due to this power she gives herself, she is able to connect with Orsino and form a bond with him that leads to the two of them falling in love.

This idea that Viola gives herself more power by masquerading as a man can also be seen in the popular modern film adaptation of this play, She’s the Man. In this movie, Viola poses as a teenage boy in order to join a boy’s soccer team and prove that she can play better than many of the other boys. Like Shakespeare’s Viola, she, too, uses her elevated status as a man to her advantage by exercising her power with men.

The concept of Viola gaining more status by pretending to be a man shows the general misogyny of the people around her, but it also indicates that women are capable of more than men often believe. By blending into society as a man, Viola proves that she has at least the same worth and capability as a man, and that women can be powerful, too.