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Literature Essay. By: Shanice, Harshita, and Vanessa Wan 2A. 1st Question. How does Shakespeare view social classes in Twelfth Night?. Introduction.

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literature essay

Literature Essay

By: Shanice, Harshita, and Vanessa Wan


1st question
1st Question

How does Shakespeare view social classes in Twelfth Night?


Our Stand: His portrayal of the social classes contradicts the stereotypical image of how the various classes are supposed to dress like and behave through portraying the direct opposites of such characters in the play.

Summary of Points: Upper Class portrayed as foolish and hedonistic. Upper Class portrayed as fickle. Lower Class portrayed as wise and clever. (In reality it's supposed to be the other way around)

point 1
Point 1

Shakespeare thinks that the upperclassmen are foolish and hedonistic.

The pieces of evidence are "I'll drink to her as long as there is a passage in my throat and drink in Illyria." and "Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance."

The first piece of evidence shows that the knights of the upper social class are only concerned with drinking and merrymaking through Sir Toby. Going so far as to declaring that he would carry on engaging in his hedonistic lifestyle till there will be no 'drink in Illyria'.

The second piece of evidence shows that the knights are not educated as Sir Andrew could not even understand a simple word such as 'accost' and could not keep up with Sir Toby's and Maria's witty banter, accentuating his dim-wittedness.

Therefore Shakespeare challenges the common perception of the upper social class which classifies all upperclassmen to be educated, civilised, and responsible. He created Sir Toby and Sir Andrew to portray the direct opposite of these traits by emphasising their hedonistic pleasures and Sir Andrew's dim-wittedness.

point 2
Point 2

Shakespeare thinks that the upperclassmen are also fickle-minded.

The evidence is “and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal.” Feste makes an accurate and excellent observation of Orsino that he is very ‘changeable’. He suggested that Orisno’s tailor should make clothing which can change according to his emotions. Opal is a color that changes according to the light. Similarly, Orsino’s wants and desires changes according to his emotions.

His changeable nature can also be seen through, “Enough, no more!” At the start of the play, Orsino is in love with Olivia and demands excess of music. Within minutes, he decides not to have it for ‘tis not so sweet now as it was before’. His heart rules him as he follows his emotions and demands things according to his whims and fancies. From the start of the play till near the ending, he constantly woos after Olivia, trying his best to get her love. Eventually, he married Viola.

Even though Orsino is a duke and rules one whole kingdom by himself, he does not live up to his title as he rules more with his emotion than his intelligence.

point 3
Point 3

On the other hand, Shakespeare portrays the lower class as wise and witty.

Maria says," I have them at my fingers' ends. Marry now I let go your hand, I am barren."

In this piece of evidence, Maria states that she has her witticisms ‘at [her] finger’s ends’ which means that she is skilful when it comes to wit. Yet it also implies that Sir Andrew is the main cause of her jokes as she is holding his hand and when she lets go of him, she does not have anymore jokes to make. She plays around with words to subtly mock Sir Andrew in such a way that he does not realise it.

Maria's wittiness has shown the lower class to be more educated, who are subtly able to mock social superiors without their realisation.

This is also exemplified in Feste, who has been able to mock Olivia's foolishness in mourning for her brother. He says, "The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.“

This piece of evidence shows that Olivia is foolish to mourn for her brother’s soul when she is well aware of the fact that he is in heaven. It had to take Feste, a fool of lower social class, to point out Olivia’s irrationality. This also further proves the point that appearances and titles in each social class do not determine one’s real traits.


In conclusion, Shakespeare views the upperclassmen as fickle-minded, rebellious and foolish while the lower class people are intelligent and witty.

Shakespeare had aimed to challenge and subvert the stereotyped social class hierarchy to emphasise the point that the various titles of each social class are but superficial and taken at face value.

2nd question
2nd Question

How does Shakespeare view gender roles in Twelfth Night?


Stand: Shakespeare is trying to subvert and challenge the common perception of the gender roles and gender identity in Twelfth Night.

Points: Shakespeare reverses the female's role in courtship, portrays the confusion of gender roles, and the ambiguity of gender identity.

point 11
Point 1

Point: Shakespeare reverses the female's role in courtship.

Evidence: "Run after that same peevish messenger/ The County's man. He left this ring behind him, Would I or not."

Elaboration: Olivia is smitten with Cesario and she orders Malvolio to go after him and give him her ring leaving Malvolio under the impression that Cesario forced the ring upon her but was Olivia who initiated this pursuit.

Elaboration:Here, Shakespeare reverses the roles in courtship as it is usually the male who proposes to the female, not the other way around.

There is irony in Olivia's pursuit of Cesario. This is due to the fact that Cesario is in reality a woman. Yet Olivia still foolishly flaunts her beauty to Cesario, trying in vain to seduce him, highlighting the humour in this futile courting. "As I am woman--now, alas the day--What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!" This further proves the unlikelihood of any positive outcome from this relationship.

point 21
Point 2

Point: Shakespeare also portrays the confusion of gender roles through Viola and her disguise as Cesario.

Evidence: "Conceal me what I am, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke. Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him."

Elaboration: Here, Viola seeks the Captain's help to disguise her as a male. She decides to disguise herself so that she would be able to serve Orsino and not face any prejudice as the females are normally looked down upon.

However, due to this disguise, Olivia has fallen hopelessly in love with Cesario, creating a case of unrequited love. She has no way of knowing so until near the end of the play where she accidentally marries Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, mistaking her for Cesario.

Shakespeare evidently challenges the fixed structure of gender roles as he shows that Viola could change her appearance and thus her gender easily through disguising herself as a man.

point 31
Point 3

Point: Shakespeare also challenges the clarity of gender identity.

Evidence: Orsino says, “In that instant was I turned into a hart, and my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, E’er since pursue me”

Elaboration: This shows that Orsino is indulgent in his emotions for his supposed love for Olivia, going as far as to stating that his desire for Olivia makes him feel trapped.

Elaboration: Such emotion in words and indulgence in passion is rarely seen in a man. Yet it is portrayed through Orsino, proving the point that Shakespeare has been trying to bring across by showing that you do not have to be of the same gender to exhibit the stereotypical traits of it. (you don’t have to be male to be strong-willed)

This can be further proven from Viola’s independence. In the first act, when we were introduced to Viola, it is shown that she was able to get over her emotions caused by the death of her brother and find a way to survive in the strange, foreign land she was shipwrecked in. As females in the Elizabethan era were considered to be more demure and gentle, Viola’s independence serves as a contrast for this stereotype.

Therefore Shakespeare tries to bring across the ambiguity of gender identity.

counter argument
Counter Argument

However, in the end of the play, everything returns to its initial state. Although Shakespeare gives Olivia the more masculine role in her courtship for Cesario to challenge the structure of gender roles, she did not get who she wanted and ended up with Sebastian instead.

Yet Viola, who assumes the passive position in her relationship with Orsino, gets who she had set out for in the end.

Therefore although Shakespeare wanted to challenge the common perception of the structure of gender roles and gender identity, he also shows that in the end, everything should assume normalcy and go by societal norms.


In conclusion, Shakespeare has subverted and reversed the gender roles in Twelfth Night by reversing the gender roles in courtship, showing the confusion of gender roles, and the ambiguity of gender identity.