Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, but perhaps one of his best. This play offers a biting critique of the traditional roles of men and women in society. The purpose of social commentary is to rebel through speech or written word toward an individual or a group for the purposes of promoting change and/or appealing to the general public that change regarding a certain subject is needed. William Shakespeare was famous for unearthing the collective plights and predicaments of society.
This sample history paper critiques his writings and how they heavily scrutinize human arrogance and the often disparaging attitudes of class and gender that continually inflict society. Many of Shakespeare’s piercing critiques are present in his comedies rather than his dramas. The Twelfth Night is perhaps the most biting critique among the collection regarding the role class, men and women play in society.
Twelfth Night and the Clown Feste
Shakespeare is known for his biased portrayal of women in his plays. One of the most interesting dynamics of Twelfth Night is the character of the clown, Feste, who Shakespeare uses to call into question of class. In Act III, Scene I, Feste sharply notes:
“foolery, sir, does walk about the orb, like the sun; it shines everywhere,” (Shakespeare) indicative of the foolish nature that class often played at that time, and frankly in today’s time.
While the character of the clown is what Shakespeare opted for Feste, it is this character that is seemingly the most rational in insight about the conventional wisdom of class hierarchies. Shakespeare’s knack of using a lowly and foolish character such as Feste, speaks volumes to his ability to “use the foolish things of the world to confound the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27 KJV).
Feste becomes the centerpiece of the critique on humanity’s vanity as none of the characters understand him. Evidence of this is the exchange between Feste and Olivia in Act I, Scene V when she straightforwardly says
“go to, you’re a dry fool; I’ll no more of you; besides, you grow dishonest, [and Feste responds] two faults, madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend; for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry; bud the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher, mend him; anything that’s mended is but patched; virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin; and sin that amends is but patched with virtue” (Shakespeare).
It seems almost silly for a clown, who is representative of a hilarious screwball, to be used as a social commentator’s weapon, yet, when looked at from an objective point of view; while clowns are usually illustrated as goofy jesters, it takes a lot to creatively amuse and entertain, which indicates that Feste is not as lowly with respect to class as he appears.
Gender roles in the play
Perhaps the central element between men and women in Twelfth Night is that men are written as subservient with the exception of Duke Orsino, opposite to how gender is communicated in the real world. Even he is demonstrated as a subservient character because of his determination to win the love of Olivia. Olivia has a full staff of servants that include men, whom she gives countless orders to. An example of this is in Act I, Scene V, when she tells Malvolio to “run after that peevish messenger, the county’s man” (Shakespeare) and Malvolio graciously agrees.
Shakespeare’s critique of the interplay between men and women was unusual at the time, as men traditionally were elevated to powerful roles as opposed to women. It is more or less a ripple in the pond of social outlay today as women are infrequently given roles of power. According to Margaret Mead, “gender is a social construct specifying the socially and culturally prescribed roles that men and women are to follow. Women have always had lower status than men” (Mead). So it is this social and societal perception that Shakespeare sought to flip on its ear as it was divergent of the normal opinions that women were to be passive.
Shakespeare was notorious for trying to shift the roles that men and women play in society and mocking how we as individuals hold class. While most of his comedies were creations made to uproot the conventional wisdom of his time, they have notably led into many of the arguments of today with respect to class and gender.
“1 Corinthians 1:27 KJV.” Holy Bible: King James Version. New York, NY: American Bible Society, 1980. Print.
Mead, Margaret. “Gender and Society.” Trinity University, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. .
Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare . Massachusetts Institute of Technology , Web. 20 Sept. 2013. .
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