ENG3704 sem 2 ass 1 Essay






19 AUGUSTUS 2019

Gender performance by opposite -sex actors and how it destroys gender roles and identities in Twelfth Night

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Ylandi Raath

“The theatrical convention of cross-dressing and androgyny it comes to symbolize… challenge the regulatory parameters of erotic attraction through the vehicle of performance, a performance that shows gender to be a part playable by any sex.” CITATION Cas97 l 1033 (Charles, 1997)As a scholar of Shakespearian literature, I have learnt that as a playwright, William Shakespeare’s plots are drawn to focus on gender ambiguity as the central conflict.

For example, Viola in Twelfth Night or Rosalind in As you like it. To be able to analyse how opposite sex actors destroy gender roles and enhance sexual ambiguity, one must have an understanding as to why sexual ambiguity exists in Shakespearian literature in the first place. Therefore, to be able thoughtfully explore the above statement made by C. Charles, one must understand the backdrop of which the play is set in and why gender ambiguity exists at all in Shakespearian literature.

Only then, one can analyse how sexual eroticism is affected by same-sex actors.

To be able to prove the statement made above, I shall firstly discuss the theatrical conventions of cross-dressing during the Shakespearian era where after I shall make a clear link as to how and why this leads to androgyny. Furthermore, I shall discuss the challenge of regulatory parameters of the erotic attraction of the audience and finally I shall bring the discussion to an end by explaining how gender is something that can be performed.

It is highly important to look at any Shakespearian literature against the backdrop of Elizabethan theatre. This will be discussed shortly to form a basis for the topical discussion which is that opposite-sex actors performing different genders destroy gender identities.

It is generally known that during the rise of the Elizabethan theatre, in approximately 1576, female roles were played by young male boys. Therefore, the modern term, ‘cross-dressing’ had a vital and essential place in theatre as this was the only way to convey the female sex as played by the male gender. There were several reasons as to why this was the case, a very important one, as for this discussion, is that Shakespeare used gender boundary violations as a comic end to theatrical design by making it practise to substitute boys for women. More importantly, in a society where gender roles and stereotyping had the upper hand, Shakespeare is said to have used gender relations in theatre as a vehicle to send a very specific message to his audience members – that masculinity is never fixed but rather constantly challenged, which is still the case in our modern society. CITATION Whi09 l 1033 (Sperazza, 2009)While on the topic of masculinity, it is important to notice that Viola, being a boy playing a woman pretending to be a man, cannot be seen as being fixed in masculinity as the play actually uses the femininity of Viola when pretending to be a man, and does not hide the fact that the character is a woman from the audience, even though the audience knows that the actor is a man. This forms the basis of androgyny in Shakespearian literature. The actor, being a young boy, plays a young female who pretends to be a eunuch. Therefore, the character is a hermaphrodite, being both male and female. This androgyny is then what challenges the parameters of erotic attraction. Why can I make this statement? Well, sexual attraction happens on the basis that men are naturally attracted to a woman and their features, it being high-pitched voices, big breasts and broad hips. Men are mostly sexually aroused because of these ‘womanly’ features.

Knowing this, we can more easily identify how the parameters of erotic attraction is challenged within this play. A eunuch is a young male who has been castrated and was employed to guard the women’s living areas at an oriental court because their sexual infertility made them more trustworthy for royal families or families of high power. Viola, who is a fertile young woman, playing an unfertile young boy (but in reality being played by a boy) is great cause for sexual erotic attraction. They were castrated at a young age and therefore their testosterone levels are very low, causing them to have certain female features such as having a high-pitched voice. Also, due to low testosterone levels, normal male features, such as facial hair, are not evident in these eunuchs meaning the eunuch is less than a man but also not a woman. And this is what challenges erotic attraction, and this challenge is based on the natural bias of the audience. Men can be sexually attracted to ‘Viola’ even though they know that she is actually a boy, but because of her female features, the attraction is natural. When ‘Viola’ then disguises herself as her brother, ‘Sebastian’ it challenges the parameters of erotic attraction because now she brings certain male features to the surface such as short hair and a beard. Because of this, female audience members are aroused and therefore erotic attraction is chaotic and confusing for the audience members.

While on this thought exploration, we cannot forget the members of the cast, who unlike the audience, are aware of the changes in male-female composition of ‘Viola’s’ character. This is where gender role performance is very important. In the play, characters are sexually attracted to other characters all because of the confusion of one person playing a gender which they are not. For example, Viola works for Orsino and her female character finds him sexually attractive, but the boy-actor does not necessarily find the character attractive as well. Orsino is attracted to Olivia and uses Viola to make this known to her. Olivia, thinking that Viola is a young male boy, finds him attractive. Women in the Elizabethan era used to find eunuch’s attractive because they knew that they would get sexual pleasure from them without having the burden of wondering if they can fall pregnant.

In his article, ‘Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night’ Casey Charles refers to Judith Butler’s statement that the attraction that exists between Olivia and Cesario (Viola) plays on lesbian sexual attraction. CITATION Cas97 p 1 l 1033 (Charles, 1997, p. 1)

I do not necessarily agree with this statement, as I have explained throughout the thought exploration above that people are attracted to the features and ideas of people being male or female. And, because of the actors portraying genders opposite from themselves, this leads to same-sex attraction, but not knowingly, and rather due to the features of a man or a woman that are instinctively attractive as in the case where Olivia is attracted to Viola and Count Orsino is attracted to Viola when he finds out that she is a woman, but when she is still dressed as a man, and when we know that indeed the actor playing the character is also a man.

Therefore, I would rather describe Olivia’s attraction towards Viola as being attracted to the idea of being with a young boy. Her, knowing that he is a eunuch probably thought that sexual encounters would be less stressful as it was quite a scandal for a Lady to fall pregnant without being married. Being with Cesario, would never hold that danger for Olivia. Therefore, I don’t ascribe this to Lesbianism, I do however enjoy the ambiguity because Viola and Cesario both cannot cause a female to fall pregnant. Viola, because she is female and Cesario because he is a eunuch. And, what makes the case even better is the fact that the male-female character is being played by a young boy, who is most likely a castrato (to be able to be a good singer and actor) and therefore also cannot impregnate a woman. Therefore, we can conclude that the androgyny does cause

certain challenges to the parameters of sexual attraction due to actors, being one gender, playing characters, being of the opposite gender.

Now, we have proved that the theatrical convention of cross-dressing leads to androgyny, and androgyny leads to challenges in sexual erotic attraction of both the cast members and the audience. This is the basis of the thought exploration regarding Charles’s statement.

One must keep in mind that the actors and the character are a separate being in such that the actor must always portray something which it is not – the character. That is exactly what the art of acting is all about. And I believe Shakespeare knew this, and understood it, which is why his literature is so well-known even today still. Therefore, having the actor, being a man play a woman can be seen in the same light as having an actor, being of a teaching profession, play the role of a doctor. The actor merely portrays a doctor. However, the actor then has the responsibility to gather information about medicine to build the knowledge for the character which they want to portray without becoming a doctor. He/she should just become of enough knowledge to understand medicinal jargon and how a doctor’s daily routine ought to look. The same goes for a boy playing a woman, the boy must be enlightened by knowledge of the female sex in order to portray the female sex successfully without actually being the female sex. And therefore, just as any actor should be able to play any character, I agree with Casey who is of the opinion that any part should be playable by any sex.

The following quote from Charles’s “Gender trouble in Twelfth Night’ helps us to link the above mentioned facts to the train of thought expressed throughout this analysis, “This staging of gender imitation by Viola, the performance of her gender performance, uses her disguise and her identity with her brother Sebastian as vehicles to demonstrate that erotic attraction is not an inherently gendered or heterosexual phenomenon.” (Belsey)

Therefore, I can conclude by agreeing with Charles’s statement that the theatrical convention of cross-dressing and the androgyny that it comes to symbolise challenge the regulatory parameters of erotic attraction through the vehicle of performance, a performance that shows gender to be a part playable by any sex. CITATION Cas97 p 128 l 1033 (Charles, 1997, p. 128)

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