The Role of Women in Chaucerian and Shakespearean Literature Continued…

When it comes to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the fate of the female characters within the play displays a rather different expectation for the role of Renaissance women, though there is certainly some overlap. For example, in her article “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in ‘Twelfth Night,”‘ Jami Ake makes an interesting case for the notion that the female characters of the play, especially those of Olivia and Viola/Cesario, are not able to move freely unless they, too, are either freed from male control-represented in Ake’s argument by the form of the Petrarchan sonnet-in the way that both the Wife of Bath and Carruthers insist is necessary for genuine female happiness in marriage, or they are successful in somehow aligning themselves with a form of male-centered power. In this case, Ake’s insistence on the concept of male-control’s         being represented by the Petrarchan sonnet forms the basis for the idea that the role of women in the Twelfth Night is related to the role of women in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” in that both illustrations of women’s roles include the struggle of women to overcome the imprisonment of male control. Ake quotes Nancy Vickers as she explains her reasoning behind her categorization of the Petrarchan sonnet as being representative of such:

Petrarchanism, particularly because of its apparent mode of direct address to a beautiful woman, as Nancy Vickers observes, is a specifically “motivated discourse” designed primarily by and for the interests of men, part of “the canonical legacy of description in praise of beauty” that is “in large part . . . a battle between men that is first figuratively and then literally fought on the fields of a woman’s  ‘celebrated’  body.”(377)

With this, one can begin to see that it is because of both the inherent objectification of women’s bodies and the ownership expressed over them by the male voice found in the Petrarchan sonnet that the women of the land of lllyria, specifically Olivia, are essentially imprisoned by male control.

This, of course, is said in relation to the fact that Ake is characterizing the world of Illyria as being the land of Petrarchanism, doing so by allowing Orsino to become a synecdoche for his empire. Ake then suggests that Olivia’s entrapment-or immobility-in the world of Orsino is ultimately because the Petrarchan verse involves both the disembodiment of the female voice and the scripted response of “the sonnet mistress’s scornful rejection of the lover’s heart . . . in the duke’s poetry of perpetually unfulfilled desire” (378). According to Ake, the only reason that the character of Olivia is able to make any move other than to reject her would-be lover, Orsino, is because the character of Viola/Cesario provides her with a discourse outside of the Petrarchan sonnet, and it is because of this temporary escape from Petrarchanism that Ake is able to gather the notion that “Viola’s unwillingness to surrender her agency completely to the duke’s poetic text gradually exposes the inadequacies of Petrarchan language not only as a performative text, but also as a poetry capable of either voicing or eliciting female desire” (377). Viola/Cesario even communicates this concept directly to Orsino:

ORSINO. She will attend it better in thy youth Than in a nuncio’s of more grave aspect.

VIOLA. I think not so, my lord. (l.5.29-31)

During the first interaction between Olivia and Viola/Cesario, it becomes clear that Viola/Cesario’s anticipation of the failure of Orsino’s Petrarchan verse is in no way misguided. As soon as Viola/Cesario begins to ask permission to recount the Petrarchan verse pinned by Orsino, Olivia is immediately aware of the fact that she is again to be pinned into the role of the objectified and voiceless woman unless she orders Viola/Cesario to stop the recitation before it even begins. As Viola/Cesario pleads in saying, “Alas, I took great pains to study it, and ’tis I poetical,” Olivia quickly responds by stating, “It is the more like to be feigned. I pray you, I keep it in. I heard you were saucy at my gates, and I allowed your approach rather to wonder at you than I to hear you” (1.5.192-97). Because of this, Viola/Cesario is forced to abandon the Petrarchan verse and to, as Ake describes it, keep the conversation going with “spontaneity and her improvisational ability,” ultimately inspiring Olivia’s passion for Viola/Cesario not because of what Viola/Cesario has to say, in particular, but because it allows Olivia the chance to have a voice in the conversation. In this way, Ake writes that Olivia successfully “eludes the duke’s efforts to reduce her to a symptom of his love-sick Petrarchan universe, and resists the tendency of Orsino’s Petrarchan poetics to transform women from pretexts for verse into poetic texts under masculine control” (380).

Once Olivia has officially fallen in love, so to speak, with her beloved Viola/Cesario , a parallel between Olivia’s relationship with her man of choice and the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath is formed. Throughout the remainder of the play, Olivia constantly attempts to persuade Viola/Cesario to submit to her will and be her husband, which Viola/Cesario, being a woman and in love with Orsino, refuses to do. Whenever Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, shows up near the end of the play, a familiar sounding progression of lines occurs:

OLIVIA. Nay, come, Iprithee. Would thou ‘dst be ruled by me!

SEBASTIAN. Madam, I will. (4.2.67-9)

Here, the reader sees Sebastian submitting to the will of Olivia in much of the same manor that the knight of the Wife of Bath’s tale submits to his new wife near the tale’s resolution, and also like the Wife of Bath’s tale, one can consider the resolution of Sebastian and Olivia’s new marriage as also being acceptable in terms of Olivia’s ability to gain sovereignty in her relationship with him. Perhaps this is an example of what, in Shakespeare’s time, would be considered a remainder of the Middle-Age role of women put forth by Chaucer in his “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.”

Other than this particular instance, the rest of the resolution of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night reasserts a traditional role of women: one that suggests that the only acceptable position for a woman to be in is that of a wife-an obedient one at that. This is evident in the other occurring marriages between the couples of Viola and Orsino, and Maria and Sir Toby Belch. In the first, Viola, who has been in a position of authority derived from her male disguise, is unveiled to be a woman and is immediately married off, placing her under the control of a powerful man and essentially eliminating the threat of her obviously intelligent and crafty female character. The same goes for Maria in the second couple, who derives much of her power in the play from her position as being-what many today would suggest of her-“one of the boys.” Like Olivia, Maria’s intelligence and cunning are seen as the ultimate threat to the male sphere, which is demonstrated mostly through the tricks played on Malvolio by Maria, and so her marriage to Toby, which seems to occur somewhat randomly, becomes nothing more than the symbolic placing of a woman under a man’s control in order to eliminate her as a threat. In this way, both Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” illustrate a role of women which is only different in the sense that Shakespeare suggests more adamantly in his work that a woman should not be required sovereignty, while both texts highlight the notion that a universal role of women includes the struggle of women to overcome the imprisonment suffered by them under male control, in all its forms.


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