Gender in Shakespeare’s Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night

When reading literature from the Renaissance period, it is clear to see male and female characters were thought upon as two completely different types of people. By following what the bible told them about the opposite sexes, writers in this time were able to set specific gender norms for both men and women. However, when reading the works of William Shakespeare, one can sense a riff in the norms of either sex.

With characters such as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, we can see a character that possess qualities that do not necessarily belong to their gender. However, with a character like Desdemona in Othello, we can see that Shakespeare could also write characters who fall victim to the gender roles of society. Also, with a character like Viola in Twelfth Night, we can see a character who becomes stuck in the middle of following the gender norms and making their own choices in life. By looking at these three unique characters, we must wonder what Shakespeare was trying to say about the ways that men and women were perceived at the time.

Academic anxiety?
Get original paper in 3 hours and nail the task
Get your paper price

124 experts online

Did he agree with the rules that society made for them? Or, was he trying to change the way we thought about the opposite sex? When a person thinks of a devoted female character, Desdemona from Othello is the first that should pop into mind. While Desdemona is perceived as a one of Shakespeare’s brightest and most loyal female characters, she is also a clear victim of the gender stereotypes of the time. One of the first things that we know about Desdemona and Othello’s relationship was that they were not brought together necessarily her sexuality, but by Othello’s interest in her mind.

In fact, the first time that Desdemona is introduced in Act 1, scene 3, she is presented as strong, independent, and capable of making her own decisions. In her first lines of the play, she says; I do perceive here a divided duty. To you I am bound for life and education; My life and education both do learn me How to respect you: you are the lord of duty, I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband; And so much duty as my mother showed To you, preferring you before her father, So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord. (I,iii, 180-188)

To make such a statement like this one while being the only female character on stage is quite a feat, and would be considered an act of great bravery. Also, by saying this directly to her father, Desdemona proves herself to be virtuous and intelligent. Not wanting to insult Brabantio, she persuades him to think on her as he thought on her mother; that she was not choosing to marry Othello in spite of him, but because she wants to share her proper upbringing that he was able to give to her with her husband so that she may start her own family and perform her womanly duties.

Unfortunately, this proclamation becomes her undoing. At the time, this unwomanly characteristic of bravery is attractive and compelling to Othello. However, once the false seed of her infidelities is planted in Othello’s thoughts by Iago, he begins to wonder what other manly qualities she is able to posses (such as adultery). By turning Desdemona into a villainous character (at least in Othello’s mind), Shakespeare is able to show the readers that a women who challenges authority would most likely be punished for it.

This plot of Desdemona being unfaithful is just one of the ways that Shakespeare brings up the subject of male anxiety towards the erotic power of a female. Othello believes that Desdemona has seduced her way into another man’s heart, In retrospect, the only person to be seduced in the play is in fact Othello himself, who falls for the lies that Iago has told him. In Act 3, scene 3, now believing women to be deceptive creatures, he curses them and the institution that they so heavily rely on; She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,

That we can call these delicate creatures ours, And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad And live upon the vapour of a dungeon, Than keep a corner in the thing I love For others’ uses. (III,iii, 270-276) In Othello’s mind, he believes that women hold on to the idea of marriage so firmly because they think it to be the perfect cover; that being married will allow them to continue on leading their promiscuous lifestyles without the fear of looking like a whore. Also, it is in this quote that we as the reader see the true nature of man in this time.

Othello listens to Iago accuse his wife of terrible deeds, but never attempts to ask her if they are true, (that is, until it is too late). In short, since he himself is a man, Othello would rather listen to another man’s opinions than ask a woman for hers. This idea that a woman’s opinion is not worth listening to is a constant wrong-doing that presents itself in literature from this period. Unfortunately for Desdemona, her death is written as for a character who has actually done something wrong. During this time, if a female character has wronged a man in anyway, she would usually die.

Coincidentally, Shakespeare writes a death for Desdemona that goes hand in hand with the sin that she was accused of committing; foul play in bed. In Act 5, scene 2, Othello enters Desdemona’s room, proceeds to accuse her of infidelity, and then smothers her to death. Desdemona, in an attempt to save her life, tries to reason with her husband, but to no avail. However, when she is discovered on the edge of death by Emilia, she does not accuse her husband of her murder. Instead, she says; A guiltless death I die. Nobody–I myself. Farewell– Commend me to my kind lord–O’ farewell! (V,ii, 122-125)

Even though it is obvious that Othello was her true killer, Desdemona blames her death only on herself. Being the obedient wife that she was, Desdemona would never dare pin her death onto her husband. However, to have her die by her husbands’ hand was Shakespeare’s way of solidifying her dedication to him. Like any good woman in Renaissance literature, Desdemona was loyal to her husband in life, and with death, still remains loyal to his will. It is unfortunate to see a character who is as bright as Desdemona fall a victim to the classic standard of woman during this period of literature.

However, not all of Shakespeare’s women give into the standards that society has laid out for them; at least not without a fight. In Twelfth Night, we see a woman who is pretending to be a man. The concept of dressing in drag is not unusual in Shakespearian comedies. By doing so, the main female character is allowed to perform heroic acts that were usually reserved for men. While she does eventually switch back into women’s wear and becomes a loyal wife, she is first allowed to prove herself to be brave and cunning, and is able to do so without having to face the stereotypical consequences.

In this play, Viola’s cross dressing experience is important to both the central complication and resolution to the plot. In Act 1, scene 5, Viola, who is currently in disguise as a boy named Cesario, goes to the house of Countess Olivia in order to profess the love of his new lord, Duke Orsino. However, because of Viola’s wit and sympathy to Olivia, she instead makes Olivia fall in love with her male alter-ego. After Cesario’s exit, Olivia says, Even so quickly may one catch the plague? Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections With an invisible and subtle stealth

To creep in at mine eyes. (I, v, 285-288) Why was it so easy for Olivia to fall in love with Cesario, when it is impossible for her to feel that way about Orsino? It is because she believes that Cesario is a new kind of man; one that will listen to her opinions and actually care about them. With this quote, Shakespeare is not only adding a comical mixup into the plot, but is also taking a jab at the men of the time period. Cesario represents the feminine side that lies within every man. By having Olivia fall for Cesario, Shakespeare is promoting men to be more compassionate towards women.

While causing all sorts of trouble in the play, Viola’s cross dressing also manages to resolve the plot and give the play a happy ending. In Act 5, scene 1, Viola, still dressed as Cesario, finds herself facing death from Orsino when she is accused of marrying Olivia. However, before Orsino can carry out the deed, Sebastian runs in apologizing to Olivia for is tardiness. It is here, after minutes of confusion for the other characters, that Sebastian sees Cesario. Do I stand there? I never had a brother, Nor can there be that deity in my nature Of here and everywhere. (V, i, 220-222)

By seeing Viola in men’s clothing, Sebastian begins to think that he is seeing double. With this, Shakespeare convinces the reader that Viola’s disguise is great enough that it could even convince her own brother that she was a man. Finally, once it is worked out that Viola has been in drag the entire time, Orsino is finally gets over his obsession of Olivia and is able to realize the love he shares for Viola. With Orsino’s declaration of love, we get to see how Cesario’s character was also able to soften and change the heart of the most stereotypically “manly” character in the play.

As Cesario, Viola was able to get close to Orsino and helped him to open up and share his emotions. Thinking that Viola was a man, Orsino was not afraid to express how he felt about various issues. If he knew that it was actually Viola listening to him, he would be unable to truly express himself because he would be worrying about the restrictions that divided their genders. In the end of Act 5, scene 1, once Orsino has discovered the truth about Viola, he says, Cesario, come- For so you shall be while you are a man; But when in other habits you are seen, Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen. V, i, 375-377)

Because of the rules that each gender needs to abide by, Orsino refuses to embrace Viola until she has her feminine clothing back. Though he loves her, to show this sort of love to another man was not something that was acceptable. Still, by cross dressing, Viola was able to change the way that two different characters perceived the opposite sex, while at the same time proving that women could be brave and cunning. Though Viola’s character does pave the way for braver female characters, it could be argued that her character does not really change the way that women were perceived.

While avoiding the penalties that would have come to her actions if it were known she was a woman, Viola still falls victim to an emotion that has plagued women since the dawn of literature; love. If Shakespeare’s true intentions were to write a female character who was to break to chains of gender stereotypes, then he would not have her marry Duke Orsino at the plays end. However, this is exactly what happens. By writing this sort of end for viola, Shakespeare is pointing out that even the strongest of women will bind themselves to a husband.

In his plays, Shakespeare does not only give us with women who bend the gender norms, but gives us men who do the same. In Romeo and Juliet, we are presented with Romeo. Like Cesario, Romeo represents the feminine side that is found in men. What makes Romeo’s character different than any other male Shakespearian character is his ability to fall in love so quickly. At the beginning of the play, we hear him swoon and mope over Rosalind. However, as soon as he sees Juliet at Capulet’s party, Rosalind is completely forgotten. At this moment, he says, Did my heart love till now?

Forswear it, sight, For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. (I, iv, 165-166) For Romeo to be able to cast his old lust of Rosalind aside and to replace it with Juliet so quickly is an attribute that most men of the time were unable to possess. With these few lines, Romeo proves himself to be a completely different sort of man than any other in the play. Another feminine quality that Romeo has is his use of language. During his first interaction with Juliet in Act 1, scene 4, we see a whole new side to Romeo that was not visible in the first few scenes.

Once he has been presented with this new love, he is able to transform into the lover that we know him to be. In his first words to Juliet, Romeo says, If I profane with my unworthiest hand This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this, My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. (I, iv, 206-209) By giving Romeo such eloquent language, Shakespeare was able to show the artistry and passion that lies deep within a man, just waiting for the proper muse to unleash it from him. Also, having him speak so poetically, Shakespeare elevates Romeo’s character above the other men in the play.

This isolates him from the typical male, which makes his connection to Juliet all the more plausible. Romeo’s view of love is on a whole other spectrum than any other male character in the play. In Act 1, scene 4, while discussing their feelings about the idea of love, Mercutio tells Romeo, If love be rough with you, be rough with love; Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down. (I, iv, 25-26) Mercutio’s outlook is that of the normal man of that time. By advising Romeo to play rough with love, he is telling him to not worry about the consequences. Romeo on the other hand, has more of a woman’s outlook on love.

Like Juliet, he is a virgin who idolizes the idea of love and does not want to ruin it by taking a chance on something that he does not believe will last. By considering their love to be a higher power, Shakespeare proves the difference between Romeo and Juliet’s idea of love and the rest of society’s idea of love. For Romeo and Juliet, love is something that they consider to be holy; hence why they do not partake in sexual activities until after their marriage. Unfortunately, the mixture of Romeos devotion to Mercutio and his devotion to love prove to be his greatest flaw.

After the death of Mercutio, Romeo declares revenge on Tybalt. Thinking that he must go through with this because “he is a man, and that’s what men do”, he blames his feminine outlook on life on Juliet, saying, O sweet Juliet, Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, And in my temper softened valour’s steel. (III, i, 113-115) By seeking out revenge on Tybalt, Romeo is going completely against his nature. Also, by attempting to change his entire outlook on life because of one incident, Romeo lights the spark that leads to his own downfall.

Here, he neglects to look at his feminine qualities as a positive, and instead, only sees them as something that makes him less of a man. A third way that Romeo represents the feminine side of man is via his death. In Act 5, scene 3, Romeo breaks into Juliet’s tomb, not realizing that she is merely asleep. Laying next to her, He proceeds to drink a poison potion that he has bought. Toasting to Juliet, he proclaims, Here’s to my love! O true Apothecary, Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die. (V, iii, 118-120) By taking a poison to end his life, many critics believe that Romeo took “the easy way out”.

This idea goes hand in hand with his many other feminine characteristics. Later, Juliet awakes to find him dead at her side. After one look at him, she takes his dagger and stabs it through her heart so that she may join him in the afterlife. When comparing and contrasting the deaths of these two tragic heros, it does seem a bit odd that Juliet chooses to kill herself in the most brutal way possible, while Romeo chooses a quick and painless death. To stab oneself with a dagger takes a lot more courage than drinking a potion.

Since their deaths go against the typical norms of their genders, Shakespeare is able to prove that they were so united as one that they blended together, making it unnecessary for there to be a difference in the genders. In Renaissance literature, it is very common to find characters who live by the guidelines of gender. However, one writer, William Shakespeare, was fond of bending the rules that he was provided with. With Romeo, he creates a man who acts more like a woman, and when he tries to fall into the stereotypical way of man, is destroyed.

With Viola, he creates a woman who tries to get a taste for both sexes by living as a man, but loving as a woman. Lastly, with Desdemona, Shakespeare is still able to show us that even the most clever of us cans till become victim to the paths that society has chosen for us, and though we try to stray from them, they are still able to pull us back in. With these three characters, Shakespeare proves to us that society is a strong force, and that once a way of life is set, it is almost impossible to break away from it. But, he does not discourage us from trying to pave our own ways.

For Shakespeare, men and women were not just categorized by gender, but by their personalities. He thought of all his characters an individuals, and though many of them shared similarities, it was each little unique trait that made them memorable.


  1. Primary Sources Shakespeare, William, and Jill L. Levenson. Romeo and Juliet. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  2. Shakespeare, William, and Michael Neill. Othello, the Moor of Venice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  3. Shakespeare, William, and Stanley W. Wells. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print
  4. Secondary Sources Barker, Deborah, and Ivo Kamps. Shakespeare and Gender: A History. London: Verso, 1995. Print.
  5. Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. London: Fourth Estate, 1999. Print.
  6. Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare and Women. Oxford [England: Oxford UP, 2005. Print
  7. Smith, Bruce R. Shakespeare and Masculinity. Oxford, [England: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  8. Jacobs-Royer, Scott K. ““Unhonest Desire”: Culture, Schools, and the Misallocation of Blame in Romeo and Juliet. ” Shawangunk Review XII (2001): 33-37. Print.

This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

Need a custom essay sample written specially to meet your requirements?

Choose skilled expert on your subject and get original paper with free plagiarism report

Order custom paper Without paying upfront

Gender in Shakespeare’s Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night. (2016, Dec 25). Retrieved from