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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/2031890
Rated: E · Essay · Arts · #2031890
An Essay On Saturnalian Role Reversal
           Mason Gray 2015



In his essay on Twelfth Night, C.L.  Barber writes, 'Just as a saturnalian reversal of social roles need not threaten the social structure, but can serve instead to consolidate it, so a temporary, playful reversal of sexual roles can renew the meaning of the normal relation.' (Reader, p. 208) Discuss and critically analyse this statement with reference to the text of Twelfth Night and the two critical extracts on the play in the module Reader.

This essay will present ideas central to the above question in a manner that demonstrates an understanding of C.L. Barber's meaning.  The social construct of gender will be rigorously discussed with reference to sexual roles and the meaning of normal roles in relation with representation of these roles in Twelfth Night.  Saturnalian role reversal will be centralised as the theme that drives the thrust of this Shakespearian comedy. It will be stated as to how such festive folly can serve to consolidate social structure.

Twelfth Night's festive theme demarcates it from other Shakespearian plays in the sense that there is certainly an undercurrent of subversive role reversal.  The Feast of the Epiphany celebrated on the 6th of January (Ryan, 2000) marks the close of the holiday season and is something of a final hoorah of celebration before inevitable sobriety and normalcy.  Twelfth Night was classically an occasion of ritualised revelry steeped in carnival atmosphere (Ryan, 2000 p.189) whereby 'repressed social energies' were released through 'disguise, including cross- dressing and masquing'.  In such times of  'excess and of inversion of norms' much subversive meaning was disseminated, played out and released as the Christmas festivities drew to a close.

As such Saturnalian role reversal would have enabled recalcitrant uneasiness toward the systems of power and undercurrents of reticent ill will to be safely channelled without the fear of persecution.  However the play is more than just an opportunity of released unconscious angst against the machinations of rule as the tile adds 'or what you will'.  It is possible as Greenblatt suggests that the play at such time as its first performance at the close of the theatrical season 1600/1601 not only brought the Christmas festivities to a close but also the theatre season (Greenblatt, 2008, p1786).  Hence the 'down' was twofold in the sense that not only was the semblance of inevitable normality that ensued devoid of the excesses of food and drink but also the entertainment of the theatrical medium too.

It is possible that amidst such a fleeting season of 'holiday misrule' (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.205) Shakespeare set up such personalities as Malvolio and Sir Andrew for comic humiliation (Ryan, 2000, p.191).  C.L. Barber suggests that Malvolio represents an antisocial figure that would have evoked resonances of unpopularity amidst audiences of the time (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.205).  The emasculation of a bourgeois self-serving character such as Malvolio would have served to 'release the pent up social tensions' that C.L Barber suggests are served well through saturnalian role reversal.

While Malvolio's humiliation and thus emasculation is exactly the kind of role reversal that C.L Barber brings to our attention this kind of role reversal acts on a subtle level.  Principally Viola's transformation as a eunuch is one that acts in a more explicit manner whereby the transformation plays out on the level that the audience is invited to participate in make-believe.  Viola announces the transformation in no uncertain terms implicating the audience in an ensuing deceit on stage.  Speaking of Orsino Viola declares 'I'll serve this Duke, Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him' (1.2.51-4, Norton 2nd edition, p.1795).  C.L Barber argues that this language that Shakespeare ascribes Viola is 'aristocratic' in that it puts Viola in control of a sea captain spelling out how he is to help her (Danson-Brown, 2000, 206).  C.L Barber is quick to defend Viola in that while clearly there is an idea of fun associated with her playing a man's role with her own playful womanly perspective yet this is far from a playful masquerade and more a cover given such considerations of gender perceptions at the time of writing.  Viola takes the garb of a eunuch page in order to protect her femininity as social submissiveness of females was in even greater threat given the equivalent voraciousness of male gender constructs.  Nevertheless C.L. Barber suggests that there would have inevitably been some pleasure expressed through transvestism (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.206).  Not only does the change in identity provide pleasure but so does the idea of make believe (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.208).  .

The play is one that is classically and popularly quoted for its opening line: 'if music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it' (1.1.1-2 Norton 2nd edition, p.1793).  Given Orsino is a central protagonist in an unrequited love duet the assertion of aristocratic melancholic overtones of courtly love provide a captivating opening.  Yet his sentiment is more than petty bourgeoisie and it unfolds that Orsino is in fact in love with the idea of love.  While Orsino is developed as the central protagonist in a chain of unrequited love the gender role is held up as the ideal in the pursuit of Olivia a wealthy noble.  Olivia not short of wooers is in mourning in bereavement of a late brother.  Yet Orsino's desire for her is often insensitive of her state of mind and being.

C.L. Barber suggests that a vital consideration in the comedy derived from role reversal is the concept that 'when the normal is secure' then 'playful aberration is benign' (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.208).  Cleary the role reversal is interdependent upon an anchor of normative security in order for playful humour. Heteronormative stabilities such as Orsino's character pursuing Olivia's provide a backdrop of secure normalcy before which the cross-dressing class struggle is played out. Thus the consideration that boy actors played the Cesario/ Viola role gives a further insight as to the kind of gender perceptions that may have been intended in the original vision.  In essence the part was written for a boy playing a girl disguised as a boy.  This self-cancelling double deception does little to give us an idea of Viola's actual femininity as intended by Shakespeare.  However there are other clues that give some depth and dimension to this femininity, for instance Viola is described as more feminine than Rosalind (also disguises as a man) in As You Like  It (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.208).  The idea that Orsino claims that even disguised as the eunuch page Cesario appears outwardly as a woman: 'all is semblative a woman's part' (1.4.29-33, Norton 2nd edition, p.1799). Orsino suggests that 'Diana's lip is not more smooth and rubious' a scathing attack on Cesario's masculinity or a homoerotic compliment yet representative of the exact paradox of an inward masculinity that captivates Olivia and outward feminine allure to which Orsino succumbs.

Viola as Cesario constructs the masculine gender role through social interaction.  When Olivia asks 'what is your parentage?' (1.5.246, Norton 2nd edition, p.246) Viola replies 'above my fortunes, yet my state is well.  I am a gentleman.'  It unfolds that Olivia becomes infatuated by the manner in which Viola/ Cesario is capable of articulating an argument that preserves his social status.  As a page such questioning would invite subjugation yet Viola senses that maintaining a status quo would serve well in dyadic exchanges.  Thus Viola constructs a robust male persona that more than adequately compensates for outward frailty moreover one that wins the favour of a countess where various noblemen fail.  Cesario's considered courtly genteel prowess comes across as masterful and commanding.  C.L Barber suggests that this is because her words are considered and few (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.215). This idea of Cesario's reigned in language contrasted with Malvolio's 'pompous polysyllables, of elaborate syntax' demonstrates how the understated man of few words rises where the flagrant chatterbox falls.  Such elevations and subjugations of class and gender provide the cathartic entertainment value of saturnalian role reversal.  However Pequigney goes further by suggesting that the saturnalian role reversal goes beyond class and gender and into the taboo realm of sexuality also.

Pequigney suggests that a theme of same-sex love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice gives insight into the sexual politics of Shakespeare  (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.218).  The argument that Pequigney uses to qualify this claim is that each Antonio in both plays loves his male friend more than anything else.  Aside from this also being a robust grounds for a good heteronormative friendship the complicated nature of Pequigney's claim does not immediately convince in such matters as this being ground for Sebastian and Antonio staging a 'consumated homosexual affair' (Danson-Brown, 2000, p.206).  However some language between the characters for modern audiences could be viewed as a little over emotive. 'If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant' (2.1.30-1, Norton 2nd edition, p.1806) this statement is not typical of a heteronormative relationship between a Captain and passenger.  This could simply be down to a comedic idea of sexualised banter of sea going men who exchange such words in a tongue-in-cheek manner adding to the comedic value of the play.

Pequigney further develops the idea of Shakespeare's sexual politics by suggesting that the tug of love whereby Orsino eventually avows his affection upon Viola and Olivia avows hers upon Sebastian is one where the actual attractions are inescapable from homoeroticism.  Olivia's attraction to a woman, Orsino's comments on Cesario's appearance and eventual arrangement with Viola all point to same sex attraction.

An undercurrent of sexual aberration runs the length and breadth of the play however there is an emerging idea of equivalent semblance and normalcy that is quite understated.  Ultimately Orsino is betroth to Viola only having been attracted to her feminine allure and this would reinforce his masculinity since he is in love with the idea of love.  This idea is that Orsino is a self-serving bourgeois rather than homoerotic per se.  Something similar can be said of Olivia in the sense that Olivia was attracted to the articulate genteel persona that Viola constructs and thus Sebastian through the physicality of embodiment that she associates with Viola's fictitious self-constructed ideal male persona.  The Sebastian-Antonio relationship is easily explained through a patriarchal lens and thus the emotive language becomes less armed with the ammunition of homoeroticism and instead fatherly love.  The idea that choir boys quite often played the role of Viola/ Cesario and Sebastian then puts homoerotic views quickly on a slippery slope.

Concluding remarks lead me in the direction that Twelfth Night is perhaps intended as a revelling romp marking the close of both a festive season and the theatrical season too.  Saturnalian role reversal was used as an in vogue idea that worked in tandem with the mechanism of the festival principals in a subversive manner.  The theme of the play deals with role reversal as a comedic device that is repeated by Shakespeare though here the femininity represented is especially feminine it would seem.  C.L Barber is right on the money when he argues that such role reversals serve to consolidate social norms.  His statement that when the normal is secure then aberration is playful best exemplifies the both cathartic and constructive purpose of saturnalian role reversal.  Pequigney's idea on a closer reading of an underlying taboo theme is conjectural and perhaps in ignorance of the point that the fun is in role reversal and that the role reversal is not the norm.  Meanwhile Pequigneys's ideas on the Antonio Sebastian relationship perhaps is a case of taking make believe beyond meaning in the context of the play.  The context of the play is a comedy of role reversal of gender and fortune set against the backdrop of festivity of a similar theme.  If Shakespeare had been writing in a manner that was politically persuasive and that foregrounded homoeroticism with impunity then he could not have chosen a better way of doing it.  It appears ostensibly that the play is simply festive fun where the working class is elevated and family reunion is the order of the day.  C.L Barber amply demonstrates how a renewed meaning of the relationship of gender and class is consolidated.  The secure normal appears in the play as the heteronormative pursuit of love and the playful aberration the disguise in protection of a feminine vulnerability.


Brown, R. D. and Johnson, D. (eds) (2000) A Shakespeare Reader: Sources and Criticism, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E. and Maus, K. E. (eds) (2008) The Norton Shakespeare, second edition, New York and London:  W. W. Norton.

Ryan, K. (2000) Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

© Copyright 2015 Mason Gray (shindighero at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/2031890