Master-Mistress: Love, gender and disguise in Twelfth Night

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

So begins Twelfth Night…… 

No? Oh, right you are. 

Yep, that’s the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, written by some woman called Jane a couple of centuries later.

Though it might have been said by the Fool or some bystander in Twelfth Night. Here we have an imagined land (Illyria), which in our production resembles the coast of Nova Scotia in the final decade of the 19th century,  with an Elizabethan class system in place – nobility, middle class entrepreneurs or hangers on, and servants; with a dimension that cuts across class in which women are at least on the surface inferior to men – and just two young members of the nobility who are suitable for marriage: Orsino the Duke, and the Countess Olivia. In both Elizabethan Englands a Duke trumps a Count or Countess, so Orsino is in a position to pull rank, and of course he does, or tries to. He is a single man in possession of a good fortune, though we should not disregard the fact that Olivia is counted as having a good fortune too. And Orsino certainly thinks he is in want of a wife. He has set his sights on Olivia and built an impressive arsenal of fantasy, music and love poetry to press his claims. 

But Olivia has said no. She has good reason. It ought to be enough that she simply doesn’t fancy him, but she is also in mourning for her father and her brother and has, both physically and metaphorically, drawn a veil over her face. “I cannot love him,” she tells Viola/Cesario when they first meet (1,v,273), and repeats herself several times, for example when Cesario once again presses Orsino’s case. “And he is yours, and his must needs be yours”, she says, to which Olivia replies: “For him, I think not on him. For his thoughts, / Would they were blanks rather than filled with me.” (3,i,101-2) Olivia also makes the point to Cesario/Viola that she understands that Orsino would be an attractive catch: she supposes him “virtuous, knows him noble …. of fresh and stainless youth”; and most importantly she sees him “in dimension and the shape of nature / A gracious person” (1,v,250-4). Yes, she says again, “I cannot love him.”

But Orsino will not take No for an answer, even when Cesario questions his persistence: “But if she cannot love you, sir?”; to which he answers “”I cannot be so answered.” (2,iv,88). That answer, it seems to me, has less to do with love than it does with entitlement. Orsino, we understand, expects obedience.

Of course, this being Shakespeare, Orsino is a complex and paradoxical character. He shares with other characters in the play a tendency to be proud (Viola says to Olivia: “You are too proud…” (1,v,274), and Maria describes Malvolio’s weakness as pride.) He is also a man, and it is unsurprising that his speech to Olivia reflects an Elizabethan, and indeed a Renaissance, misogyny that is all too present today:

There is no woman’s sides

Can bide the beating of so strong a passion

As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart

So big to hold so much – they lack retention.

Alas, their love may be called appetite,

No motion of the liver but the palate,

That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt.

But mine is all as hungry as the sea,

And can digest as much. Make no compare

Between that love a woman can bear me

And that I owe Olivia. (2,iv,93-102)

(There are several 16th century works that embody this kind of perspective on women. A well-known and much read example is Book of the Courtier, written by the Italian diplomat and writer Baldassare Castiglione, which was published in London in Italian, French and English in 1588, and included the thought that “women are unperfect creatures, and consequently of less worthinesse then [sic] men.” (

In the guise of Cesario, Viola challenges Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love, and does make a comparison which, she says, shows that women “are as true of heart” as men. Talking about herself (though she might also be talking about Olivia) she says:

She never told her love,

But let concealment like a worm i’th’ bud

Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?

We men may say more, swear more, but indeed

Our shows are more than will, for still we prove

Much in our vows, but little in our love. (2,iv,110-118)

It is interesting in many ways that a woman, albeit disguised as a young man, should call out the gap between what men say and what they do. Orsino doesn’t get it; or if he does he doesn’t let on, preferring instead to demand even louder that Cesario tell Olivia “My love can give no place, bide no denay.” (denial, that is. 2,iv,124)

It is perhaps a little unbalanced to talk so much about Orsino, since the real electricity of love and desire occurs between Olivia and Viola, the latter as both woman and man. But Orsino opens the play, and one of the main engines of action throughout is his obsession with the tropes and memes of courtly love, his fascination more with the mechanisms of his own feelings than with the woman herself. The story of Twelfth Night would not have been unfamiliar to the troubadours of Medieval France, or the great inventor of the love sonnet, the Italian poet Petrarch, who wrote to his distant beloved Laura. In the courtly love tradition the male lover is as excited as much by the frisson of unrequited love (which appears in Twelfth Night quite beautifully as Viola’s “a willow cabin at your gate” (1,v,260) as he is by the sensual presence of the lady, and he gets off on her denial, tossed between the neurological extremes of ice and fire. Many of Orsino’s hyperbolic flights of poetic fancy point to the kind of overblown English sonnet written by contemporaries of Shakespeare, that he parodies in his own sonnet 129:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red, than her lips red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound:

I grant I never saw a goddess go,

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,

As any she belied with false compare. (Sonnet 129)

It is possible to say that Orsino holds Olivia in his mind as an abstract image of the woman he is supposed to love, and that his real love is for Cesario, not so much the woman who breathes beneath the boy’s clothing, but the boy himself. Perhaps, after all, that is why at the end of the play, when the loose ends have been tied and the lovers have met and accepted the mates that Elizabehan convention (and Castiglione) requires, Orsino, who is now aware that Cesario is Viola,  continues to purr to her as the boy: “Cesario, come – / For so you shall be while you are a man” (5,i,378-9). Orsino, it seems, wants a frat boy buddy after all?

But the most telling thing that Orsino says to Cesario/Viola after she has been exposed as a woman is that he wants her to be both man and woman to him. He says to her:

Your master quits you, and for your service done him – 

So much against the mettle of your sex,

So far beneath your soft and tender breeding –

And, since you called me master for so long,

Here is my hand; you shall from this time be

Your master’s mistress. (5,i,314-319)

This reminds us of one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing sonnets, not only in its teasing of the master-mistress conceit, but in the syntax:

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created;

Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (Sonnet 20)

Which brings us to the central trajectory of this play, that has been the subject of so many articles, books, theses and essays, the relationship between Viola and Olivia. I don’t intend to write about it at length here because every edition of the play, every book of critical discussion, deals with the subject extensively. But there are some things I would like to say.

Firstly, it is often said that Viola’s willingness to act as the vehicle of Orsino’s textual love for Olivia comes from her desire to be with him. However, when Viola first comes ashore, saved by the wrecked ship’s captain, he describes both Orsino and Olivia to her, dwelling for a moment on Olivia’s grief having lost a father and brother. Viola is very clear when she says “O that I served that lady” (1,ii,38), thinking it would give her the opportunity to grieve before people became aware of her status. She comes up with the plan to present herself first to the Duke when she hears that he has been making fruitless overtures to Olivia and needs some help.

So Viola dresses as Cesario and presents herself to Orsino as an eunuch, a kind of servant that Shakespeare also used in Antony and Cleopatra. And so she turns up at Olivia’s carrying in her head or in her hand a text of Orsino’s, apparently desexualized by her status as a eunuch. Olivia is also, at least in the beginning and by her own actions, desexualized. She has vowed to abjure “the company and sight of men” (1,ii,37).

Despite all the obstacles – the desexualization, Viola’s pretended masculinity, her role as the unwelcome Orsino’s amanuensis – there is an erotic charge between the two women that cuts across gender and status – though Shakespeare is quick to reveal that Viola/Cesario is high enough in status to justify a liaison between the two of them.

At first the charge is verbal. Olivia and Viola are both intelligent and educated women and both are handy with the language. They speak with a delicate and filigree irony that shows they are aware of every layer of pretence and meaning there is. In the first few minutes of their meeting Viola sticks humorously to the text she has brought with her: Orsino’s hyperbolic and romantic bad-sonnet-like overtures. When Viola asks Olivia if she can see her hitherto veiled face, Olivia accedes, but not before she has wryly commented “You are now out of your text” (1,v,225). And so the two women step aside from their roles, Viola by speaking out of her text, and Olivia by drawing back her veil, and while they continue to play those artificial parts they become more and more intimately real with each other.

This reality is itself very interesting. Having removed the veil, Olivia in her coquettish mode (she slips continually between modes) asks, ”Is’t not well done?” to which Viola replies, aware that she herself has been made over to look like a man: “Excellently done, if God did all.” (1,v,229). Of course she is asking wryly if this is who Olivia really is, and when Olivia reassures her that it is “in grain”, she continues:

’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white

Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.

Lady you are the cruell’st she alive

If you will lead these graces to the grave

And leave the world no copy. (1,v,231-235)

This takes us to two different strands of the Sonnets. To start with, Shakespeare’s first 17 sonnets are a formal entreaty to the Earl of Southampton – we suppose that is who it is – to marry and have a child:

Look whom she best endowed, she gave thee more,

Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:

She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby

Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die. (Sonnet 11)

In the second strand, Shakespeare plays with the complex layers of truth and beauty in the master-mistress conceit played out in Sonnet 20, quoted above. Viola and Olivia both seem aware that they are women and that the charge between them, at first verbal, has become erotic (a charge echoed in the relationship between Viola’s brother Sebastian and the sailor Antonio). 

Once she has moved outside her text and both women have acknowledged the fact, Olivia gets down to the emotional nitty gritty: “What are you? What would you?” she asks. 

And Viola responds by putting down her text and treating Olivia to some telling intimacy:  “What I am and what I would be are as secret as maidenhead: to your ears, divinity; to any other’s profanation.” 1,v,209-211)

This curious questioning of who they are – who am I? Who are you? Who are we? What is what? – carries on through the rest of the play. When Viola/Cesario returns for her second visit Feste meets her at the gate and chips in with some wordy banter of his own, finally making the comment that his role with Olivia is not as it appears, as her role as Cesario is not as it appears: “I am indeed not her fool but her corrupter of words.” (3,i,34-5)

Having found her way through the spider’s web of Feste’s words Viola begins again the joust between her Orsino text and Olivia’s responses, until Olivia intervenes with a confession about the ring she falsely claimed Viola had left. “So did I abuse / Myself, my servant and, I fear me, you” (3,i,111-2). This allows her to cut through the layers of pretence to the thing she really wants to know because she has fallen in love with Cesario and wants to know the truth: who is he/she. And she presses her curiosity by saying: “I prithee tell me what thou thinkst of me.” The conversation that follows takes us to the heart of what this play is about (at least for those of us who like to slip into the intellectual quicksand of theatre and text):



I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.


That you do think you are not what you are.


If I think so, I think the same of you.


Then think you right: I am not what I am.


I would you were as I would have you be!


Would it be better, madam, than I am?

I wish it might, for now I am your fool. (3,i,135-142)

It is the subject of another blog, but those last words are not random. The Fool, Feste, is a brooding presence in this play. He holds a mirror up to the characters and echoes their thoughts and words and the desires that we, as an audience, know  are hiding or emerging underneath. It is one of the great qualities of Shakespeare that he makes the audience detached observers of the action and dynamics of the play while allowing us to be moved by the words, naive witnesses caught up in the flow of passion.

Now, Twelfth Night is a comedy, like all of Shakespeare’s best comedies tpervaded everywhere by darkness, and the many loose threads at the beginning must be tied together. In particular, all the wandering lovers must be united with their other selves, and it is the action of the play that brings them together and provides the opportunity.  Thus, Maria gets together with Sir Toby. Viola makes her love known to Orsino who is quick to give up his interest in Olivia. 

And Olivia herself, who has been in love with Cesario and Viola at the same time, indeed from the very beginning, runs into Viola’s twin Sebastian thinking he’s Cesario and persuades him very quickly to get married. Sebastian must really find Olivia hot, because he doesn’t hesitate. When Olivia says to him, “Would’st thou be ruled by me?” (4,i,66) he replies immediately, “Madam, I will.” It seems entirely due to the chemistry between them, or some emotional dimension shared by twins. “Oh say so, and so be,” says Olivia, by which she means that he should state his conviction then prove it with behavior, something she and Viola have identified as a regular failing in men. In the Trevor Nunn film (1996), with Helena Bonham Carter as a beguiling and saucy Olivia, this scene concludes with Feste looking on with an impartial but interested face.

Of course, Olivia is the object of desire not only for Orsino, Viola and Sebastian but for two other characters as well. Sir Andrew doesn’t really seem capable of sexual desire, nor of love, nor jealousy, but his lack of money makes Olivia a fruity catch. When he sees the relationship between Olivia and Cesario grow he challenges the latter to a duel, which sets in motion the action that leads to the reconciliation of Viola and Sebastian. It is deliciously Shakespearean that when poor Andrew rehearses his ‘love’ for Olivia he borrows Cesario’s words. Alas, poor Andrew is left with neither money nor love. 

The other character who claims to be in love with Olivia is Malvolio. His role in the household is Steward, a kind of butler whose responsibility embraces financial and personnel management, rather like a combination of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey). But the death of Olivia’s father and brother has left the household with a female head, and Malvolio cannot accept that. So he covets the position of Head of the House, with the property, money and privilege that would bring; and he appears also to be moved by lust for Olivia and imagines himself – despite the age difference – to be attractive to her. Sir Toby calls him “overweening”. He exults in the possibility of ruling over the whole group of Olivia’s hangers on. He angers Sir Toby and Feste. Sir Toby indeed is angered so much that he puts Malvolio in his place:

Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale? (2,iii,111-2)

And finally, he is hoist by his own pétard when the group, led by Maria, conceives a device by which the gullible, self-loving “Puritan” is tricked into presenting himself as a would-be lover to Olivia, dressed in a way that she abhors and eliciting a shudder of horror from her when she realizes that he wants to take her to bed.

The downfall of Malvolio brings both laughter and terror. He brings it upon himself, but the fury with which Maria and Feste subject him to a kind of torture, treating him as though he is mad, placing him in a darkened room, is very sobering. His cry that he will be revenged on everyone concludes the dramatic action of the play and leaves the stage to Feste, who, like Jacques in As You Like It, tells a brief tale of the passage of a man from boyhood to old age.

There is much more that I could say about gender and love in this play, and in Shakespeare in general. His treatment of these subjects, which are as lively today as they were then, is one of the main reasons he is so globally popular and seems so acutely relevant today.

It is inevitable, then, that one wonders about how Shakespeare, apparently a rarity among male writers, has come to understand women so well. Furthermore, some have questioned how he managed to develop such an intricate understanding not just of women but of the court, politics and class, which seem so familiar to him.

Many people over the years, when they’ve heard of my intense interest in Shakespeare, have asked me whether I subscribe to any of the theories that he was someone else – the three main candidates are Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlow. My usual response has been that I have no interest in such speculation, that my only working thought is that the language and themes of the plays and poetry are so consistent that they must on the whole be written by the same person.

That question, though, has teased me since I first read Shakespeare as a boy. How did he know women so well? An obvious answer, and one which seems useful and righteous to address and explore these days, when the position of women is getting renewed and vigorous attention, is that Shakespeare was a woman.

When I was writing my thesis on Shakespeare’s Sonnets I included chapters on two 16th Century sonneteers, Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sidney. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella is one of the most accomplished sonnet sequences we have, and I became interested in his sister Mary, who was first and foremost a writer of immense talent (read her translations of the Psalms of David), and who married Henry Herbert in 1577 and became the Countess of Pembroke.

I remain scarcely moved by speculation that has no hope of proof, but I find that imagining that Shakespeare was a woman gives me a very challenging yet immensely satisfying perspective on this extraordinary body of work. And it keeps me vigilant in thinking about the way centuries, millenia, of patriarchy have drawn an obfuscating veil over the role of women in history.

For anyone who is tempted to explore the possibilities further, there is a website, with a link below. Or you could ask Maria, who calls herself Mary, who also goes by the name of Kim Bromley and who has read far more than I about it:

And here’ a stanza from one of her poems, “Even now that care”:

Yet dare I so as humbleness may dare

cherishing some hope that shall acceptance find;

not weighing less thy state, lighter thy care, 

but knowing more thy grace, abler thy mind.

What heavenly Powers thee highest throne assigned, 

assigned thee goodness suiting that degree:

and by thy strength thy burden so defined, 

to others toil is exercise to thee.

Peter Bradbury

July 2021