Genderlect in The Twelfth Night

I knew that I wanted to write something about “genderlect” in The Twelfth Night, but I struggled to piece together a coherent argument about gender from a linguistic perspective. When I first sat down to analyze the text, I wrote a couple paragraphs on the historical association between theater and prostitution in early modern England. After spending a few hours analyzing that standard metaphor, I realized what I had written was irrelevant to the study of language. I found interesting research about the political ramifications of sexuality in late Elizabethan entertainment, but nothing about that information deconstructed the actual language of The Twelfth Night into linguistic nuts and bolts to make a larger point about gender in the play. At that point, I tossed my notes into the trashcan and walked down the street to my friend Garrett’s house to take a break.

When I arrived at Garrett’s house, there was a young couple sitting across from him in his living room. I learned that Garrett knew the male half of the couple from his fraternity at Trinity University, and we collectively reminisced about our college days for the rest of the afternoon. After the couple left, I mentioned to Garrett that I thought his fraternity brother seemed like a nice person. Garrett laughed and said, “It’s because his girlfriend was with him. He’s completely different with guys when she isn’t there.” Curious, I asked Garrett to elaborate, and he explained that his fraternity brother adopts his girlfriend’s mannerisms—namely, the way she engages in polite conversation with other people—when they are together. As Garrett explained, “I honestly only like him when she’s around. He was loud and obnoxious in the frat.”

The next day I revisited what I had written about genderlect in The Twelfth Night, and I had a revelation. The fraternity brother I met was a little like Viola, Orsino, Olivia, and Sebastian in the sense that—whether consciously or unconsciously—they all communicate in ways that reflect and reinforce social ideas about gender; and, moreover, they all adopt differently gendered patterns of speech based on whom they are addressing. Indeed, the concept of genderlect refers to gender-specific dialects, which are performative rather than constative. The performative nature of genderlect actively shapes social realities (Galvin et al. 23), allowing speakers like the fraternity brother to perform toxic masculinity for other men in his girlfriend’s absence. Likewise, in The Twelfth Night, Viola selectively employs different genderlects to perform masculinity and femininity depending on her situation.


For example, Viola disguised as Cesario uses direct and straightforward language that is focused on a specific task when speaking to Orsino about courting Olivia on his behalf: “I’ll do my best / To woo your lady” (1.4.39-40). Here, Viola tries to appear competent and dependable to Orsino, so she projects masculine confidence through the emphatic monosyllables in these lines. However, Viola abandons this plainspoken dialect in the immediate aside: “yet, a barful strife! / Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (1.4.41-42). No longer addressing Orsino, Viola expresses herself with uniquely feminine language. Speaking privately, Viola launches into the emotional aside with an exclamation of unrequited love, thus establishing a sense of poeticism that was lacking in the previously spoken lines. Indeed, the poetic complexity of this aside contrasts the economy of the monosyllables in the preceding dialogue. Now forthcoming about her feelings, Viola employs a greater number of multisyllable words and crafts alliteration into the last sentence to intensify the “W”-sound in “Whoe’er,” “woo,” “would,” and “wife.” Additionally, Viola inverts the structure of the final sentence—that is, swapping the placement of the subject and direct object in the traditional active voice—to emphasize her romantic longing for Orsino before the scene’s conclusion.

Viola’s deft control of both masculine and feminine genderlects in back-to-back cases underscores the androgynous appeal of her character. She is witty and resourceful, but she is also emotive and empathetic; while her stubbornness and pragmatism lean toward the masculine, her poetic understanding of the other characters’ feelings leans toward the feminine. Posing as Cesario in Olivia’s court, Viola demonstrates a hardheaded resolve that could be described as masculine on her mission to deliver Orsino’s suit. When Malvolio turns Viola away, she responds in a way that Malvolio characterizes as “fortified / against any denial” (1.5.119-120). Similarly, Malvolio reports to Olivia that Viola as Cesario “says he’ll stand at your door like / a sheriff’s post, and be the supporter to a bench, but he’ll speak / with you” (1.5.123-124). Certainly, Viola’s metaphor of standing outside Olivia’s door “like a sheriff’s post” indicates the masculine “fortifi[cation]” of her willpower, but the metaphor also places Viola in the public sphere of men, as presumably only men could collect official notices from the town’s sheriff. Indeed, Viola reveals her stalwart commitment to deliver Orsino’s message through her careful imitation of other male suitors: “I would / be loath to cast away my speech: for besides that it is excellently / well penned, I have taken great pains to con it” (1.5.141-144). Viola even assumes a sort of masculine power over Olivia through an imperative statement—“Good madam, let me see your face” (1.5.188)—despite her supplicating role as a visitor to Olivia’s court.

However, after accomplishing her mission to relay Orsino’s declaration of love, Viola reverts to a feminine genderlect in response to Olivia’s dismissal when she obliquely expresses her own affections for Orsino:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me! (1.5.223-231)

As in the emotional aside closing out the previous scene, Viola suddenly speaks in a way that overflows with poeticism. She fashions a number of beautiful images, such as the “willow cabin,” that describe a peaceful intimacy. Importantly, she imagines her “soul within the house,” suggesting that she is able to move between the masculine public sphere and the feminine private sphere. Thus, Viola relates to Olivia’s feminine sensibilities while at once projecting a masculine exterior.

While the concept of genderlect might seem to be loaded with gender essentialism—that is, the reductive idea that all men speak one way and all women speak another way—more fluid characters like Viola command a whole spectrum of genderlects to different effects. Indeed, Viola’s androgyny is something that is attractive to Orsino at the end of the play; even after Viola reveals her identity, Orsino calls her “Boy” (5.1.251) before telling her, “Give me thy hand / And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds” (5.1.257-258). In this vein, I believe everyone fluctuates between the masculine and the feminine in everyday life, which I think is reflected in the way that we speak to each other.

Works Cited

Galvin, Sarah M., et al. “Genderlect and Participation in the College English Classroom.” Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, vol. 79, no. 2, Winter 2012, pp. 22–30. EBSCOhost,

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