Gender Swapping: Swap the Character, Swap the Role

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Most, if not all, schools have experienced a day filled with a politically charged social movement, fighting against the norm and clashing with conformity: Opposite Day. This day seems like a humorous, spirit filled event, yet the overwhelming number of students participating in cross-dressing demonstrates otherwise. Boys and girls (or should I say males and females) perform the opposite of their socially instilled gender. This temporary gender performativity is primarily expressed through clothing, yet gender performance itself is not limited to appearance and can play a deeper emotional role in both real life and literature. The difference between gender performance and gender performativity exists within the Judith Butler’s explanation of the Queer Theory, outlining the superficial aspect of gender performativity while emphasizing the deeper emotional connection to gender performance.

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Judith Butler, the founder of the theory, describes gender performance as a repeated action, ingrained in our gender identity and our roles as people. Butler distinctly claims that gender performativity reflects the idea of leaving an impression on others, more than within ourselves, claiming that “for something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects” (Butler). Temporary clothing changes and behavioral tweaks imply gender performativity, influencing others and reflecting their ideals more than the performer (Butler). However, a grasp on the social implications of gender performativity requires an understanding of the Queer Theory and its analysis of characters’ fixed identities.

Queer Theory

Queer theory essentially introduces the ambiguity of feminine and masculine, implying that they can be one in the same and fuse together. To create this sense of ambiguity and uncertainty of such social constructs, the literary piece must establish “binary oppositions” that are indefinitely intertwined (“Gender Studies”). Identity is performed and created when performance is repeated, allowing for interchanging yet consistent identities within literature (Butler). However, how can someone switch genders and what does this mean for their performance?

Gender swapping, the temporary switch of the way in which characters perform gender, occurs frequently to portray ideas from Queer Theory. A character often gender swaps due to societal pressures, such as financial or criminal struggles, influencing their character personality and effecting the gender performance of other characters (Stigler). The uncomfortability in characters’ repeated gender performances causes their initiative to gender swap. This gender swap often times creates a slight internal change in literary figures, disfiguring their emotions and their adaptation to society. Gender swapping ignites gender performance and confidence in other characters, foiling side characters’ hyperfemininity or hypermasculinity (Stigler). An example of this concept is Queen Elizabeth, who withheld many leadership positions and asserted her ruling almost as powerfully as men during that time. Her performance of the typical masculine, powerful leader emphasized the lack of male presence in her life. The absence of a king, a leading male character, stood out more with Queen Elizabeth’s dominating aura and her duality in gender performance (Mueller). Though Queen Elizabeth does not physically gender swap, her shift is more emotional and social.

History in Context: Gender Swapping in Progress

Interestingly enough, Queen Elizabeth closely connects to Shakespeare’s progressive gender beliefs in history. Her power reigned during Shakespeare’s lifetime and Shakespeare would have recognized her historical significance (Stigler). William Shakespeare was once a young student, studying world history (or our modern day version of Western European history), opening his very own Holinshed Volumes 1 and 2 textbook (“Holinshed Chronicles”). Although Holinshed Volumes 1 and 2 centers around the history of Ireland, Scotland, and England, the book frequently mentions Queen Elizabeth and revolves around her accomplishments. This should signal the level of notability of her influence over Shakespeare, who studied history from the very book that praises her (Stigler).

According to American Shakespeare Center, Shakespeare illustrates traces of influence from Queen Elizabeth’s female leadership. Queen Elizabeth “ruled England for over forty years” yet she “spent much of her life pressured by her councilors to find a man to share her throne” (“Gender and Behavior in TWELFTH NIGHT.”). Despite her ability of fulfilling the throne’s responsibilities, society did not approve of female leadership and did not believe in Queen Elizabeth’s potential to rule. While society placed women in “proper” places, Shakespeare challenged the definition of a woman’s role by utilizing his main female characters in Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It, creating a similar ambiguity that Queen Elizabeth introduced (“Gender and Behavior in TWELFTH NIGHT.”). This could explain Shakespeare’s use of “humorous” gender swapping on female characters in several of his plays.

While Queen Elizabeth is a perfect example for emotional and social gender swapping, Joan of Arc displays a much more physical gender swap. Joan of Arc, a female that started out as an underdog, utilized gender swapping to lead an army and religious claims to “get men to listen to her,” fighting for France during the Hundred Year War (Eschner). Her physical gender swap helped her “traditionally male” leadership flourish, causing her great success in the military. Her external change emphasized her internal personality.

Relative to literature, authors appreciate Joan of Arc as a character, including her in many works during the Elizabethan era. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Ditie de Jehanne D’Arc, poetry by Christine de Pizan, mentions Joan of Arc as the main character, indicating the historical importance of females in literature during the 16th century. Christine de Pizan, known as the “Medieval Defender of Women,” retells Joan of Arc’s story in an emotionally packed and uplifting tale in Ditie de Jehanne D’Arc (“Christine De Pizan”). Joan of Arc’s popularity with other Elizabethan era authors represents her importance in gender bending history.

Shakespeare also jumped on her bandwagon, creating a “Joan of Arc” character in one of his plays, Henry VI Part I. His direct insertion of this historical figure reveals Shakespeare’s knowledge and recognition of Joan of Arc’s accomplishments, praising her in some sense and glorifying her gender swap in one of his plays (Weisl). William Shakespeare recreates historical figures in his plays, one of which represents the “Joan of Arc” archetype, such as the Merchant of Venice, where a woman gender swaps to help another man (Stigler). Similarly, Twelfth Night includes Viola, a female that gender swaps to aid another male in wooing his love, Olivia. William Shakespeare juggles with the idea that gender is fluid, causing gender confusion within his plays and his society.

Social Norm or Societal Storm? Shakespeare’s Clarity and His Gender Confusion

The Elizabethan era consisted of the suppression of women’s voices and the lack of freedom of speech for women. Society specifically targeted women in urban areas and treated them as the lowest class of women. Only men gained jobs with adequate benefits in urban areas and only actors starred in plays, even in Shakespeare’s plays (Wilber). It was very common for women in urban areas to gender swap during the Elizabethan era, allowing them to take jobs that men reaped benefits from.

Society rejected the concept of gender swapping despite its popularity. Playwrights enjoyed testing the limit of gender confusion in their plays, reflecting upon their audience and forcing them to contemplate the duality of gender. William Shakespeare was particularly interested in this concept, hiring male actors to play female roles that gender swap to male characters. English government banned cross-dressing at the time, exempting actors for entertainment purposes (Stigler). In this light, Shakespeare seems progressive and ahead of his time.

However, gender swapping, as previously stated, often occurred due to stressful or more significant causes. Gender swapping provided freedom of speech for women to speak up and encouraged social liberation from the norm. A shift in gender for women meant a social shift in their internal being (Wilber). An external gender swap can enhance internal gender performance. For example, Viola, the main female gender swapping character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, experiences an internal gender swap that evokes a more internal gender performance of “traditionally male” leadership and independence (Wilber). Could Viola be another Joan of Arc archetype or is her change more emotional, like Queen Elizabeth? She is both.

Twelfth Night and Its Significance

Stigler mentions the constant use of gender swapping in Shakespeare’s plays and remarks an interesting pattern of Shakespeare’s use of gender confusion. Many scholars question and theorize about Shakespeare’s intent focus on gender swapping, searching for implied reasons behind his fascination with it. However, Twelfth Night seems to catch the eye of many authors and texts, indicating their interest in Viola’s social rising.

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night details a main protagonist, Viola, who loses both her brothers (or so she thinks) and pretends to be Cesario (her brother), beginning her gender swapping journey. Viola performs Cesario because she must work and lead her own life with no present males, gaining a job as a pager for Duke Orison. Cesario develops a crush on Orison while paging his love notes to Olivia, a wealthy and popular maiden that develops love interest in Cesario. Cesario tries to convince Olivia to pursue Orison while kindly rejecting her, all while maintaining a close friendship with Orison and standing behind him as his pal. The love triangle intensifies the gender performativity and identity of surrounding characters, especially Orison and Olivia, yet in opposing ways.

Particularly in this play, Shakespeare plays with gender confusion in relationships and friendships. Viola expresses the duality of her gender by claiming she is both “all the brothers” and “the sisters” of her household, causing the audience to question which one she identifies with and introducing the idea of gender fluidity. However, Viola attracts Olivia with her duality and her fluid gender. The duality of Viola’s gender performativity “produces a series of side effects” on Olivia, just like Judith Butler’s statement when explaining the Queer Theory.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night includes the importance of gender swapping in various relationships, exploring the idea that a socially rejected relationship might just be the most compatible. Unlike other Shakespeare productions, Twelfth Night plays with the idea of gender compatibility, contributing more to the reflection of gender. This goes back to Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity and its influence on people’s impressions more than the actual performer. Viola’s gender swap influences the surrounding characters, specifically Orison, Olivia, and Sebastian.

Perception of Gender Compatibility

Since gender performativity bases gender off impressions people reflect, gender swapping often requires another character to form a relationship with in order to create such reflection of behavior. The Rose Theatre experiment recreated Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and unlike the original production with all male actors, the theatre experimented with all actresses (Whipday). In the original production (and throughout history), the audience preferred the relationship between Orison and Viola rather than Viola and Olivia. However, in the experiment by the Rose Theatre with all female actresses, the audience favored the relationship between Viola and Olivia (Whipday). The male gender swapping created a sense of importance to the male characters, yet the female gender swapping emphasized the female characters’ significance. Since the sex and implied gender of the actors influenced the compatibility of relationships in Twelfth Night, the gender performance of surrounding characters influences the way in which lead characters detail their lives.

Surrounding Characters and Their Outstanding Implications

If gender performativity from gender swapping leaves an impression on surrounding witness and the gender performance of surrounding characters influences lead characters’ actions, then the gender swapping of lead characters influences the gender performance of side characters. Minor characters in Shakespeare’s works can be just as telling as the main characters in terms of sexual relations and the focus of gender (Schalkwyk).

For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the side character, Mercutio, is very telling for Romeo’s gender performance. Mercutio shields the truth for his love for Romeo by creating a brother-like friendship. Mercutio’s love for Romeo fuels his loyalty to provide happiness for Romeo, yet Mercutio’s love is a source of Romeo’s happiness. The duality of gender-shared love causes Romeo and Juliet to not seem like an outstanding match (Schalkwyk). Romeo, around Mercutio, acts like a damsel in distress, yet around Juliet, acts like a brave protector (Schalkwyk). Mercutio’s masculine gender performativity around Romeo projects into Romeo’s gender performativity, yet Juliet’s hyper-feminine performativity creates a different performance from Romeo. The side characters’ identities in many Shakespearean plays often indicate the reality of the main character’s gender identity.

If the gender performance of surrounding characters influence gender performativity, including swapping, then is the significance of Viola’s gender swapping the result of Olivia’s gender performance?

Despite the historical connections drawn by previous texts and the recognized significance of gender swapping to social status in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the importance of surrounding characters in terms of the main characters’ gender swapping is overlooked. Olivia’s independent and forward personality, her connection to historical female characters, the social implications of her performance, and her significance to relations contributes to the internal effects of Viola’s gender swapping. Olivia, the poor soul that falls for Cesario, gender performs, impacting the significance of Viola’s gender swapping.

Olivia: A Hidden Gem

As a first glance into the plot, the Duke and his surrounding peasants describe Lady Olivia as the most beautiful lady on the earth, full of feminine beauty and delicate energy. However, further into the story, Olivia appears as a very forward and sarcastically stubborn persona. Olivia’s character consists of a defiant personality, protective nature, and strong social grasp on surrounding characters.

From Rice University, Thad Jenkins Logan describes Olivia to reason her actions by “doing precisely what she wants to do” in both “the end of the play, as at the beginning” (Logan). Based on her actions, Logan claims that Olivia’s “headstrong” personality creates a “more active approach” to her life, taking a lead on her life (Logan). This defiant identity reflects a more “masculine” role in the fifteenth century, portraying an underlying gender performance through persona.

With this headstrong characteristic, Olivia demonstrates a forward nature, representing her leadership trait. Throughout most of the play, Olivia continually perseus Cesario (or Viola) and insists on reaching an emotional agreement of their love (even though Viola does not feel the same). Her persistent chasing illustrates her forward and confident being, similar to that of a male at the time. Her internal performance of male gender stereotypes symbolize Viola’s lack of performance and temporary performativity when put in these situations.

A common interpretation of male power during the 15th century was the extent of social control one had on surrounding people. Lady Olivia, a countess, holds a high social status, yet not high enough to reach a duke. At the time, society considered Olivia’s constant rejection of Orison and her blunt refusal to marriage to be rude. However, her social grasp on the surrounding people excuses her actions, maintaining their love and appreciation for her. In more modern terms, Olivia’s aggressive nature masks the way in which she walks all over Orison (a male of higher status).

Aggressive or Graceful? Olivia’s Dynamic Personality

Lady Olivia’s relation to gender performing female characters highlights her own gender performance. Previously, Sloan Pace connected Viola and Joan of Arc in terms of their gender swapping nature. However, Logan mentions how “Olivia and Viola are ultimately as interchangeable as their names suggest” (Logan). Olivia and Viola reflect on one another, representing a similar message with different means. Similar to how Joan of Arc chooses to gender swap to utilize her inner aggressive persona in battle, Olivia gender performs to reveal her aggressive (and stereotypically “masculine” angry) confrontation with Cesario.

However, Olivia does not physically gender swap nor externally gender perform. Her actions represent an inner gender performance, taking a traditionally masculine approach to her life. Lady Olivia utilizes the leadership available with her social standing and takes her life into her own hands. Primarily, the countess refuses to marry without reason or love, similar to Queen Elizabeth’s decision, and leads her life in isolation for seven years. Logan explains Olivia’s initiative to “arrange rendezvous as she chooses” with her “position of power” (Logan). Like Queen Elizabeth, Lady Olivia uses the full capacity of power available to her to lead her own life. Taking advantage of position of power, Olivia independently makes decisions, much like Queen Elizabeth with her royal decisions. In this light, Olivia’s gender swap is more internal than external.

Trouble in Gender Paradise

As previously mentioned, the relationships between various genders provides insight to the identities of the gender performing characters. With the relationships between Orison and Viola, Shakespeare establishes the heightened compatibility between different genders, steering the audience away from basic heterosexual relationships and commonly paired genders. Logan describes how the love “played out in the stage-world” distracts the audience from “conventional modalities of love” (Logan). With the gender performance of the characters, Shakespeare leads us to to contemplate beyond the norm and analyze a deeper relation in the pairings.

On the other end, Viola’s gender swapping could reflect Olivia’s gender performance. Schalkwyk explores how Viola’s lack of masculine defense triggers Olivia’s protective and forward nature. Similar to how Olivia’s rejection to Orison causes his persistent nature, Viola’s soft rejection leads to Olivia’s consistent pursuit (Schalkwyk). If this type of reaction is true, how does Olivia’s gender performance impact Viola’s gender swap and its significance?

Olivia’s Mirror: Viola’s Reflection

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lady Olivia’s gender performance influences the portrayal of Viola’s societal independence, revealing her true “manhood.” Gender performativity is reflective, depending on the reaction of surrounding people. The countess’ gender performance impacts the internal effects of Viola’s gender swap. Logan details how Sebastian’s feminine personality thrives with Antonio’s or Olivia’s hyper masculine identities (Logan). However, since Viola is both all the daughters and all the sons of her household, could her feminine persona react to Olivia’s hypermasculine being?

The answer is yes. Because of the presence of the stereotypical compatibility of women and men and their common pairings, Viola’s gender duality seems compatibility with Olivia’s gender performance, as seen by the study explained by Whipday. For example, after the sword fight between Sir Toby (a side character) and Sebastian (whom Olivia believes is Cesario/Viola), Olivia rushes in and saves Sebastian, protecting “Cesario” from danger and providing emotional support in her home (Shakespeare). Since Olivia gender performs to protect and care for Viola more than Orison does, Viola’s inner femininity peaks out even when gender swapping, depicting gender ambiguity.

Additionally, Viola’s traditionally feminine hesitation leads Olivia to masculinely pursue her as Cesario. Viola’s duality of gender attracts Olivia’s aggressive interest in her. Viola shyly and politely refuses Olivia’s feelings, similar to that of a lady’s stereotypical role during that time. For example, Viola admits her inferiority to Olivia and claims that she “pities” Olivia yet provides her “obedience” (Shakespeare). Olivia interprets Viola’s shyness to be strange for a man, thus believing in their potential love. Viola’s gender confusion leads to Olivia’s further interest in her.

Lastly, Olivia’s play on power inspires Viola’s step back from power, demonstrating her friendly rejections (as previously mentioned above). Olivia’s social grasp on her surrounding characters further develops Viola’s lack of social confidence and hold on others. For example, Viola constantly assures Olivia that it is not her “place” to speak on Olivia’s love for another (Shakespeare). Viola’s mix of both social inferiority (from lack of this control) and superiority (from being a “man”) contributes to Olivia’s heightened interest, adding to her entertainment from social power.

In the wide scheme of opposite day, Olivia does not participate in the exterior swapping of gender-influenced clothing, yet she embraces her inner gender ambiguity. As high school buddies, Olivia would encourage Viola to put on her brother’s suit and tie, urging her to contemplate her own external and internal ambiguity.

Works Cited

  1. Butler, Judith. “Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender.” YouTube, Big Think, 6 June 2011.
  2. “Christine De Pizan – Le Diti© De Jehanne D’Arc.” Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’Arc) 1412 – 1431, Jeanne D’arc History, 29 Oct. 2018.
  3. Eschner, Kat. “Remembering Joan of Arc, The Gender-Bending Woman Warrior Who Changed History.”, Smithsonian Institution, 9 Jan. 2017.
  4. “Gender and Behavior in TWELFTH NIGHT.” American Shakespeare Center, American Shakespeare Center, 30 Sept. 2016.
  5. “Holinshed’s Chronicles, 1577.” The British Library, The British Library, 23 Nov. 2015.
  6. Logan, Thad Jenkins. “”Twelfth Night: The Limits of Festivity.”” Studies in English Literature 22 (1982): 223-238.
  7. Mueller, Janel. “”Virtue and virtuality: gender in the self-representations of Queen Elizabeth I.”” Form and Reform in Renaissance England: Essays in Honor of Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (2001): 220-46.
  8. “Gender Studies and Queer Theory // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab, Owl at Purdue.
  9. Schalkwyk, David. “Love and Service in ‘Twelfth Night’ and the Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 1, 2005, pp. 76–100. JSTOR.
  10. Sloan-Pace, E. (2012). Articulating Agency: Women in Shakespeare’s History Plays. UC Santa Cruz. ProQuest ID: SloanPace_ucsc_0036E_10161. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5nk3hqw.
  11. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Twelfth Night. Boston ; New York :Houghton Mifflin, 1928. Print.
  12. Stigler, Brittany. “Gender Swaps in Shakespeare Plays | THIRTEEN – New York Public Media.” THIRTEEN, PBS.
  13. Thomas, Miranda Fay. “A Queer Reading of Twelfth Night.” The British Library, The British Library, 12 Feb. 2016.
  14. Weisl, Angela Jane. “”How to be a Man, Though Female: Changing Sex in Medieval Romance.”” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality. Vol. 45. No. 2. Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, 2009.
  15. Whipday, Emma. “‘How Much I Lack of a Man’: Twelfth Night: A Gender Experiment at the Rose Theatre, Bankside.” Litro Magazine Stories Transport You, Litro, 8 Oct. 2015.
  16. Wilber, Jennifer. “Gender Roles and Gender Relations in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 9 Feb. 2019.
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Gender Swapping: Swap the Character, Swap the Role. (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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