This critic argues that plays such as Twelfth Night, Midsummer Nights Dream, and as You Like it merely serve to assert masculine authority and to rebuff practices like cross-dressing. Besides, cross-dressing threatened the social order and the gendered hierarchies of power. The principles of subordination were challenged by the subversive potential of such practices which transgressed norms (Howard, 1988:418).
Regarding the motivation of disguise in Shakespearean plays, it assumes a wide variety of functions. In Viola's case, the circumstances are that she is shipwrecked in an unknown land, where she must protect herself. Viola must cross-dress in order to serve the duke. Such situational disguise exposes the constrictiveness of social gender roles by implying the danger and weakness a woman is subdued by (Windholz, 2004).
Consequently, Windholz asserts that Shakespeare's intend is to represent women's use of cross-dressing in response to the patriarchal constraints of Elizabethan society. Disguise may be interpreted as the only means for women to attain empowerment.
However, disguise deforms identities, as characters perceive it as a constraint, a burden or a 'knot': 'Time, thou must untangle this, not I; / it is too hard a knot for me t' untie' (II.2; I-III). Up to the closing scene, Viola remains a man, as her garments are not in her possession. This fact only further emphasizes our dependence upon clothing and their prearranged significance. Orsino addresses her as 'Cesario... / for so you shall be while you are a man' (V.I.348-377). The play's ending casts some light over the whole conundrum, but Viola still confusingly remains dressed as a male. To go back to the question which started the present essay, one may speculate whether it was Shakespeare's intention precisely to leave such an open ending that suggests androgyny.
Latter-day feminists like Susan Bordo have claimed that gender lines are too short-cut for human identity. Bordo urges us to move 'beyond the number two', as she deconstructs dual grids of reading gender identity (in Nicholson, 1990: 134-135). The possible solution - the notion of androgyny - is inspired by many of Shakespeare's characters, in this case by Viola. She is identical to Sebastian and she easily transforms into a man. Clear distinctions are often subverted in Shakespearean characters, reminding us of postmodern androgyny rather than Platonic myths.
According to the definition that Robert Kimbrough proposes in his essay, 'Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise' (1982), 'androgyny is the capacity of a single person of either sex to embody the full range of human character traits, despite cultural attempts to render some exclusively feminine and some exclusively masculine'. We may definitely conclude that William Shakespeare was well ahead of his time. He possibly used 'feminine men' and especially 'masculine women' to illustrate the fact that characteristics assigned to men were also (de)formed by society, which finally deforms human identity. Through the strong will, virtues, and intelligence of his female characters, Shakespeare proposes androgyny rather than biased gender roles.
The reader may wonder what Shakespeare's purpose may have been to use such ideas. From the perspective of this analysis, an explanation might be that the playwright intended to assert the parity of men and women, which he could best expose through characters in his plays. This may have been a tactful line of attack to approach the risky taboos of gender crossing within the society of the time.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990
Howard, Jean. 'Cross-dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England', Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Winter, 1988), pp. 418-440
Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Brighton: Sussex University Press, 1983. 9-36
Kimbrough, Robert. 'Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise', Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 17-33
Nicholson, Linda (ed.). Feminism/Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge, 1990
Rackin, Phyllis. "Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage." PMLA, Vol. 102, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 29-41
Windholz, Jordan, 'What Manner of Man Is She?: Patriarchal Usurpation Through Cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, as You Like it, and the Merchant of Venice', Illuminations, isuue I (Spring, 2004) Retrieved…