Twelfth Night has only three female roles. We all know that in Shakespeare’s day the women’s roles were played by boy actors (often apprentices), so of course there would be fewer female roles–and in most plays, particularly the histories and tragedies, less prominent ones.
In the comedies (especially the later ones, of which Twelfth Night is the last, the valedictory), the females take greater importance. While As You Like It has Rosalind as its central character with the most lines, its remaining female characters drop precipitously in both speeches and lines. Twelfth Night, on the other hand, has an interesting breakdown of parts. While Viola has the second most number of speeches (just over 30 speeches fewer than the number one character–more on him tomorrow), she has only 8 fewer lines, at 335. Olivia is a close third with about 20 fewer lines than Viola in just 3 fewer speeches. Maria’s in the top 8 characters in both speeches and lines, with nearly 150 lines.
From the weight of the text Shakespeare puts on these characters, we know they’re important. But he puts them in a world where they are at an obvious disadvantage. They are in need of “protection” (I.ii.38), to be “preserved” (V.i.251). If their “parentage (is above their) fortunes” (I.v.266-7) but not currently part of a household, they feel the need to “conceal (them) what (they are)” (I.ii.53). Even if they are part of a household, they are prone to be addressed in casually insulting ways–”fair shrew” (I.iii.44), “swabber” (I.v.196), “giant” (I.v.197). And even if they are the head of the household, the epithets continue: “fair cruelty” (I.v.277).
It’s no wonder that both Olivia and Viola both play roles:
I prithee, tell me what thou think’st 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?
They maintain their play because it works to keep them from taking on more subservient female roles. At play’s end, Viola is not nearly as desirous to get her “maid’s garments” (V.i.270) from the sea captain as Orsino is. And Olivia? Her “abjure(ment of) the sight // And company of men” (I.ii.40-1) may have less to do with mourning and more to do about maintaining power (remember how Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew that Olivia will “not match above her degree” [I.iii.102-3]… and she doesn’t). Sound like any female monarch reigning at the time?
The women get (the men) they want (or think they want). Olivia gets the male version of the Viola she believes is Cesario; Sebastian is merely the interchangeable part, to whom Olivia proposes marriage and brings the priest. Viola gets Orsino, who accepts her as a woman, even though he “tender(s) dearly” (V.i.123) and “love(s)” (V.i.127) her even when he believes she’s a he. Maria even gets married (though we have to wonder if Sir Toby is really any kind of “catch”), and it allows her to leave servitude behind (of course, she may not have had a job to go back to after the Malvolio incident).
So, despite a world of disadvantage, the women of Twelfth Night win.
Keep that in mind.