The complexity of the gender-bending in Twelfth Night is almost as confusing as the movie INCEPTION
But we're about to break it down for you...
A young woman named Viola is washed on the shore of Illyria after a devastating shipwreck. She assumes that her twin brother Sebastian is dead and decides that the only way to find work is to disguise herself as a man named Cesario.
However, in Shakespeare's time, women were not allowed to act. As a result, women's roles were actually played by young men. Many people are confused with Viola's character because it is a boy playing a girl that is disguised as a boy.
I know it's confusing
Disguised as a man
Women during this time period were not allowed to act under the law - it was illegal. Female parts were played by boys because they hadn't hit puberty yet and tended to have a higher voice. Some boys also gargled lemon juice because it was said to make their voices more feminine. Older women roles were played by men, but they had to shave to conceal their real gender.
There are some productions today that actually involve gender-bending such as NBC's Peter Pan where the main character,Peter Pan is played by a woman named Allison Williams.
Now I Know What You're Thinking...
"Why Does It Have To Be This Confusing?"
The play, being written in the 17th century, distorts the ideas around the female gender we may hold today. The entire confusion of the plot is based off of the old belief that women could not hold a job in Duke Orsino's court. Because Viola couldn't have a job there, she had to create "Cesario." This idea seems completely dumb and sexist nowadays, but the 17th century was pretty dumb and sexist in regards to human rights.
Seeing as men dominated the society in which Viola lived in, she had to become a man in order to get what she wanted. Women were treated very differently and had different societal expectations from men, because men were supposedly better than women in the 17th century.
Women would rarely hold important jobs in society because men would not allow it. They believed women were meant to be housewives and mothers. This old gender role helps add to the insanity and humor of the plot because the audience was aware that a woman was steeping outside the norm, making her actions more risky and humorous.
With all of that context in mind, Viola's actions and the gender-bending that took place became necessary. It's really confusing, but it was necessary. And apparently, it made for a great play in the 17th century since it is still around today.