The idea of critical lenses in literary perspective essays can often be tough to fully grasp. Is sticking to just one ok? Are there enough examples in the text to support a purely feminist viewpoint? Or a Marxist one? What about post-colonialism? Sometimes it’s difficult to find a clear through line, especially when the concepts you’re attempting to discuss are so complex.
Luckily when it comes to Shakespearean texts, Twelfth Night in particular, a lot of people throughout history have already studied these ideas and critical lenses, and there are many more resources out there for you to utilize than you might think.
Thus, we are faced with the extremely helpful nature of published critical readings. These critical essays are pieces often published by university professors or scholars which offer an in-depth analysis and examination of a given text. While much of the language is complicated and a bit overwrought at times, the content within the essays can give you helpful ideas and can help you gather a repertoire of vocabulary and evidence for your own literary perspectives essay. In fact, if you type in “Twelfth Night critical readings” into your google search tab, there will be pages of valuable content at your disposal.
For instance, the critical essay Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night by Nancy Lindhiem, gives insight into both the Marxist and the queer lens.
Here is an extract from Lindhiem’s reading in which she discusses the idea of “androgyny” and sexuality (noted specifically in the bolded words):
“While Viola is barely male except in attire, the dual aspect of Sebastian’s androgyny is carefully explored. The Elizabethan audience’s first, external, impression – he looks like his sister! – is reinforced ‘internally’ in his conversation with Antonio. His exquisite sensitivity to the quality of his friend’s feelings and the obligation it lays upon him might well be seen as a woman’s trait.”
After reading Lindhiem’s discussion of the “androgynous” twins within the play and how this displays a disparity between gender identity, this student then decided to expand on in a similar idea in a part of their paragraph below (queer lens). In the first part of the sentence, the student outlines the idea of androgyny (shown in bold) specific to the character of Viola. Later on, the student also explores the idea of different behaviours contributing to certain gender traits much like Lindhiem’s notation of it in the above paragraph (shown in bold in the last sentence), however concludes on a broader outline of sexuality as a whole, rather than focussing on just female traits.
Viola’s mediatory role between Olivia and Orsino’s households, coupled with her androgynous performance as a woman playing a man (adding further confusion to the Elizabethan stage convention of a male actors playing women on stage) evokes a form of genderbending and identity perplexity that pervades the play’s dramatic trajectory and opens up what is possible, if not overtly permissible, on a spectrum of sexuality.
Another way of making use of these critical readings is to draw from some of their sophisticated vocabulary. The following is an example of how a student was able to adjust and expand her vocabulary specific to their chosen lens by reading critical essays.
After studying a couple of feminist and queer critical essays to Twelfth Night, the student highlighted some repetitive language and terms used within the essays, and was able to use them within their own essay.
Casey Charles’ Theatre Journal exert Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night uses the phrasing
“the phenomenon of love itself operates as a mechanism that destabilizes gender binarism and its concomitant hierarchies”.
The student went on to use the term gender binarism in one of her essay’s sentences:
In all, Twelfth Night delineates the true fluidity within gender binarisms as well as the way in which societal structures are enforced and reiterated…
Alternatively, the critical essay Gender Ambiguity and Desire in Twelfth Night by Maria Del Rosario Arias Doblas makes use of the terms “homoerotic” and “heterosexual” throughout its text - “homoeroticism residing in theatrical transvestitism… and homosexual allusions and so on pervade the play to create the “most highly intricate misunderstandings”’ - thus outlining the type of high-level language specific to a queer reading of the play that the student was able to implement in their own work:
In fact, Shakespeare oscillates between reinforcing patriarchal ideology and heterosexual language, and the deconstruction of such romantic ideals, simultaneously closeting and disclosing the queer possibilities typical to conservative societies that use violence to repress homosociality and police the safe expression of homosexual exploration within heterosexual norms.
As you can see, the student’s language is now specified to the type of lens they are using in their literary perspectives essay, and is also of a high register.
External or Contextual references
Another benefit of going through critical readings is the external or contextual references they make. An example of this is in Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night by Nancy Lindhiem, where the author makes reference to Narcissus, a character from Metamorphoses – a Latin narrative poem from 8 AD:
“For all the likelihood that both Olivia and Sebastian are seduced by a visual perception, we probably feel that Olivia succumbs mainly to Cesario’s way with words.9 Several critics have commented on the allusion to Ovid’s Echo in Cesario’s ‘babbling gossip of the air’ (1.5.277)”
Noticing this reference as a motif in many other critical readings too, this student decided to insert it into their own essay here:
These central relationships therefore reapply the idea of self-reflexivity while blurring the structured boundaries of identity stability, central to the Narcissus myth of which Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphosis forms a part; “a very echo to the seat/ where love is throned” invokes a doubling motif, as well as the troubling foundation of representation over reality.
See how the student was able to discuss it in their own way? Referencing external texts in your literary perspectives essay can prove very useful if done once or twice, as it demonstrates that you are able to apply the values within the chosen text to wider elements of society and culture.
One of the most efficient ways of going through these sorts of essays (which are often quite elaborate and at times difficult to understand fully) is to print them out, grab a highlighter and pen and skim through as much as possible. Highlight words, terms or phrases which spark your intrigue, or ones you feel you may be able to manipulate as evidence to support your own essay.
Overall, reading as many of these expert-written critical essays as possible can be extremely beneficial in developing a greater understanding of the critical lenses, the ideals and context of the Elizabethan theatre, and the way both dialogue and staging can be used as evidence in your own essays.
The more you know about the play, the more you’ll be able to write about it. So, get reading!
Links to the readings: