In part two of the Book Princess’s series on Shakespeare, she talks about how Portia and Viola, two of Shakespeare’s women disguised as men, react to the mask of maleness:
In my last guest post, I used both Portia and Viola as examples of women who, dressed as men, are freed from convention to be themselves, more powerfully than when they are dressed in women’s garb. But the truth is a bit more complex than that – they feel differently about their disguises, and thus, are freed in different ways.
The quote that I began the last post with, “Conceal me what I am,” (Twelfth Night, 1.2.50), makes clear what Viola feels about her disguise – it hides an essential part of her. Even in disguise, Viola acts fully as herself in the play: she confesses her love for Orsino more or less openly (so that when she is revealed as a woman at the end, he has no doubt about her acceptance of his proposal), and she refuses to pretend she is unafraid of a fight, telling Olivia, in a line that echoes Iago, “I am not what I am” (Twelfth Night, 3.1.141). Still, she feels that her disguise negates her in some way. Iago is the mask – he is an anti-person, a “not what I am,” and Viola feels that her disguise makes her not herself as well, a lie personified. Even when the truth comes out and she is revealed to be a woman, she cannot see herself as such while she wears men’s clothing – and neither can the others, as is clear when Orsino says, “Cesario, come — /For so you shall be while you are a man” (5.1.385-386). Freed by her disguise to be herself, she has created another identity, as a charismatic and powerful young man whom she cannot see in herself as a woman. Societal rules and norms of passive womanhood told Viola that women cannot be powerful, so when she is powerful, she believes there is something wrong, that she is not herself.
In contrast, Portia has no problem with her own power. Living in Belmont, with no living parents and no men to tell her she is inferior – for the only men she knows are wooing her – she is only constrained by her father’s written will. Though she formally grants Bassiano rule over her when they marry, she never really is subject to it. Almost immediately, she dresses as a male lawyer to help him and his friend, Antonio, and is herself again – unfettered, brilliant and eloquent, used to command. While in her disguise, she has Bassanio return the ring with which she granted him power over herself and her house, and thus becomes her own mistress again even when she resumes her women’s clothing.
While both Viola and Portia are more powerful, more free, and more themselves when dressed as men, Viola, who believes in women’s frailty and her own impotence even as that belief clashes with reality, and who wants only to return to women’s garb and marry Orsino, does not threaten the social order. By contrast, Portia, who is happy and at home with her power and her public role, who feels no need to be subject to male rule, very much does.