Explore the functions of role-play and/or metatheatre in A Doll’s House and Twelfth Night

Both Ibsen’s A Doll’s House[1] and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night[2] forces audiences to reflect on the role of performance in their daily lives. The expectations forced on Nora as a wife and Viola’s cross-dressing show how these roles are something to be performed, rather than being intrinsic parts of the self. Characters thus forget that they conforming to the roles expected of them, and fail to make the distinction between what are true desires of the self and what is performance. While Nora and Helmer ‘don’t understand’ each other as they have never ‘exchanged one serious word about serious things’ (p. 79), Orsino’s love for Olivia is shown to be superficial due to her refusal to see him. In both cases, partners remain ‘strangers’ (p. 81) to each other, merely falling in love with the idea of love, rather than with the people themselves. Ibsen and Shakespeare therefore show how the role and significance of marriage in the 16th and 19th century corrupted the authenticity of love as, behind their courtly expressions of love, lay social motivations. Marriage thus reinforced roles of gender and both plays encourage audiences to reflect on their own daily performances. Therefore, Ibsen and Shakespeare raise the idea that we are all wearing such invisible ‘masks’ that mean we become blind to what it is that is performance and what is the self.

Both Ibsen and Shakespeare present gender as a ‘performative act’, rather than an intrinsic part of the self.[3] Judith Butler points to the limitations of theatre in representing the ‘real’, as ‘in the theatre, one can say, “this is just an act”, and de-realise the act, make acting into something quite distinct from what is real’ with this idea supporting Toril Moi’s argument that ‘by propagating the idea that A Doll’s House was to be understood “as a slice of life”, Ibsen’s first admirers entirely missed his pro-theatricalism, his metatheatrical insistence that what we are seeing is theatre’.[4] Indeed, the theatricality of Nora’s performance of the tarantella becomes symbolic of the entrapment of women under patriarchy. In stating ‘see what fun we’re having, Kristine’ (p. 59), Ibsen is ordering us to not only ‘see’ the reality of her situation, but to ‘see’ that she is being held prisoner by the male gaze. The physical stage presence of Helmer and Rank symbolise various ways in which women were objectified by men. Helmer, who ‘gives her repeated directions’ (p. 59), symbolises the physical limitations of women by men as a result of patriarchy, while Rank symbolises the sexualisation of women from the male eye; there is something sexual in the way that Rank silently watches the women he loves dance. Nora is thus reduced to a surface symbol, utterly dehumanised. Hence, it is the unbearable pressure of the male gaze to physically ‘perform’ her femininity that forces her dancing to become ‘wild’ (p. 32).

A sense of metatheatricality is thus created, as audiences are forced to consider Nora as a performer. However, it is not Nora the character that they are being made to watch perform, but Nora the symbol. Nora is ‘de-souled’ and thus comes to represent the soulless and homogenised group that is ‘women’.[5] This metatheatrical sense to Nora’s performances creates an alienation affect (in the Bretchian sense of the word), and this alienation shows how gender is reliant on performance in order to exist, distancing audiences not only from the play, but forces them to take a step away from their society and consider the ways in which they fulfil the roles society expects of them. Indeed, Butler states that ‘gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is only real to the extent that it is performed’.[6] The Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night featured an all-male cast and, while this convention may have been the norm in the 16th century, to a modern audience, the use of an all-male cast draws modern audiences to the role of the actor. The dramatic irony of the fact that audiences know that ‘Cesario’ is ‘a maid and a man’ (5.1.267) creates a distorted identity, and the binary opposition that separates men and women is broken down. Thus while Butler may argue that ‘the use of theatre as metaphor’ is limited as the awareness that ‘this is just an act’ makes theatre less threatening, whether or not theatre acts as a perfect metaphor is irrelevant. The alienation created by Nora’s tarantella and Viola’s role as both a man and a woman means that the plays become self-reflective. The fact that one knows that a play is ‘not real’ does not simply mean that ‘one can maintain one’s sense of reality in the face of this temporary challenge tour existing ontological assumptions’ but, instead, we are forced to consider the ways in which we conform to these ‘ontological assumptions’ and to what extent we ‘are not what [we] are’ (3.1.145).[7] The audience becomes almost an ungenered entity, ‘seeing’ gender roles from a position outside of the performance. They undertake the role of Mrs Linde, who can ‘see’ the pain that this performance causes Nora, while the two men are blind to this. They are symbolic of the unwitting conformity we continue and perpetuate as a result of this unquestioned, gendered gaze.

Ibsen and Shakespeare present how gender is a social ‘performance’, with these ‘performances’ having specific arbitrary roles. The two genders are shown to be reliant and defined by their relationship with each other. Mrs Linde says how ‘I am like a broken woman clinging to the wreck of her life. Nobody to care about, and nobody to care for’ (p. 64), and this idea that she is ‘broken’ without a man ‘to care for’ highlights the underlying tension in the play that, historically, to be a woman is to be defined by their role to men. The word ‘woman’, after all, derives from the old English word ‘wifman’ – a combination of ‘wife’ and ‘man’.[8] The fact that she feels less of a person as she is unable to fulfil her role in serving men shows how to be a ‘woman’ is to be a ‘wife’. Her statement to Krogstad ‘I need someone to mother […] we two need each other’ (p. 65) and her suggestion of marriage to him highlights how marriage was an institution of benefit, rather than that of love. While this statement of ‘mothering’ is a reference to his children, it can be seen that, if men need ‘caring for’, then they, also, need ‘mothering’ – something that is a responsibility rather than a romantic notion. Ibsen thus gives us a presentation of marriage from the female view point, showing that, for women, their role in marriage was ‘work’ (p.64). It is an unfiltered presentation that avoids romanticising from the male and societal gaze that told women it was a thing that should be aspired to.

However, while A Doll’s House gives audiences a realistic representation of the dehumanising effects of marriage on women, Twelfth Night presents an idealised version of love and its relation to gender. Characters constantly fall in love with and want to marry characters who are mere ‘strangers’ (p. 85): Orsino is in love with Olivia (who refuses to see him); Viola falls in love with Orsino after only three days and then finally Sebastian and Olivia happily maintain their marriage even after discovering the mistaken identity that lead to it. Orsino’s bold opening statement of ‘if music be the food of love, play on, / give me excess of it’ (1.1.1-2) becomes a hyperbolic and disingenuous statement. Or rather, he projects this desire to have an ‘excess’ of love onto Olivia. It is not love that they display, but merely the rhetoric of love, which by repeating over and over they convince themselves of their own role-playing. Slavoj Zizek argues in ‘Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing’, that ‘the Lady in courtly love loses concrete features and is addressed as an abstract ideal’ and, indeed, Olivia is transformed by Orsino from a human being into an ‘ideal’ onto which he projects his own image of what the model woman ought to be.[9] In stating ‘no woman’s side / can bide the beating of so strong a passion / as love doth give my heart’ (2.4.93-95) Orsino’s statement combines the patriarchal and two-dimensional view of women and ideals of courtly love. The play thus shows how such relationships based on false perception and inequality will always remain limited, as the lovers remain ‘strangers’ and do not fully ‘understand’ each other. The idea that no woman could physically withstand such a ‘strong passion’ shows the ingrained beliefs that women were physically less capable than men, and Olivia thus loses such ‘concrete features’ and becomes Orsino’s generalised view of women.

Nora’s statement in A Doll’s House that ‘you never loved me. You only thought how nice it was to be in love with me’ thus embodies how characters fall in love with the idea of their ‘beloveds’, rather than characters actually loving them. In the same way that Olivia remains a ‘stranger’ to Orsino, Nora and Helmer haven’t had a ‘serious conversation’ together in ‘eight years’ (p. 79). Characters blindly pursue an illusion and, as a result, ‘Nora and Helmer spend most of the play theatricalising themselves by acting out their own clichéd idealistic scripts’.[10] The clichéd roles that Ibsen and Shakespeare create draws attention to role-playing and performance, yet these ideas of performance extend beyond the structures of the stage. Helmer’s comment that ‘[one] can never drop the mask, not even with his own wife and children’ (p. 33) draws attention to the roles and performances we undertake in our own lives. Indeed, Nora, Helmer and Orsino become so submerged in their fake performances of love mean that they forget that they are performing; they undertake a ‘performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief’.[11] These unconscious performances mean that characters unwittingly wear these ‘masks’, which alter their sense of perception. They come to believe the roles they play are an intrinsic part of the self, rather than something that can be taken off. Orsino’s allusion at the end of the play to how gender is something that is physically and externally performed through one’s appearance by stating ‘Cesario, come – / for so you shall be while you are a man; / but when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen’ (5.1.378-82) creates a superficiality in the binary opposition of men and women. If our gender can be reformed simply by changing our ‘habits’ and how we are ‘seen’, then the disturbing realisation that the ‘roles’ society forces us to play are based on an arbitrary and superficial structures is highlighted.

Ultimately, the stress placed on performance and role-play in both A Doll’s House and Twelfth Night means the plays become metatheatrical. The plays become a distorted mirror of our own lives, forcing us to reflect on the roles we perform on a daily basis. Shakespeare makes a farce out of the binary opposition of gender roles through Viola’s role as a ‘maid and a man’, while Ibsen, conversely, creates a darker image of the impact of gender. Ibsen shows how by giving into these gender roles and the consequent inequalities, women became ‘de-souled’.[12] Indeed, through Viola’s cross-dressing and Nora’s eventual decision to leave Helmer (which symbolises a rejection of the idea that women had ‘no influence’ but was merely society telling them they could have none, p. 25), it is clear that the connotations of gender are a social construct: they have no inherent meaning. The plays thereby call for a radical reconsideration of gender. The definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are defined totally in relation to one another, and it can be inferred through Nora’s increasing ‘hysteria’ throughout the play that men and women cannot reach their full potential until these gender roles are eradicated. We are forced to question to what extent our daily performance is determined by pure desires of the self, and to what extent we are play up to society’s expectations of us.

Word Count: 2,169



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