Exploring The Ambiguities Of Gender Identity In Twelfth Night
William Shakespeare is deemed to be the greatest dramatist of all time. As Ben Jonson, one of his closest friends once said, “Shakespeare is not of an age but for all time”. Many of his plays continue to be studied in our modern era and are a staple to any English curriculum. He has many famous plays that have been performed for more than four hundred years and to this day, we still believe that analyzing Shakespearian plays is a requirement to English literature and that his works should continue to be honoured.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is believed to be written in 1601 and counts as one of his last “real” plays and is very alluring in itself. It is considered a comedy filled with miscommunicated gender fluidity that delivers for a great theatrical masterpiece. This play utilizes all the possible springs of ambivalence that may be encountered in this immense game of love extending on multiple dimensions where the desire is never reciprocal and the object of the desire always uncertain.
Involved in a particularly vicious shipwreck, our main character Viola finds land and decides to adopt the identity of her twin brother Sebastian whom she considered to be dead at sea. In order to get herself out of this ordeal, having no refuge and nothing to help her get back on her feet, she decided to appropriate Sebastian’s features to avoid being forced to join a convent and devote herself to religion, into marriage or prostitution for monetary worth and decides to work under Duke Orsino’s service and have herself called Cesario.
We can then ask ourselves how does Twelfth Night examine traditional ideas regarding gender as well as sexuality? How does it depict and proposes conceivable outcomes between same-sex pairs?
Shakespeare works his way around gender conformity and centres his play around the manner in which the sexual orientation of the characters can be built as one desires to do so. We can pinpoint a central love triangle within the relations in the play. Duke Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, but she is in love with Cesario (who is played by Viola) who dismisses the former because she/he herself is in love with the Duke. Sebastian then comes into play and falls in love with the Countess who confuses him for his sister Viola and decides to marry him. This love triangle filled with unreturned love is the main plot of the play and serves as its key climatic irony.
The auxiliary love triangles finds itself when Cesario rejects Countess Olivia because Cesario is in reality a woman whereas Sebastian instantly falls in love with Olivia and forms another dimension to the love triangle. The multiple liaisons are in place and its protagonists are unable to merge in this never ending desire filled spiral. Even Sebastian is helpless and cannot escape the looming ambiguity that is present throughout the play. Antonio, the sea captain who came to his rescue after the shipwreck is in love with him. His character seems to be making a joke of the whole love triangle situation as the love he harbours for Sebastian is sincere compared to the superficial relationships in the play.
Duke Orsino is all over the place. he does not know where to put his head as he likes to believe that he is in love with the Countess Olivia yet still finds himself falling for Viola whom he believes and considers to be one of his male servants. Even he is entranced with Cesario’s fair physical attributes and decides to employ him/her to court the Countess. We start to believe that the Duke is not really in love with Olivia but instead, he is more in love with the idea of being in love and would courtship anyone willing to receive his love. The first lines in the play are “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die. (Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene I, lines 1-3). The starting lines help us understand the Duke better as we can see that he is obsessed with love. He asks his servants to keep playing so that he is filled with music to the point where he would not be able to take it anymore which would inevitably put a stop to his incessant infatuation over the Countess Olivia. Using Cesario as a pawn, he send his servant over to the Countess and makes Cesario deliver as speech.
The speech of love that Cesario delivers is not the one the Duke intended for her to hear. Instead Cesario who at this point has fallen in love with the Duke changes the message and delivers a speech which we can say is the starting point of Olivia’s infatuation with Cesario. She believes him to be the male servant of Orsino and is entranced by his words. Cesario has Olivia fall in love with him instead of having her fall in love with Orsino like they originally planned. It makes Olivia realize that the way the Duke is proclaiming his love for her which we can generate a mental image that would ressemble him, lounging in his abode, probably being served grapes on his futon while he wallows in self pity and complains about not being loved back cannot be compared to the Duke putting effort in his courtship by pursuing her day and night, going to see her and staying by her door waiting for her to want him back. It is inevitable that Olivia swallows up Cesario’s words and plants the idea in her head that she would rather have someone like Cesario courting her. “Let him send no more— / Unless perchance you come to me again” (Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 5, Lines 249-250), we can see that Olivia would like to see Cesario again and maybe have him seek her undivided attention and love.
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