Gender and Sexual Fluidity in Twelfth Night

July 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

Because disguise and mistaken identity is such a central theme in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, so too then is gender ambiguity, with many female characters disguising themselves as men. The fact that young male actors played these characters, making them a boy dressed as a woman dressed as a boy, further augments this ambiguity. This ambiguity then extends from gender to sexuality in Twelfth Night with a true love triangle between Orsino, Olivia and Viola (or Cesario as Olivia knows her). This love triangle could be completely heterosexual, if one interprets Olivia’s character as only attracted to “Cesario” as a male, could be simply bisexual, or could be “sexually fluid,” defying easy categorization and reveling in the complexities of androgyny.

When discussing sexuality in any Shakespeare play one must note that concepts of sexuality were different than from the modern perception of strict, specific identity labels for gender and sexuality. Casey Charles sums the perspective of the Renaissance up neatly in his article “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night” saying Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, were written in “an early modern culture in which the categories of homo- and bisexuality were neither fixed nor associated with identity” (121). This lack of fixed sexual and gender identities in this era means that it would be meaningless to apply such labels retroactively to characters or even historical people of the era as they would have not been conceived of nor conceived of themselves as such. However we still can and should try to categorize the behavior of characters and how that relates to their contemporary attitudes on gender and sex. In fact, there are people such as Lorna Hutson who says in her article “On Not Being Deceived: Rhetoric and the Body in Twelfth Night” that it is a fallacy to contemplate “how characters negotiate their individual desires in the plays as if they were real people and not even partly figures in a persuasive discourse or agents of a plot” (146). Analyzing the sexual behaviors of the characters is important to analyzing the perspective of the play as a whole, as none of their actions are incidental to the plot and therefore message of the play.

Aside from the absence of the concept of sexuality as identity in the Elizabethan era, another important attitude towards sexual behavior and gender is illustrated in Plato’s Symposium. As someone educated during the Renaissance, Shakespeare would have been very familiar with both the original classical writings and the perspectives that they dispersed through society. In his article “‘Maid and Man’ in Twelfth Night” William W.E. Slights describes the fable in Symposium in which humans originally had two faces, four arms and four legs but were split apart by the gods and left to search for their other half. This fable explains the different possible sexual orientations, as some of these original humans were completely male (children of the sun), completely female (children of the earth), or androgynous (children of the moon), being half male and female (331-332). The detail that the androgynous humans were the ones who represented heterosexual union, illustrates a difference from the modern perspective that associates gender ambiguity with homosexuality. Because of their preoccupation with classical ideals, people during the Renaissance also held the perspective illustrated in Symposium in which androgyny is associated with heterosexual unions meaning that the androgyny of a character would not be connected with homosexual behavior, and instead one could see it to represent a perfect heterosexual union.

In Twelfth Night, then, initial Elizabethan audiences would not have necessarily associating Viola’s cross-dressing with lesbian behavior. As Jessica Tvordi argues in her essay “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticism in As You Like It and Twelfth Night,” “The female transvestite’s activities, however, tend to highlight the potential for male characters— As You Like It’s Orlando and Twelfth Night’s Orsino, for example— to cross erotic boundaries through their interactions with the transvestite figure rather than to illuminate discussions of the representation of female sexuality” (115). Tvordi’s argument then is that female cross dressing in Shakespeare’s plays are not about the women’s sexuality but instead are only opportunities for the male characters to explore their own sexualities. However, one could argue that this a sexist interpretation that asserts that female sexuality is rendered unimportant or at least only the subject to male sexuality once male sexuality is also present. Viola in fact does assert her own sexuality, particularly in her interactions with Olivia, completely removed from the context of male sexuality. Charles says:

the limitation of the consequences of theatrical cross-dressing to the evocation of male homoeroticism ignores the ambiguities that transvestism creates and reinstates the restriction of gender binarism into the discussion of homoerotics. Women were in attendance at the Globe, and there is no reason to ignore female homoerotics as part of the disruptions that cross-dressing explores. (132)

Just because male homoeroticism is an aspect of the sexual ambiguity presented by Viola’s crossdressing does not mean that the homoerotic behaviors between Viola and Olivia cannot also be an aspect.

Viola’s actions while crossdressing can be further pulled into question, especially as to whether her actions while dressed as a man as actually challenging her role as a woman. While Tvordi and even Charles argue that Viola “does not use her disguise to gain power, but only to secure her position as a dutiful wife. She never actually challenges patriarchy” (Charles 135), I would argue that Viola’s actions are subversive. For example, in Act I, scene v, when she woos Olivia for Orsino and improvises instead of reciting what Orsino has written. In this scene Viola has a poem of Orsino’s to read to Olivia which follows the traditional masculine pattern which refers to the female subject in the poem as subject only to the actions of the male speaker, not to her own desires. Olivia asks Viola for her own feelings, Viola improvises, acknowledging Olivia’s desires and by extension her own. In “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in Twelfth Night,” Jami Ake describes this moment as breaking “Petrarchan conventions [that] demand…female silence” (379). This scene presents an opportunity for the normal female subjects of poetry to speak for themselves and of their desires. Ake notes that Viola’s speech is particularly interesting in that she, “in imaginatively situating herself as Olivia’s wooer, does not conceive of herself as simply substituting for the duke, but as loving…with the same sort of erotic intensity as Orsino” (380). This is the scene in which Olivia falls in love with Viola as Cesario and in her essay “On Not Being Deceived: Rhetoric and the Body in Twelfth Night,” Lorna Hutson says Olivia’s attraction to Viola as Cesario “resides less in the androgynous beauty of the body, than in the body conceived as the medium of elocutio” (160), which Ake’s argument also supports. That is, it is through her words that Viola accidentally woos Olivia and not through her body, making Olivia’s desire for Viola inherently unconcerned with gender.

Twelfth Night revels in both complexities of gender and of sexual behaviors, but just as in the prevailing attitudes the Elizabethan era, the two are not necessarily connected. However, one could incorporate the historical perspective on gender and sexuality into the modern viewpoint. That is, the perspective must come full circle from an early modern perspective in which concepts of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” were only just developing, to a modern perspective in which labels for sexual and gender identities are hyper categorized and specific, and we often apply said labels retroactively to historic figures who would have had no such concepts, to finally a perspective where we once again acknowledge ambiguity, because although labels may be useful to a point one can never fully capture every nuance. One cannot clearly define Olivia as bisexual for her love of Cesario/Viola, and it would be a stretch to apply the modern concept of transgender identity to Viola. Humans, it seems, are not cleanly divided as Plato’s children of the sun, earth, and moon.

Works Cited

Ake, Jami. “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in Twelfth Night.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 43.2 (Spring, 2003): 375-394. JSTOR. Web. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016. www.jstor.org/stable/4625073.

Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night.” Theatre Journal, 49.2 (May, 1997): 121-141. JSTOR. Web. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016. www.jstor.org/stable/3208678

Gay, Penny. “Twelfth Night: Desire and Its Discontents.” As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. Routledge, 1994, pp. 17-47. Print.

Hutson, Lorna. “On Not Being Deceived: Rhetoric and the Body in Twelfth Night.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 38.2 (SUMMER 1996): 140-174. JSTOR. Web. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016. www.jstor.org/stable/40755095

Slights, William W. E. “‘Maid and Man’ in Twelfth Night.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 80.3 (Jul., 1981): 327-348. JSTOR. Web. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016. www.jstor.org/stable/27708834

Tvordi, Jessica. “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticism in As You Like It and Twelfth Night.” Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England. Edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, Oxford University Press (US), 1998, pp. 114-127. Print.

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