In modern society, homosexuality is a highly controversial topic. While nations are making progress towards equal rights, seventy-three countries still view same-sex relations as illegal. However, today’s society is far more progressive than Medieval England where homosexuality was strictly frowned upon by law, and perpetrators received a wide variety of severe punishments, ranging from exile to the death sentence.
Even though society was against the idea of homosexuality, Shakespeare explores the concept that homosexuality is not morally incorrect and it is an innate characteristic that one does not choose; instead, it is a characteristic that you are born with and discover about yourself as time goes on. Critics of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, such as Jami Ake in her article Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in Twelfth Night, often focus on the prevalence of homosexual relations between characters in this post-Renaissance time period. Her argument that homoerotic relations are prevalent in Twelfth Night is corroborated by the relationships of Duke Orsino and Cesario as well as Viola and Olivia. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night uses dramatic irony, imagery, and characterization to suggest that homosexuality is not morally incorrect.
In this play, Duke Orsino falls in love with Olivia but she swears off men while she is mourning the loss of her brother. Viola, who disguises herself as a man, Cesario, starts to work at Orsino’s house. While serving the Duke, Viola falls in love with him but can’t pursue the love because Orsino believes that she is a man. Orsino and Viola become closer and Orsino confides in Viola to take love messages to Olivia. However, Olivia, who has sworn off men, falls for Viola, who she thinks is Cesario. In the end, Olivia ends up marrying Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother and Orsino marries Viola, after finding out that she was disguised as Cesario the whole time.
Duke Orsino and Cesario’s relationship clearly depicts homoeroticity in the play. By rejecting Olivia, Viola shows her desire for the Duke, stating State is only desperate for her master’s love. This quotation depicts that Viola is interested in Orsino. In the other side, Orsino also develops feelings for Viola, who is disguised as Cesario. The Duke gives Cesario the important job of wooing Olivia on his behalf. He trusts Cesario with persuading Olivia to love the Duke which shows how close they had gotten. In this letter, Duke Orsino states:
Dear lad, believe it;
For they shall yet belie thy happy years
That say thou art a man. Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious, thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part. (1.5.32-37)
In this letter, Orsino shows how he truly views Cesario and how he is attracted to him. While it is true that straight people can find characteristics of people with the same gender attractive, they usually don’t gush about it. Orsino illustrates how he finds Cesario’s lips more rubious and smooth than Diana’s and how his features are semblative [of] a woman’s part. The descriptions he uses to describe Cesario shows the romantic and sexual tension he feels for Cesario. Orsino is attracted to aspects of Cesario.
While it is evident that Orsino has feelings for Cesario throughout the play, his love only becomes open when he discovers Cesario is of the opposite gender. His attraction for Cesario becomes clear in Act V when he finds out that Cesario is, in fact, Viola. After Viola’s identity is displayed, it is still evident that Orsino has an erotic interest in Cesario because he continues to refer to her as Cesario.
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 (5.1.30).
Even after Cesario comes out as Viola, Orsino still refers to her as Cesario. This proves that he is more comfortable with Cesario than Viola and makes it unclear who he is truly attracted to. Before Viola’s identity was revealed, Orsino didn’t openly convey his feelings because he was scared of society. When he found out that Cesario was a female, it gave him permission to be attracted to Cesario without society’s criticism. This proves that Orsino loves the boy in Cesario more than the woman in Viola.
In addition to Duke Orsino and Cesario, Olivia and Viola also depict homosexuality and homoeroticism. Even though Olivia had plans to reject off men for several years while she was mourning the death of her brother, she is still attracted to Cesario.
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast: soft, soft!
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague (1.5.48)?
Olivia is attracted to Cesario’s feminine features, especially thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs. In Act II, Malvolio delivers a ring to Cesario on behalf of Olivia, showing that Olivia had fallen in love with Cesario. In the end, Olivia marries Sebastian, thinking that he is Cesario, when he is in fact Viola’s twin brother.
Both couples demonstrate homosexuality and homoeroticism in Twelfth Night. Orsino is attracted to Cesario but refrains from expressing his feelings openly until he finds out that Cesario is actually a female, Viola. AfterViola’s true identity is revealed, Orsino is more comfortable with expressing his true feelings but still refers to her as Cesario, showing that he fell in love with Cesario not Viola. Furthermore, Olivia shows this pull towards someone of the same sex. From the way Olivia describes Cesario’s features, it is evident that Olivia is attracted to the physical and emotional qualities of Viola rather than Orsino’s masculine qualities. While medical society was against the idea of homosexuality, Shakespeare effectively portraits that having relations with someone of the same sex is not a crime. His risk in writing this play in contrast to society’s beliefs shows that he was a more open thinker and ahead of his time. It’s possible that other plays of Shakespeare’s show this progressive idea as well as others.