Sexuality in Twelfth Night

The title of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night properly reflects the various mishaps taking place in the play. With the idea of a Twelfth Night referring to the Christian Epiphany, a sort of topsy turvy day, where traditional positions are reversed, Shakespeare explains the confusion by that “green world” concept of the title. However, the role reversal in Twelfth Night very specifically applies to not only gender reversal, but reversal of conventionally heterosexual sexual and romantic desires.

Viola’s relationship with Olivia does not fit into the typical girl on girl comradery or antipathy Shakespeare portrays in other plays such as the relationship between The Nurse and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet or that of Bianca and Katerina in Taming of the Shrew . Viola takes on the garb of a page boy so that she could stay in Orsino’s court, which accounts for why Olivia might find her [Cesario] attractive, but it does not explain the perspective of Viola’s attraction to Olivia. Upon Olivia’s unveiling, Viola is left in awe of the noblewoman’s beauty, as portrayed when Olivia inquired if it was not well done, the disguised maiden’s replies “Excellently done, if God did all,” (I.v.183).

While Viola’s intentions are to press Orsino’s suit for Olivia, her language appears to be even more elevated than Orsino’s in regards to the fair lady. The lord loves Love as an idea, but Viola seems less in love with the concept of Love, and more in love with Olivia. Her rhetorical skills are above those that she’s capable of with her love and master, Orsino. With Orsino, Viola speaks in shorter sentences, whereas when she converses with Olivia, the ‘pageboy’ waxes poetic, describing Olivia’s exquisite features. “ ‘Tis truly blent, whose red and white Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on” (I.V.185-186). While Viola’s perspective of the noblewoman might reflect Orsino’s suit, she goes above and beyond describing how she would personally pay suit to Olivia.

Viola states that Orsino loves Olivia “with adorations, fertile tears, with groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire” (I.v.200-201). However, she almost seems critical of his wooing methods when she describes how she herself would pay court to the fair Olivia supposedly “if I did love you in my master’s flame” (I.v.109). That quantifier at the beginning becomes akin to a disclaimer as she continues down the same vein, saying for Olivia to:

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate

And call upon my soul within the house,

Write loyal cantons of contemned love

And sing them loud even in the dead of night,

Hallow your name to the reverberate hills,

And make the babbling gossip of the air

Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest

Between the elements of air and earth

But you should pity me!” (I.v.243-250)

She goes through all this trouble just to tell Olivia how she would have wooed her. The level of devotion is extremely passionate, and one can see why Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Ake 379). This speech is the fodder of female fantasy, and while it departs from the Petrarchan lover image, it portrays her as extremely devoted, especially for one who is supposedly only conveying Orsino’s message (Ake 380). However, once Viola realizes that Olivia has fallen in with her, she does not even think to sort out the mess clearly herself by wither revealing her true identity or completely rebuffing Olivia. Instead, she merely states “O Time, thou must untangle this knot, not I; It is to hard a knot for me t’untie”(II.iii.35-36), which could insinuate that she possibly enjoys the slight thrill of Olivia’s affection.

However, Shakespeare never specifically introduced Olivia as heterosexual in the text. With both Orsino and Viola, the readers view the unrequited heterosexual amours the two characters hold. Olivia does not appear to be interested in any male at all, until Cesario (really a female in disguise) comes along. Sir Toby attempts to rouse her interest with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and readers tend to assume that she lacks affection due to his idiocity. In the case of Orsino, she pleads off her mourning as an excuse. Perhaps, though, Olivia holds homosexual desires, such as those displayed by her love for Cesario/Viola. Cesario’s visage did not cause Olivia to fall in love- indeed; she rather views him as another irritating messenger from Orsino at first, but Cesario’s words and personality won over the fair lady (Lindheim). Olivia mentions Cesario’s “scorn” and the “anger of his lip!” (III.ii.127-128), two rather feminine traits for Olivia to highlight out of the many traits Cesario possesses (Jones).

Olivia also mentions “a murderous guilt” that “shows not itself more soon” (III.ii.128), which could be taken to mean that she feels guilty about her own desires. While on the surface level, the sentence might be referring to the concept of feeling love at all, and being unable to hide it, it could refer to a more illicit homosexual desire. After all, though Viola is trying to pass as a young man, she still holds some feminine qualities about her, and these might be what appeal to Olivia. Interestingly, when Olivia does end up getting married, she marries Sebastian, the twin of the girl who she had a crush on. She does not even stop to verify that it really is Cesario, but rather rushes to marry the ‘socially acceptable’ version of her homosexual crush. Sebastian’s fulfills Viola’s place in a way that allows all the confusion to go back to what was considered normal by the end of the play.

On the topic of homosexual desires, it appears that Orsino holds an interest that goes beyond just brotherly affection or affection of a master for a favorite servant. From the beginning, Orsino sees something different in Viola, sending her to plead his case with Olivia when he wouldn’t send anyone else. The homoerotic overtones of Orsino’s affection become apparent then, highlighting the emotional attachment the two have formed in such a short time. Sending Cesario off to Olivia’s, Orsino tells the page boy, “Thou know’st no less but all. I have unclasped to thee the book even of my secret soul” (I.iv.11-12).

Further along in the play, upon realizing that Olivia holds affection for Viola, still in the garb of Cesario, Orsino’s anger clarifies his affections for his page. Turning on the ‘boy’ to spite Olivia, Orsino says “I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love, to spite a raven’s heart within a dove” (V.i.119-120). However, the anger felt does not focus on Olivia, as seen in the quote. It appears that his holds a subconscious issue that the page that he loved has chosen a woman- a specifically heterosexual relationship- over his master’s affections.  Even after he discovers Viola’s true identity as a female, he still does not acknowledge her by her name. Instead, he says “Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times, thou never should’st love women like to me” (V.i.260-261), referring to the fact that Viola had many times made note that he could never love women in the way that he loved Cesario.

Towards the end of the play, Orsino receives the same reward that Olivia did- the person he loved, in a more conventional form. Through the gender swapping back to normal, once Viola dons her “woman’s weeds” (V.i.258), she can become “Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (5.1 365). Interestingly, while the word queen can indeed mean the queen of his affections, in Elizabethan times, the word “quean” meant the more effeminate partner in a homosexual relationship, a phrase whose meaning has transferred to modern day times. Hence, during “Twelfth Night”, or Epiphany, gender roles are switched. Homosexuality becomes almost a norm, but at the end of the Twelfth Night, once order is restored, everyone must end up marrying their socially acceptable love interest.

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