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A Study of Homoeroticism in Twelfth Night


Twelfth Night is a significant site for homoerotic discourse in queer studies. However, the play is mostly interested in the concept of love, like many of Shakespeare’s funnies. In order to examine his subject even more, Shakespeare occasionally uses homoeroticism in order to represent different forms of relationships.

The pairings of Olivia and Cesario/Viola, Antonio and Sebastian, and Orsino and Cesario/Viola, show that same-sex sexual destination is a significant style in the play. Viola’s deceptive cross-dressing causes Olivia to think that both of them are taking part in typical, heterosexual interactions, while in reality they communicate in a homoerotic style. These complex, homoerotic representations serve to dramatize the socially constructed basis for decision of sexuality according to one’s gender identity. I mean to develop that in this play Shakespeare drastically criticises the idealized norms of heterosexuality (required by his society) through focussing his narrative on representations of homoerotic pairings and deconstructing dominant gender classifications.

What is the distinction in between a figurative and an actual analogy? Viola’s transvestism spurs numerous relationships that fall within the bounds of homoeroticism. Through the secret of her disguise, her actions highlight the defects of socially built gender identities, defined by the socially perceived opposites of aggressive,”macho”masculinity, and silent, yet coquettish, femininity, examined by behaviour of males. Viola’s success in committing her secret transvestism shows that the building and construction and efficiency of gender is not based on one’s physical attributes but on one’s behaviour, along with upon a set of observed and internalised mannerisms. Viola’s representation of homoerotic interaction in Olivia’s love for her, and in her own love in Orsino as Cesario, interrupts the traditional, feminist “us vs. them”concept, and demonstrates that built, socially appropriate gender identities of the feminine

and manly are qualities that can be discovered in either male or woman. In the last scene of the play, when Viola’s act is exposed– “If nothing lets to make us pleased both/ But this my masculine usurped outfit, […] That I am Viola “(V.i.249-253), Sebastian, Viola’s twin sibling, quickly steps into the vacuum left by the revelation of Cesario’s identity weding Olivia as he specifies, “So comes it, woman, you have been mistook./ […] You would have been contracted to a maid,/ Nor are you therein, by my life, deceived. You are betrothed both to a housemaid and man” (V.i.259-63). The twins’ interchangeable nature shows to us that even the natural viewpoint of the world is not a gendered duality. The differently-gendered identical twins show a collapse of sexual distinction as a natural procedure, showing that nature never ever planned male to be constrained by gender binaries. Orsino announces “One face, one voice, one habit, and 2 individuals,/ A natural viewpoint, that is and is not!” (V.i.215-6), stating that nature is able to create 2 identical beings despite the natural sex difference between bro and sister, male and female.

The same concept that permits a female Viola to be a male Cesario also enables male stars representing female characters to seem authentic, in spite of their natural gender. Upon mistaking Sebastian for Cesario/Viola, Feste remarks: “Nothing that is so is so,” (IV.i.8), suggesting that gender is not dependent solely on physical characteristics. Feste later on includes, “That that is, is” (IV.ii.15), talking about his own impersonating a Parson while Feste is actually a fool. This same phrase reaches talk about the fact that Viola is male so long as she depicts a male, that gender is dependant on society’s understanding and not on one’s private parts. When Olivia queries Cesario for his identity, “What are you? What would you?” (I.v.207-208) and Cesario/Viola cryptically responds that what he is and would be is “as secret as maidenhead” (I.v. 211)), Viola alludes to her real gender.

Nevertheless, in addition, she likewise means Sebastian’s virginity that the latter admits to in the final act of the play, specifying Olivia is “betrothed both to a maid and guy” (V.i. 263). When the impacts of these declarations at integrated, it is fascinating to observe that Cesario’s reaction to Olivia’s question refers to the maidenheads of Cesario, Viola, in addition to the boy actor playing her! As Viola states later: “I am all the daughters of my dad’s house,/ And all the bros too” (II.iv.120-1).

Twelfth Night questions the unique nature of constructed gender classifications and challenges the heterosexual hegemony by building representations of same-sex love. Viola’s replica of the male gender shows to us that erotic destination is neither inherently based in gender, nor a solely-heterosexual phenomenon– considering that Olivia becomes drawn in to Viola (as Cesario), and Orsino to Cesario. In the play, homoeroticism does not follow gender stereotypes of the effeminate male or the manly woman, as when it comes to Antonio’s love for Sebastian– despite Antonio’s stereotypically-masculine identity, that Shakespeare shows to us when Antonio “took [… Sebastian] from the breach of the sea.” Antonio’s love for Sebastian is represented, when Antonio states, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me by your servant” (II.i.33-4) and, later on:

I have lots of enemies in Orsino’s court, […]

But come what may, I do adore thee so

That threat shall appear sport, and I will go. (II.i.51-4)

Both Antonio and Sebastian are swordsmen, possessors of a very “masculine” ability, and yet both take part in homoerotic relations. It is interesting to note that, regardless of the fact that Sebastian is more resistant and feminine in contrast to Antonio– as he wishes to prevent causing damage, making use of only his dagger’s hilt, in spite of Sir Andrew striking him and paying the pestering Feste to leave Sebastian alone, rather of striking him, in the very first scene of act 4 (lines 17-25)– Sebastian is the one who succumbs to the social buildings of masculinity and heterosexuality when he marries Olivia in the last act of the play. Meanwhile, the “macho” Antonio stays homosexual, as seen in his silence at Sebastian’s wedding event, which speaks louder than any vocal demonstration.

Such relationship characteristics in the play disrupt the social concept, common in Shakespeare’s (and even current) time– that the heterosexual male is supposed to be a “macho” figure and homosexual guy is indicated to be effeminate. Similarly, Viola’s womanly quality in playing Cesario influences love in Olivia rather than the aggressive “male” traits of Orsino. Viola ends up being a “better” male when she differs the behavioural script set out in Orsino’s Petrarchan sonnet– a male form that silences the woman as an unattainable distanced goddess. The Petrarchan sonnet kind, although dealt with to women, was typically read by males, utilized to solidify elite homosocial bonds (Marotti 396-428) in addition to promote a social discourse designed by and for men (Vickers 96). Viola’s variance from this male kind produces a new female (perhaps lesbian) poetic within the pastoral setting that she constructs in her reaction to Olivia’s refusal to love Orsino:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate

And call upon my soul within your home;

Compose loyal cantons of contemned love

And sing them loud even in the dead of night;

Hallow your name to the resound hills,

And make the babbling gossip of the air

Cry out “Olivia!” (I.v.263-8)

Thus, Viola (as Cesario) develops an area for Olivia’s reply, whereas Orsino’s script (“Woman, you are the vicious’st she alive/ If you will lead these enhances to the severe/ And leave the world no copy” (I.v.236-8) avoids reaction, therefore depicting Olivia as an object incapable of response. Olivia expects her own objectification, interjecting to state:

Oh, sir, I will not be so hardhearted. I will offer

out scuba divers schedules of my appeal. It shall be inventoried,

and every particle and utensil labelled to my will:

as, item, 2 lips, indifferent red; product, 2 grey

eyes with covers to them; product, one neck, one chin, and

so forth. (I.v.239-44)

She comprehends the ways in which she is reducible to an item, whose qualities include a list of attributes, which, in turn, recognize her as an unattainable, quiet item of appeal. In contrast to such a mode of communication, Viola’s motivation for reaction causes Olivia to provide her ring to Cesario/Viola.

While trying to win Olivia’s heart, Cesario deviates from socially constructed male behaviour; paradoxically, this leads to Olivia pursuing Cesario– in a manly action. This circumstance undermines the building and construction of categorical sex by means of the success of Cesario by functioning as a female. Likewise, the portrayal of a supposedly heterosexual relationship, that puts the female in the location of power, counters the social norm that places the male at the helm of a relationship. One discovers a similar scenario in the 4th scene of the 2nd act, where Orsino remarks that in love, a woman does not suffer even a man (93-118), to which Viola (as Cesario) emphatically responds, informing Orsino of her love for him indirectly:

In faith, they are as true of heart as we.

My father had a child loved a man […]

She never informed her love,

However let concealment, like a worm i’th’bud,

Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in idea,

And with a green and yellow melancholy;

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love certainly?

We guys say more, swear more, however certainly

Our programs are more than will; for still we prove

Much in our promises, but little bit in our love. (II.iv.105-118).

Viola strongly and passionately describes her patience though a story, taking on the role of the male: she manages the discourse as she impersonates herself, and objectifies herself as allegorical “Patience on a monument” (II.iv.14), in a verbal tour de force. Paradoxically, Viola verifies her patience and feminine character by ways of being manly (according to the gender paradigms Orsino proposes). Viola highly describes the patience and gentility of a woman, as a disguised woman, hence deconstructing the categories of sex in general, and those of womanhood as “persistence” and masculinity as “aggressiveness,” in particular.

Also, Viola challenges the patriarchal social order of her society by showing how she, a drag queen, can deconstructing gender categories. Further, the very fact that the action in the plot– the charming of Olivia, unbeknownst to Sebastian, and the wooing of Orsino– is primarily credited to Viola through her planning and action demonstrates the woman in power rather of a male. This fact, integrated with the inaction of the male characters in the play, destabilizes another standard notion of gender identity: the female as the treasured possession and the male as its conqueror.

The last act of the play exposes the failure of the dominant, heterosexual program to completely manage its own narrative perfects, since, in order to accomplish a “happy,” heterosexual ending, which befits a standard comedy, a series of unlikely plot turns need to take place. This structural requirement suggests to us that Shakespeare is ambivalently invested in the heterosexual requirements that he imposes upon his play. The unlikelihood of numerous irrational plot turns, and easily interchangeable love, required to end the have fun with these effective, formed relationships shows the failure of imposing heterosexual ideals in society.

Despite the absurd twists in the play, there remains some unblemished deconstruction of gender as well as some latent homoeroticism in the play. In line 263 of the very first scene of act five, Sebastian states that he is both guy and housemaid, in recommendation to his virginity, however likewise in recommendation to his character traits being both male and woman. This admission destabilizes the configuration of gender by associating Sebastian with both male and female physical characteristics, albeit figuratively. This also keeps a measure of homoeroticism in Sebastian’s character. Even more, Orsino comments that Viola is both guy and maid as well– because Olivia will stay a male so long as she dresses in man’s attire:

Cesario, come– For so you will be, while you are male;

However when in other habits you are seen,

Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen. (V.i.385-388)

This remark concludes that identity, gender, and its foundations are simply as interchangeable as clothing, and gender depends upon the character’s actions and not their physical attributes.

Eventually, the ending of Twelfth Night is not totally ideal, given that numerous characters– Viola, Sebastian and Olivia– are not completely delighted, having actually succumbed to the pressures of heterosexual conformity. The true homosexual union of male and female character pairs challenges the heterosexual dominance over homosexual interaction. Viola might have won Orsino; she may even wed Orsino, but she is not completely happy because Orsino simple minutes ago was willing to ruin their relationship for Olivia’s sake (“Goodbye, and take her, but direct thy feet/ Where thou and I henceforth may never meet” (V.i.166-7)).

Likewise, Sebastian, although happy with Olivia, appears happier when he sees Antonio once again at the end of the play, and exclaims in a romantic way upon seeing him, saying, “Antonio, O my dear Antonio!/ How have actually the hours racked and tortured me/ Since I have lost thee!” Finally, while Olivia is set to wed Sebastian, she appears more jubilant with regard to having Viola as a sister, “A sibling! You are she” (V.i. 327), thus revealing her deeper interest in Viola rather than Sebastian.

Given that Shakespeare’s society chose to control the sexual and gendered expression of its people, Shakespeare comments on the “perfect” standards of heterosexuality in Twelfth Night, showing, through carefully constructed contradictions, that gender is a mere social building. That in truth there are no limits to behaviour which there is no such thing as “homoeroticism” or “hetero-eroticism” but just Eros, controlled by tourist attraction, love and relationship. Real homosexual union of male and female character pairs in this play (as both stars are male), challenges the heterosexual dominance over homosexual interaction. Having actually done so, Shakespeare, due to societal prejudice, reverts to heterosexual discourse, acknowledging that despite the reality of sex and gender, one need to abide, for practical reasons, by the demands of social bulk.

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