TwelfthNight is aromantic comedy written by William Shakespeare around the early 1600’s, as anentertainment for the holiday of the Twelfth Night. It is a play that discussesissues that are incredibly sensitive, even by today’s standards.
Homosexualityis the basis of a significant amount of deliberation in this day and age, However,Shakespeare wrote this work in the early seventeenth century, considering thetopic of homosexual yearnings through humor and wit. While there is no specificevidence of Shakespeare’s personal opinions on the matter, his dealing withhomosexuality in this play, especially through the relationship between Antonioand Sebastian, Viola (claiming to be Cesario) and Duke Orsino, and Olivia andViola, is definite indication of his candidness to the topic. In medieval Europe,being gay was not just frowned upon but was a crime punishable by law, as well.Despite writing in the 1600’s, Shakespeare understood and appreciated the tensionthat social views placed on homosexuals at the time. In the play, he gives asmuch respect to the homosexual relationships as to the heterosexual ones.The first instance of a homosexual relationshipin Twelfth Night is between Antonioand Sebastian. Antonio, a sailor, falls in love with Sebastian, a nobleman,whom Antonio saved from a shipwreck.
However, Antonio’s affection only bringshim despair and sadness, and Sebastian, who is straight, and is in arelationship with Olivia, views Antonio’s intimate offers merely as signals offriendship. When the reader is first introduced to Antonio, who has recentlysaved Sebastian, it is obvious that Antonio is in love with Sebastian; however,he cannot bring himself to say it, as admission to homosexuality in that timeperiod would be synonymous with death. Antonio still attempts to make plays atSebastian, even offering to be his servant as Sebastian expresses to him thathe must leave him: “If you willnot murder me for my love, let me/ be your servant” (2.1.
34-35). Antonio’srelationship with Sebastian is completely undermined because he does not wishto express his sexual orientation openly. As the play progresses, Shakespeareproduces more indication of Antonio’s affection for Sebastian.
The readerwitnesses the scene in which Antonio mistakes Viola, dressed up as a man, forSebastian. As she is being beleaguered by another man, Antonio protects Viola,only to be reprimanded by Orsino’s guards. As Antonio asks Viola for his purseback–in the previous scene out of his love for Sebastian, Antonio gives him allhis money in his purse–in order to post bail, Viola, who has never met Antonio,denies having ever received a purse. This causes Antonio to feel betrayed bythis–in his eyes–beautiful young man whom he loves. “Do not tempt my misery, /Lest that it make me so unsound a man/As to upbraid you with those kindnesses/ThatI have done for you” (3.
4.360-63). Antonio’s emotions and affection forSebastian ultimately lead to his own demise as he is eventually imprisoned andloses the entirety of his wealth.Duke Orsino and Viola displayhomosexual tendencies, as well, however their relationship only becomes open tothe rest of the world as it is revealed that Cesario is of the opposite sex.Viola, who is masked as a man, has feelings for the Duke, and unlike withAntonio and Sebastian, the emotions are reciprocated.
Throughout the play,blatant hints exist regarding Orsino’s feelings for Cesario; however, thesefeelings are never made clear until the final act, during Act V, when Orsinorealizes that Cesario has actually been disguised, and is Viola. He states: “Pursuehim, and entreat him to a peace. / He hath not told us of the captain yet. /When that is known, and golden time convents, / A solemn combination shall bemade / Of our dear souls. Meantime, sweet sister, / We will not part fromhence. Cesario, come/ For so you shall be while you are a man; / But when inother habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen”(5.1.
367-375). Due to the swapping of genders, it is unclear of who Duke Orsinois truly attracted to, and therefore his sexual preferences are unclear. Orsinohad been drawn to Cesario during the play, but was apprehensive about socialstigma. And once he discovered that Cesario was really Viola, a female, it gavehim societal approval to be attracted to Cesario without penaltyThe third and final couple topresent homosexual inclinations is Viola and Olivia. Olivia is attracted toViola as she pretends to be Cesario. He is sent to Olivia by the Duke to aidein convincing Olivia to love Orsino.
Olivia has decided against men for a fewyears as a mourning period for the passing of her brother. Yet, she manages topick up affection for the eunuch, Cesario, who seems to be fairly preadolescentas his voice has not dropped yet and he has no facial hair. In the beginningact, Olivia asserts: “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions andspirit/Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast: soft, soft!/ Unless themaster were the man.
How now!/ Evenso quickly may one catch the plague (1.5.263-66). Olivia makes it obvious thatshe is attracted to Cesario’s physical appearance. The fact that Olivia desiresCesario for his womanly qualities cannot be refuted. At the end of the day, sheseems happy that she did not marry Cesario, or Viola for that matter; however,that does not counter all of her affection for Viola she had during Twelfth Night.The three couples portray distinctforms of homosexuality throughout TwelfthNight.
Sebastian and Antonio exhibit a fairly fresh, ardent type ofaffection. Antonio obviously loves Sebastian with deep passion, and because ofthis he is willing to support Sebastian in any way possible. Duke Orsino has aclear love for Cesario; however, he is uncomfortable because Cesario is a man.It is only afterwards, when Cesario reveals her true sex, that he is content toconvey his true emotions. The third couple of Olivia and Cesario show thatOlivia is more attracted to the more feminine physique of Viola as opposed tothe masculine attributes of the Duke. Through discussing the subject ofhomoeroticism with comedy, Shakespeare is allowed to explore what was a very controversialtopic at the time in depth. Given that during medieval England his society wasnot at all forgiving of homosexuality, Shakespeare truly took a leap of faithin forging this play, which revolves around three gay couples. Shakespeare andhis works were truly beyond his time!