Desire in Twelfth Night

I know Adam will be posting on Twelfth Night on Monday, but I just wanted to throw out a few comments about Act I, as we try to find ways of talking about the kinds of desires that appear to be circulating in the play. I say “appear,” because desire in a sexual sense – in the sense of having a particular sexual aim or being evidence of a prior sexual identity or sexual orientation or gender construction (“heteronormativity”) – may not be what is at stake at all. But in any case we have learnt not to label these desires too quickly as “homoerotic” or “heterosexual” – or even as “homosocial.”
     At the beginning TN’s main plot is that of thwarted love: Orsino loves Olivia, but she does not reciprocate his love because she has sworn to mourn her brother for seven years. Her refusal fans the flames of Orsino’s desire (see 1.1.32-40). Indeed, privation and deferral are the very condition of his desire. An audience in 1602 would have recognized this as a convention of courtly love. Orsino’s absolute fidelity to Olivia and his ability to wait for seven long years proves that he has a refined nature and that she is a prize worth having. More accurately, his ability to wait constructs her as a prized object.
However, this initial set-up – in many ways a highly conventional one – is complicated by the comic sub-plot, in which there is a deflation both of Olivia’s mourning (“What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care’s an enemy of life” (1.3.1-2), and of sexual desire, which is treated by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew solely as a subject for bawdy jokes and an occasion for male-male bonding over sexual prowess. Is this just a contrast of genres? Courtly romance vs. knockabout farce? Two comically incompatible views of human love?
     But the courtly love theme is also complicated by Viola’s disguise and by her sudden falling in love with Orsino. What do we make of Orsino’s fulsome appreciation of Cesario/Viola’s feminine appearance in 1.4.29-34 (“Diana’s lip … etc.”)? She is evidently not completely passing as a man, which leaves the door open for a comic playing on gender ambiguity. In TN, this is a source of pleasure, not anxiety, in contrast to the real life case of the hermaphrodite Thomas/Thomasina Hall (Jones 2011, 37), where his/her case caused anxiety because a decision about a legal settlement hung on it.
     But Viola’s disguise belongs to a different discourse: it seems to provide an opportunity for multiplying the delight in female appearance that is celebrated in countless Renaissance lyrics. And Viola’s clothes do not unambiguously define her as a man, since Orsino finds her body female. In other words, what’s at stake may be less gender ambiguity – and the opportunities this provides for displaced or misplaced desires – than the chance to praise female beauty – to find new ways of praising that beauty, and thus to exhibit a masculine command of rhetoric. I confess that do not have a clear argument about the function of Viola’s disguise. I recognize the force of Lorna Hutson’s argument about the platy’s participation in “a humanistic literary culture” (1996, 160), but I don’t want to underplay my sense that the play is deeply attractive precisely because it uses wayward desires as a vehicle for talking about that culture.

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About Ruth Evans

I am a medievalist and I work in the Department of English at Saint Louis University. My research interests are Chaucer, medieval drama, medieval women writers, feminist criticism, sexuality, critical theory, and memory.

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