Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night derives much of its hilarity from disguises causing same-sex love: the page Cesario loving “his” master Duke Orsino, the Duke’s love Olivia falling in love with a disguised Viola, etc. Though as we’ve discussed in class that there were no terms for “homosexual” or “heterosexual” in this era, it is clear that the play is making a statement about sexuality and love, the rigidity made apparent in Orsino’s final speech when he claims that Viola will remain a man and not become his lover until her clothes are found and changed (5.1.385-7). With all of this same sex love either openly (Antonio for Sebastian) or inadvertently taking place, Shakespeare is using this homoerotic attraction in particular “as a means to of dramatizing the socially constructed basis of sexuality that is determined by gender identity” (Casey, 122). However, despite what seems to be some legitimate feelings in these same-sex relationships, the end of the play ends characteristic of a Shakespearean comedy with that of a marriage (two in this case)—or, as Casey puts it, finishing with a clear “bias towards heterosexual marriage” at the play’s conclusion (121). Despite much of the romance for the first four acts dealing with those, at least from a socially constructed standpoint, being from the same sex, all seems to be “right” in Shakespeare’s world by the end of the play—the disguises are off, the difference between Sebastian and Viola is discovered, and everyone ends up in a happily, socially approvable marriage. Because of this ending, I question what Shakespeare is really trying to accomplish in the play. After all, according to Casey’s article, 16th century Europe, despite not having the specific terms to define them yet, was arguably more “patriarchal, homophobic, and misogynistic” than even today, and Shakespeare was deeply engrained in that society (124). Is same sex love something to be laughed at and poke fun of, and those guilty of it worthy of only our condemnation? Is the only appropriate ending for a life affirming, socially appropriate marriage, feelings be damned?
An important character to look at to affirm my point is Antonio, who is the only character in the play who knowingly engages in same-sex love. Unlike the ambiguousness of a lesbian relationship between Viola and Olivia in both Act 1 Scene 5 and Act 3 Scene 1, Antonio’s homoerotic feelings for Sebastian are clear. Antonio spends three months with the man he saved from sea, an explicable amount of time when compared to Viola’s relationship with the captain who saved her. He openly talks of his love for Sebastian and begs to be his “servant” (2.1.31-2), and, despite a most certainly ill fate awaiting him in Orsino’s court, he follows Sebastian because he “adores” him, which makes the “danger seem sport” (2.1.42-3). Later, he talks about his “desire” for Sebastian and his “willing love” that puts him in the hands of his enemies (3.3.5-12). Finally, when he believes Sebastian has betrayed him when mistaking Viola for his love, Antonio plays the part of spurned lover, claiming that his god is a “vile idol” (3.4.349) and accepts his arrest a defeated man. Clearly, Antonio’s love and passion is on par with that of Viola for Orsino or Toby for Maria, to name a few. However, his homoerotic love contrasts from the comic same-sex relationships from earlier. Shakespeare makes mock of the socially constructed gender roles, especially in Ser Andrew and Cesario’s “duel.” However, Antonio disrupts these normative concepts of sexuality and gender by being the most masculine character in the play—starkly contrasting from the knights Ser Andrew and Ser Toby, and even the Duke, Antonio is “aggressive, bold, eloquent, faithful, and uncompromising” (137). Clearly, his character, and subsequently his homoerotic love, is different than those the play makes mock of, which makes his ending all the sadder. During the resolution and comic final scene capped by marriage, Antonio, outspoken for most of the play on almost every matter, is strangely silent while his beloved joins hands with a socially appropriate woman. In Shakespeare, as Casey puts it, “silence is often the most telling form of disappointment” (138). Like Viola describes Olivia’s love for her early in the play, Antonio’s love proves to be “thriftless” as he ends up alone, with only the antagonist Malvolio and the dim-witted Ser Andrew facing similar fates. Given Antonio’s admirable character through much of the play, it would seem odd that a character as brave and noble as he would be likened to the spurned and arrogant Malvolio, but, because his love is the “wrong type” for the 16th century Renaissance, the term “homosexual” yet to be coined not withstanding, Antonio’s final isolation suggests what I explored above—that, despite being a play that turns gender roles on their head, in the end there was no place for homoerotic love in Shakespeare’s world except for the purpose of comedy and condemnation. What do you guys think?
Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night.” Theatre Journal 49.2 (1997): 121-41. JSTOR. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.
Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1189-250. Print.