Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy written byWilliam Shakespeare around the early 1600’s, as an entertainment for theholiday of the Twelfth Night.
It is a play that discusses issues that areincredibly sensitive, even by today’s standards. Homosexuality is the basis ofa significant amount of deliberation in this day and age, however, Shakespearewrote this work in the early seventeen century, considering the topic ofhomosexual yearnings through humor and wittiness. While there is no specificevidence of Shakespeare’s personal opinions on the matter, his dealing ofhomosexuality in this play, especially through the relationship between Antonioand Sebastian, Viola (claiming to be Cesario) and Duke Orsino, and Olivia andViola. In medieval England, homosexuality was not only looked down upon, butwas a crime punishable by law as well. Despite being the 1600’s, Shakespeareunderstood and appreciated the tension that social views placed on homosexualsat the time.
In the play, he gives respect to the homosexual relationships asmuch as he did to the heterosexual ones.Thefirst character instance of a homosexual character in Twelfth Night is between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio, a sailor,falls in love with a nobleman named Sebastian, whom Antonio resecued from ashipwreck. However, Antonio’s affection only brings him despair and sadness,and Sebastian, who is straight, and is in a relationship with Olivia, viewsAntonio’s intimate progresses merely as signals of friendship.
When the readeris first introduced to Antonio, who has recently saved Sebastian, he isobviously in love with him–however cannot bring himself to say it, as admissionto homosexuality in that time period would be synonymous with death. Despitethis fallback, Antonio still attempts to make plays at Sebastian, even offeringto be his servant as Sebastian expresses to him that he must leave him: “If you will not murder me for my love,let me/ be your servant” (2.1.34-35). Antonio’s relationship is completelyundermined due the fact that he does not wish to express his sexual orientationopenly. As the play progresses, Shakespeare produces more and more evidence ofAntonio’s love for Sebastian. The reader witnesses the scene where Antonio mistakensViola, dressed up as a man, for Sebastian.
As she is being harassed by anotherman, Antonio defends Viola, only to be arrested by the duke’s guards. AsAntonio requests Viola for his purse back–in the previous scene out of his lovefor Sebastian, Antonio gives him all his money in his purse–in order to postbail, Viola, who had never met Antonio, denies having ever received a purse. Thiscauses Antonio to feel betrayed by this–in his eyes–beautiful young man whom heloves.
“Do not tempt my misery, / Lest that it make me so unsound a man/As toupbraid you with those kindnesses/That I have done for you” (3.4.360-63).Antonio’s emotions and affection for Sebastian ultimately lead to his owndemise as he his eventually imprisoned and loses the entirety of his wealth atthe same time. DukeOrsino and Viola display homosexual tendencies as well, however only becomeopen to the rest of the world regarding their sexuality as it is revealed thatCesario is of the opposite sex. Viola, who is masked as a man, has mustered feelingsfor the Duke, and unlike with Antonio and Sebastian, the emotions arereciprocated. Throughout the play, blatant hints exist regarding Orsino’sfeelings for Cesario, however it is never made clear until the final act,during Act V, when he realizes that Cesario has actually been disguised, and isViola. He states: “Cesario, come; For so you shall be, while you are aman/But when in other habits you are seen, Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’squeen” (5.
1.30). Due to the swapping of genders, it is unclear of who DukeOrsino is truly attracted to, and therefore his sexuality. However, Duke 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 any subjection.Thethird and final couple to present homosexuality inclinations is Viola andOlivia.
Olivia is attracted to Viola as she pretends to be Cesario. He is sentto Olivia by the Duke to aide in convincing Olivia to love Orsino. Despitethis, Olivia has decided against men for a few years as a mourning period forthe passing of her brother. Yet she manages to pick up affection for thewomanlike eunuch, Cesario, who seems to be fairly preadolescent as his voicehas not dropped yet and has no facial hair. In the beginning act, Oliviaasserts: “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit/Do give theefive-fold blazon: not too fast: soft, soft!/ Unless the master were the man.
How now!/ Even so quickly may one catch the plague” (1.5.48)? Olivia announcesthat she is only physically attracted to Cesario. By comparing her love to thebubonic plague, one may reason that she is referring to her desire for a morefeminine person or simply anyone during her phase of mourning. The fact thatOlivia contains affection for Cesario for his feminine features, and before herevealed his true gender, Viola. At the end of the day, she seems happy thatshe did not marry Cesario, or Viola for that matter, however, that does notcounter all of her affections for Viola she had during Twelfth Night.Thethree couples portray variant forms of homosexuality throughout Twelfth Night.Sebastian and Antonio exhibit a fairly fresh, ardent type of affection.
Antonioobviously loves Sebastian with deep passion and because of this he is willingto support Sebastian in any way possible. Duke Orsino has a clear love forCesario, however, is uncomfortable because Cesario is a man. It is onlyafterwards, when Cesario reveals her true sex, that he is more contented withconveying his true emotions. The third, and final, couple of Olivia and Cesarioshow that Olivia is more attracted to the more feminine physique of Viola asopposed to the masculine attributes of the Duke. Through discussing the subjectof homoeroticism with comedy, Shakespeare is allowed to explore, what was avery controversial topic at the time, in more depth. Given that during medievalEngland, his society was not at all forgiving of homosexuality, Shakespearetruly took a leap of faith in forging this play which revolves around three gaycouple.