Twelfth Night

Gender Bending in Twelfth Night

We are living in a time when identity, particularly gender identity, has become a highly topical issue. How we identify others and identify ourselves has become a key concern, with whole websites established to help people. It’s constantly in the news, from Billy Porter’s appearance on the Oscars red carpet in a gown to teenager Jaden Smith wearing a dress to a high school prom accompanied by non-binary actor Amandla Stenberg.

It may be surprising that none of this is actually new, and Shakespeare explores many of the same ideas and confusions in Twelfth Night. He comes close to these ideas in other plays: he exploits the mistaken identities of twins in The Comedy of Errors and the central female characters of As You Like It dress as men; in Twelfth Night he pulls these two ideas together. The twins in Twelfth Night are male and female, but the female twin dresses as male and the comic problems follow.

Cross Dressing and Dual Identity

It’s a play where a woman dresses as a man and as a man falls in love with another man while being the subject of another woman’s affection. It’s complicated, as Shakespeare exploits the comedy of the twists and confusions. At the centre of it all is disguise, in itself a theatrical idea with a focus on costume and appearance. The idea of costume is developed in the play, but Shakespeare takes it further, looking at disguised feelings, hidden by necessity and convention.

The idea of disguise is established as early as the second scene when Viola asks the Sea Captain to ‘Conceal me what I am’ so that she can seek employment at Orsino’s court. Three days, but only one scene later, Viola, now appearing as Cesario, has already established ‘himself’ in a position of trust with Orsino. From that point on, Viola maintains the male identity of Cesario.

That dual identity leads to much of the play’s humour, but also its poignancy. An audience will recognise that the dialogue between Cesario and Orsino is charged by the audience’s knowledge of Viola’s disguise. There is humour and uncanny judgement, for example, in Orsino’s comment on Cesario’s lips, which are ‘smooth and rubious’ and that his voice and manner are ‘semblative a woman’s part’. Viola later acknowledges that disguising one’s feelings can be destructive, referring to ‘concealment’ as ‘a worm i’ th’ bud’, and the humour of these scenes is given a frisson by the sense of an attraction growing between the two, even though Orsino thinks he is talking to another man. The possibilities of cross-dressing, androgyny, heterosexual and homosexual attractions are all parcelled up together.

These ironies provoke humour for a modern audience, but of course in Shakespeare’s theatre, all women’s parts would be played by boys, so the audience would see a boy, playing a woman, playing a man. This increases the layers of potential comedy, while Viola’s disguise offers her access to the world in a much more open way than would be possible as a woman. She is able to break through the strictures which society placed on women and is able to move about freely, seek employment and enjoy free conversations with both women and men. In this way Shakespeare raises questions about gender roles and contributes ideas to today’s debates about gender identity, then complicates matters further by having Olivia, courted by Orsino, fall in love with Cesario.

Resolving the Dual Identity

In Viola’ soliloquy at the end of Act 2 scene 2, Shakespeare’s language shapes the audience’s response to these issues. She considers that her appearance has ‘charm’d’ Olivia and describes Olivia’s loving feelings as ‘cunning’, suggesting there is danger in emotions. As with Orsino, this attraction is given an extra edge by Shakespeare’s toying with a same sex relationship – Olivia doesn’t realise it, but she has fallen for another woman. But as Viola says, ‘Poor lady, she were better love a dream’, so the possibility of the relationship is only momentarily suggested before being dismissed. Note the antitheses used to balance of the love triangle, with ‘My master… And I… And she…’ and Viola’s two gender identities – ‘As I am a man… As I am a woman…’ There is a sense here that disguise is out of control: it is a ‘wickedness’ which only time can ‘untangle’. So while Shakespeare plays with identities, it may also be suggested that only binary identities can resolve the problems, while he has toyed with homoeroticism for theatrical effect.

Perhaps it is more than theatrical frisson, however. Viola plays the central role of the play as Cesario and her androgyny is highlighted in her pun to Orsino, that he is ‘betroth’d both to a maid and man’. It is interesting that, though some productions take a different course, Shakespeare does not script Viola to reappear in her ‘maiden weeds’. She remains in her Cesario disguise throughout the rest of the play, and she is silent for the last 100 lines – though still dressed as Cesario, she seems to have withdrawn into a more submissive role.

A Contemporary View of the Play

Our consideration of the play’s concern with gender and sexual identity is certainly prompted by the text itself. Though we have concentrated on Viola’s relationships, Antonio and Sebastian are also important here. This has been picked up in productions too: Lindsey Posner’s 2001 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company placed Sebastian’s and Antonio’s initial dialogue on a rumpled double bed. Emma Smith, in her podcast on the play, focuses on the role of Antonio, looking at the role he plays in the resolution of the complications of the drama. She also thoughtfully discusses the ambiguity between service and romantic love in his language towards Sebastian, which leads to a consideration of the nature of Antonio’s relationship with him. However, as Smith herself points out, we are applying 21st century considerations to an early 17th century text. At this time a person’s sexual identity was not determined by sexual practices; such identification by sexuality is a more modern idea. The increased awareness of gender identity today has led to much critical consideration of Shakespeare’s use of cross-dressing and questions about sexuality and gender. As Miranda Fay Thomas says, ‘looking for LGBTQ identities in plays such as Twelfth Night enables us to rediscover approaches to gender and sexuality that defy the binaries imposed on Western society since the introduction of the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ in the late 19th century’. Applying modern values to an old text can reveal new insights.