Love Me For Who I Am: An Essay on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night
by 
William Shakespeare | ★★★★

Throughout Twelfth Night, Shakespeare plays with the idea of both gender and romance as roles we perform, and with love as something beyond gender or sexuality. Beginning with lead character Viola transforming herself into Cesario, the show delves into issues of gender as a performed role and romance as another performed role, a tool for status gain. Characters desire each other for outside appearance or for status, rather than for love. Viola’s transformation of gender allows her to take on a freer ‘role’ in the world, a role which at once suits her and forces her to hide. Yet Orsino wants her as both a maid and a man — in other words, he loves her for who she is. By consciously breaking gender roles, Shakespeare concludes that gender and love are primarily performance, yet gives his characters some intimacy anyway.

Throughout Twelfth Night, characters break their gendered ‘roles’ in society, with women coming off as powerful and men coming off as incompetent. Despite Orsino’s claims about the “weak nature” (3.4.30) of women, it is not women who are weak within the play: Maria is bold and conniving, and Olivia consistently resists the romantic role she is placed into by Orsino. Orsino is perhaps one of the most passionate characters in the play in his love for Olivia — “O, then unfold the passion of my love / Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith” (1.4.26-27) — and he changes his mind quickly — “If music be the food of love, play on… Enough; no more” (1.1.1-6). Meanwhile, Viola/Cesario is the more logical and rational: “She bore a mind that envy could not but call fair” (2.1.28-29), Sebastian says of her. This contrast between the romantic, changeable Orsino, and the strong, confident-in-her-choices Viola is a direct inversion of societal sexism, a humanizing of women that is revolutionary in merit. Yet despite their personal breaks in role, each character is still playing a part, dictated by gender. Women in the play cannot always express their freedom; Olivia, for example, is looked at as a romantic object by Orsino, and Maria by Toby. Only one female character manages to fully escape this, and she takes somewhat extreme measures.

Like a role in a drama, Viola’s gender identity is simply a matter of outer appearance. Yet over time, we notice that Cesario’s character is convincing enough to others that she is hardly criticized. Sebastian says of her, “it was said she much resembled me” (2.1.24-25), something Viola confirms with “my brother know / Yet living in my glass” (3.4.399-400); meanwhile, Maria describes her as “a fair young man, and / well attended” (1.5.101-102). It is here that the play’s tension appears: where does the character start, and Viola begin? Viola, as Cesario, is often described via metaphors and similes; no one can quite pin her down. Indeed, as the play continues, Viola seems to take on the role of both a maid and a man. In early stages of the show, she refers to herself thusly — “As I am man, / My state is desperate for my master’s love. / As I am woman (now, alas the day!)…” (2.2.36-38). But even upon the unveiling of her womanhood, the duality of her nature is clearly stated — “Nor are you therein, by my life, deceived: / You are betrothed both to a maid and man” (5.1.228-230). Within these lines, Shakespeare puts Viola in the liminal space between gender, allowing her a role in the world in which her personality supersedes her gender. Viola performs the role of a man, and thus she is a man. When Sebastian and Viola are finally reunited, the situation calls for Sebastian to refer to his sister in the past tense. Yet metaphorically, there is perhaps some truth to this past-tense gendering. “I had a sister / Whom the blind waves and surges have devoured” (5.1.239-240), Sebastian tells the audience. Maybe, indeed, Viola and Cesario have become one and the same.

Yet through her disguise, Viola is also put into a position where she cannot be loved for her true personhood, a position many other characters share. Within Twelfth Night, disguise and failed honesty both ruin and form relationships. Malvolio’s disguise, taken on to make Olivia fall in love with him, backfires entirely, leading him to be interred in the dungeons. Meanwhile, Sir Toby and Maria’s relationship is based around their role in humiliating another, with very little human connection; Maria, like Malvolio, simply desires her chosen lover to boost her status. Indeed, perhaps the biggest tragedy of the play, then, is that Olivia does, in fact, end up with someone she knows only from the outside. She has fallen for Cesario’s ‘outside,’ yes, but she has also fallen for her clever lines and flirtatiousness. And yet by chance, she has married the wrong person, someone of whom she knows nothing but outer character. Sebastian, in a similar fashion, has married someone he barely knows, and in so doing rejected another who clearly cares for him. In the face of Antonio’s sacrifices — “His life I gave him and did thereto add / My love, without retention or restraint, / All his in dedication. For his sake / Did I expose myself, pure for his love” (5.1.78-82) — the love of someone Sebastian has met only lines earlier pales. Honest love has not come about for Olivia, Sebastian, Malvolio, Antonio, or Maria: their disguises have stayed intact.

It is only in the relationship between Orsino and Viola that love occurs on a true basis of personal knowledge, transversing heteronormative romantic boundaries (note: this line inspired one of my teachers to ask how I learned the word heteronormative, which is deeply hilarious). Orsino begins the play in a role, that of a lovesick teenger for an unnatainable girl; it is only through the love of someone he actually knows that he breaks out of his role. The relationship between Orsino and Viola relationship is clearly romantic before Viola is shown to be a woman. The first scene we see of Cesario and Orsino begins with a brief speech from Valentine, in which he establishes their relationship has already become quite close: “He hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger” (1.4.1-4). It is Orsino’s words themselves, however, that best indicate romantic tension towards Viola: “…Cesario, / Thou know’st no less but all. I have unclasped / To thee the book even of my secret soul” (1.4.13-15). Perhaps more importantly, it is clearly established he is attracted to her even in believing her to be a man — “Diana’s lip / Is not more smooth and rubious, thy small pipe / Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, / And all is semblative a womans part” (1.4.50-54), he says to her. (note: it also establishes that Viola definitely looks like a twink. you’re welcome.)

In strong contrast to Olivia’s love for Viola and Orsino’s love for Olivia, Orsino is someone Viola knows. The challenge here thus is not a lack of connection, but a lack of ability to be together as two men. “I, poor monster, / fond as much on him” (2.2.33-34), Viola says of herself, self-deprecating on her state of desire for Orsino; she knows her desire cannot be while she plays the role of a man. Their relationship does not lose sexual tension throughout the show, either. Orsino’s direction to Viola to “If ever thou shalt love, / In the sweet pangs of it remember me” (2.4.17-18) is easy to read into, and Viola’s subsequent discussion of her sister’s feelings for a man are hard to stage as anything but a sexually tense scene. A clever bit of wordplay a scene later uses servanthood as something sexually driven, sexualizing Viola’s relationship with Orsino: “You’re servant to the Count Orsino, youth.” “And he is yours, and his must needs be yours / Your servant’s servant is your servant, madam” (3.1.102-104). Here, Viola uses ‘servant’ to denote both her own servitude and Orsino’s love for Olivia, establishing the term as something of a romantic innuendo (as it was commonly used). Even when confronted by accusations about Cesario, Orsino calls him his own: “my gentleman Cesario?” (5.1.193).

There is a moment of change in the play, where Orsino discovers that Cesario is also Viola, and we, as the audience, have an expectation of how this will play out — in the 2005 reimagination She’s the Man, for example, Orsino is horrified by Viola’s identity as a woman and romantic tension with him, and must take a week to process her true self. In contrast, the play’s Orsino proposes to Cesario only minutes after discovering her identity. Their relationship is now, quite suddenly to Orsino, permitted, no longer taboo; thus, the play implies that the only obstacle to their romance has been societal judgement around Cesario’s outer presentation, rather than Orsino’s feelings towards her. Notably, Orsino, in proposing, does not attempt to put Viola into the box of womanhood. He calls Viola boy even in asking her to marry him — “Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never shouldst love woman like to me” (5.1.279-280), his declaration begins, also implying that their conversations have gotten… intimate, shall we say, previous to this revelation. He then proposes thusly: “And since you called me “master” for so long, / Here is my hand. You shall from this time be / Your master’s mistress” (5.1.339-340)… “—Cesario, come, / For so you shall be while you are a man. / But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (5.1.408-411). Even with Viola’s role exposed, he still sees her as inhabiting the liminal space between gender; he has not changed his recognition of her personhood. In other words, he loves her for who she is, beyond the performed roles of manhood or womanhood — it is simply that her new role as a woman allows their relationship to progress in public.

Shakespeare is not a playwright averse to situations of gender confusion — his plays As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and Two Gentlemen of Verona all play with crossdressing in some way. Yet this play specifically establishes love as something beyond gender, done for personality and not fitting into heteronormative ideals. In ending his show with Orsino and Viola marrying, Shakespeare comes the closest possible to allowing two men to form a relationship on stage. While few truly romantic couples actually end up together within the show, the subtext of the play is clear: good love is love that sees beyond the outside to the heart.

Hope you enjoyed this sappy essay.

Have you read Twelfth Night or any other books by Shakespeare? What are your thoughts on queerness within them? Or just Shakespeare in general? (This is a subject I’m very passionate about) Let me know in the comments!watercolor-2087454_960_720Blog | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram | Youtube


3 thoughts on “Love Me For Who I Am: An Essay on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

  1. yes thanks for articulating my precise thoughts on this excellent play. it’s definitely the gayest but mercutio romeoandjuliet is def gay (and of color) as well as everyone in love’s labour’s lost

    Liked by 1 person

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