Please note: this blog post contains reclaimed and academic instances of the term ‘queer,’ which I recognize has a history outside of academia and reclamation as a tool for hate speech and degradation in the past. If you are someone for whom this word may cause issue, please take heed.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is one of the Bard’s better known works and was originally created to be performed during celebrations of the Twelfth Night holiday (the last night of a 12-day period surrounding Christmas in some sects of Christianity). The romantic comedy is estimated to have been written in the very early 1600s (around 1600-1602, by most approximations), and tells the story of two near-identical twin siblings, Viola and Sebastian, who are involved in a wreck at sea and presume each other dead. Viola then disguises herself as a man named Cesario in order to serve under Duke Orsino, a nobleman presently lamenting his unrequited love for a woman in mourning—Olivia, who has veiled herself and vowed not to even consider romance or men for 7 years in grief over the deaths of her brother and her father. Viola, under the name and guise of Cesario, offers to speak to Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, and through their subsequent interactions, it quickly becomes clear to both the audience and to Viola herself that Olivia has fallen in love with her.
Viola grows close to Orsino under her assumed identity of Cesario (and has clear romantic tension with him), and her brother Sebastian meanwhile befriends an enemy of Orsino, a sea captain named Antonio. (There is also undeniable evidence of Antonio harboring romantic feelings for Sebastian.) After a series of wacky events and zany shenanigans fitting for a comedy and typically involving the themes of mistaken identity, the play ends with Olivia marrying Sebastian (in place of Cesario, who she loves, as if these feelings are easily transferable) and Orsino marrying Viola, who has revealed her true identity and reunited with her twin brother. (There is also a subplot involving multiple servants of Olivia conspiring together in a revenge plot against Olivia’s steward Malvolio, but as that is not very relevant to the topic I wish to touch upon, that is enough on that.)
Notably, gender as it is presented in Twelfth Night seems to read as more of a matter of performativity than anything else. Taking the historical context of the play into account, it might seem odd at first that Shakespeare was able to get away with as much as he was in this work. Particularly, the atmosphere it would have been performed in was an intensely homophobic one, and it might be assumed at first that it is only the socially acceptable resolution of these plot threads (with conventional straight marriages between characters previously involved in ‘gender confused’ homoerotic love triangle circumstances) that saves Shakespeare and this play from potential ire. However, I would argue instead that, while this more ‘conventional’ ending romance wise does help, the primary force that caused this play to be socially acceptable was the concept of gender as performance and how it contrasts with gender as a state of being.
Of course, the thought of gender as an act or a performance would not necessarily have been as alien a concept to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience as one might at at first assume; after all, there were no women actors at the Globe Theatre at the time (though there were women actors elsewhere in Europe—they were barred from this profession in England specifically), and viewers of the stage plays it featured had come to expect young boys to ‘perform’ the role of women already.
2 For this reason, it would be only natural for an audience like Shakespeare’s, already familiar with interpretation of an actor’s gender through performance but likely still aware subconsciously of the ‘true’ gender as a state of being of these actors (but consciously choosing to ignore it in favor of perceiving their performed genders at least on a conscious level), to have sympathetic and amused reactions to the apparent plights of Olivia and Orsino.
After all, it is very possible that (assuming audiences throughout history have, despite some generational differences, generally engaged with media in at least foundationally similar ways) some women in the audience might have understood the feeling of attraction (more in a literary and intellectual sense in the ways one might feel drawn to a fictional character, but attraction all the same) to a character presented to them as a woman, and understood that this was ‘justified’ due to the actor’s gender as state of being and not performance; conversely, some men in the audience might have allowed themselves to become drawn in by some of Shakespeare’s female characters (though admittedly, the men far outnumber them), and rationalized this through the concept of gender as performance and not state of being. (It’s worth mentioning, too, that LGBT people have existed in all time periods, and there were certainly at least some present in Shakespeare’s audiences over the years, but it is fairly likely that these people would have been forced into the closet perhaps even on a personal level due to the nature of the society they lived in.)
Therefore, gender in Twelfth Night exists not solely in the sphere of literal state of being nor solely in the sphere of performance, but simultaneously in both. It is worth noting the origin of the play’s name: not only is it relevant due to its creation as part of the Twelfth Night festivities in the real world, but the very concept of some of these festivities lines up quite well with themes of identity as performance contrasting with one’s ‘true’ masked or hidden identity. Though the holiday has now been largely forgotten in most places, the Twelve Days of Christmas as a festival was quite the colorful celebration, and involved most notably the idea of people donning masks, both literally and metaphorically, and assuming different roles. In England, people danced on the street and visited homes to request food and drink; these people were termed “Mummers,” which comes from the French word “momer”, or to wear a mask.
Twelfth Night itself was the culmination of this 12-day-long festival, and often involved a whirlwind of merriment, feasting, drinking, and celebration to send the holiday off. David Teniers, a painter who captured images of the lives of commoners in Europe in the 17th century, has preserved a snapshot of the sort of role-switching festivities that were associated with Twelfth Night by that time; in his work “Twelfth Night (The King Drinks)”, we see tavern goers following a Twelfth Night practice that involved the crowning of one among the common patrons as ‘king’ for the night, and who received the appropriate social treatment in exchange for treating their fellow patrons to drinks. It has been proposed by some historians that mask wearing or other such ‘comic’ role switching festivities may have been encouraged by the Christian church, who may have initially suggested celebrators wear masks that particularly mocked or satirized deities seen as heretical such as Roman or Pagan gods (before the celebration evolved into something much broader).
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in its layered presentation of gender and themes of masked identities, is thusly quite aptly named; much of the comedy revolves around the audience’s understanding that the characters are wearing various ‘masks’ (not only in Viola’s case, but in others, such as the subplot with the steward Malvolio ‘earning’ his comeuppance in the eyes of the audience through his assumption of a class role undeserved) and the resolution involving a subsequent ‘unmasking’ on both Viola’s and Sebastian’s parts. As Joseph H. Summers phrases it quite succinctly in his essay “The Masks of Twelfth Night”, published in Shakespearean Criticism: “the audience has been a participant in the festivity”.
Therefore, in its use of thematic ‘masks’ for humor and entertainment, its presentation of gender as both a state of being and a performance (playing further into the concept of masks), and simply as a result of the historical context it existed in (which it was expertly crafted for), Twelfth Night has endured and remained influential for centuries, rather than being shot down in its infancy due to its controversial and potentially queer themes, as some might assume before learning the proper context.
- Levins, Sandy. “Understanding Twelfth Night: The Holiday that Time Forgot.” Camden County Historical Society, 3 Jan 2005, https://www.http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews93.shtml. Accessed 3 Dec 2020.
- McManus, Clare. “Shakespeare and gender: the woman’s part.” Discovering Literature: Shakespeare & Renaissance, British Library, 15 Mar 2016, https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/shakespeare-and-gender-the-womans-part. Accessed 2 Dec 2020.
- Summers, Joseph H. “The Masks of Twelfth Night.” Shakespearean Criticism, edited by Laurie Lanzen Harris, vol. 1, Gale, 1984. Gale Literature Criticism, https://link-gale-com.vortex3.uco.edu/apps/doc/FZVZMY300188710/LCO?u=edmo56673&sid=LCO&xid=3b71cbbc. Accessed 6 Dec. 2020. Originally published in The University of Kansas City Review, vol. 22, no. 1, Autumn 1955, pp. 25-32.
- Teniers the Younger, David. Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night. 1635. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.53141.html. Provided by the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.
- Teniers the Younger, David. Twelfth Night (The King Drinks). 1634. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Web Gallery of Art, https://www.wga.hu/html_m/t/teniers/jan2/1/twelfthn.html.