Twelfth Night: Shakespeare, Queer Icon

Historically, Americans used the word “queer” to portray a type of person they deemed weird or opposite of the normal. But now, we wouldn’t even equate “weird” with “queer.” We see them as opposite sides in language and we have branched, as a majority, away from the negative connotation that comes from using queer. But that is in today’s society, what about in Renaissance England? Were they accepting? Were they allies?

My, what a distinguished gentleman! Clearly a ladies’ man! This man is William Shakespeare, known for being an English playwright from the Elizabethan era. His most notable works are Hamlet, Richard III, and Twelfth Night. Being a famous playwright, it is imaginable that a lot of what he wrote had large impacts on his audience and he was accepted widely, in knowing this we have to analyze the influence his pieces had on the world. While critics will often interpret Shakespeare as “encompassing average human experience” or “consciousness,” we know that he can’t possibly encompass it because his writing focuses on rich, privileged English men, who were a majority white. However, one of Shakespeare’s pieces is often seen as a crux for the argument that queerness has existed for a long period, and was talked about. This piece is Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy written by William Shakespeare, and arguably one of his most risque pieces of literature. It follows the story of several characters, most notably; Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Malvolio, and Olivia, Sebastien, and Antonio. The characters and development we will focus on are our couplet of Viola/Cesario and Olivia.  Time to get Queer!

Our main focus will be on the queer aspects of this play, and who doesn’t love a little break from the norm? Our media outlets (yes that includes literature) should be seen as a window into the wider world. This allows us all to connect and obtain the (true) human experience.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Viola, also known as Cesario, is one of the most interesting characters within the play, and the most obviously queer! Funny how that works! Anyway, the reason I specify and include both names is that Viola/Cesario is a female character who disguises themselves as a man. This shows obvious queer symbolism in how trans-identifying people may choose to feel or even relate to this character. The character Viola would often be played by a male character, but the female character put on a male persona! It really tears apart the gender spectrum by including its own complexity within the play. This could allow people who have different identities to adjust and relate to this character because of the way the role is played. Viola dresses as a man to gain entrance into Orsino’s court, and while she is allowed to enter the club this allows her access to get intimate with both Olivia and Duke Orsino.

Viola is also known for attempting to romance Olivia but does so as Cesario. One interpretation could be that this is a heterosexual norm because Viola is portraying a man. However, by ignoring Cesario’s inner-self, that being the woman underneath the man’s clothing, is ignoring a crucial role in gender identification. Despite the outward appearance, gender isn’t something that is easily defined by behaviors or clothing! Knowing this, we have to read the interpretation as a woman trying to romance another woman. This fights the urge of Duke Orsino’s traditional courtly love language. Viola fights this urge by not regurgitating his speech word for word because she understands that the language isn’t made with the response or feelings of a woman in mind. Instead, it follows the idea of a woman’s silence as her participation and instead focuses on the language that includes Olivia in conversation. This shows a true connection between the women in a more homoerotic sense.

With just the analysis of our two characters, we can see the evident queer relationships and gender identity struggles that happen within Twelfth Night. It’s crazy to think that a piece that has aged so finely and come from a time where we don’t really see gender fluid/queer expressionism to be so full of it. Viola/Cesario is pivotal in pushing this analysis, but even in acknowledging the rebuttal of queer kinship and gender fluctuation, you can’t deny that these implications are explicit and very apparent within the play. Critics argue that Viola dressing as a man does indeed make her a man that Olivia could fall in love with, which would make the relationship heterosexual, but this invalidates gender expression with heternormativity rather than understanding that there is no real way to dress as a “man” and rather Viola is doing what she needs to do as Cesario to gain access to what she needs. This concept makes Shakespeare a premiere concierge of queer expression and livelihood by keeping something deemed estranged in the light of the common world. Thankfully, the story is also interesting ;).



Image 1: William Shakespeare

Image 2: Twelfth Night

Image 3: Crossdressing Image

Image 4: Lesbians

Image 5: Gay symbols

Image 6: Thank you