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That that is, is: A Study of Homoeroticism in Twelfth Night

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That that is, is: A Study of Homoeroticism in Twelfth Night Twelfth Night is a major site for homoerotic discourse in queer studies. However, the play is largely concerned with the idea of love, like many of Shakespeare's comedies. In order to investigate his subject further, Shakespeare periodically uses homoeroticism in order to represent various forms of relationships. The pairings of Olivia and Cesario/Viola, Antonio and Sebastian, and Orsino and Cesario/Viola, demonstrate that same-sex erotic attraction is a major theme in the play. Viola's secretive cross-dressing causes Olivia to believe that both of them are participating in normal, heterosexual interactions, while in reality they interact in a homoerotic fashion. These complex, homoerotic representations serve to dramatize the socially constructed basis for determination of sexuality according to one's gender identity. I intend to establish that in this play Shakespeare dramatically criticises the idealized norms of heterosexuality (required by his society) through focussing his narrative on representations of homoerotic pairings and deconstructing dominant gender categories. Viola's transvestism spurs various relationships that fall within the bounds of homoeroticism. Through the secret of her disguise, her actions illustrate the flaws of socially constructed gender identities, defined by the socially perceived opposites of aggressive, "macho" masculinity, and silent, yet coquettish, femininity, checked by behaviour of males. Viola's success in perpetrating her secret transvestism indicates that the construction and performance of gender is not dependent on one's physical characteristics but on one's behaviour, as well as upon a set of observed and internalised mannerisms.


Similarly, Viola's feminine quality in playing Cesario inspires love in Olivia rather than the aggressive "male" traits of Orsino. Viola becomes a "better" man when she deviates from the behavioural script set out in Orsino's Petrarchan sonnet - a male form that silences the woman as an unattainable distanced goddess. The Petrarchan sonnet form, although addressed to females, was commonly read by males, used to solidify elite homosocial bonds (Marotti 396-428) as well as to promote a social discourse designed by and for men (Vickers 96). Viola's deviation from this male form creates a new female (perhaps lesbian) poetic within the pastoral setting that she constructs in her response to Olivia's refusal to love Orsino: Make me a willow cabin at your gate And call upon my soul within the house; Write loyal cantons of contemned love And sing them loud even in the dead of night; Hallow your name to the reverberate hills, And make the babbling gossip of the air Cry out "Olivia!" (I.v.263-8) Thus, Viola (as Cesario) creates a space for Olivia's reply, whereas Orsino's script ("Lady, you are the cruel'st she alive / If you will lead these graces to the grave / And leave the world no copy" (I.v.236-8) prevents response, thus portraying Olivia as an object incapable of response.


destroy their friendship for Olivia's sake ("Farewell, and take her, but direct thy feet / Where thou and I henceforth may never meet" (V.i.166-7)). Likewise, Sebastian, although happy with Olivia, seems happier when he sees Antonio once again at the end of the play, and exclaims in a romantic manner upon seeing him, saying, "Antonio, O my dear Antonio! / How have the hours racked and tortured me / Since I have lost thee!" Finally, while Olivia is set to wed Sebastian, she seems more jubilant with regard to having Viola as a sister, "A sister! You are she" (V.i.327), thus expressing her deeper interest in Viola rather than Sebastian. Since Shakespeare's society chose to regulate the sexual and gendered expression of its people, Shakespeare comments on the "ideal" norms of heterosexuality in Twelfth Night, demonstrating, through carefully constructed contradictions, that gender is a mere social construction. That in actuality there are no boundaries to behaviour and that there is no such thing as "homoeroticism" or "hetero-eroticism" but only Eros, regulated by attraction, love and relationship. True homosexual union of male and female character pairs in this play (as both actors are male), challenges the heterosexual dominance over homosexual interaction. Having done so, Shakespeare, due to societal prejudice, reverts to heterosexual discourse, acknowledging that despite the truth of sex and gender, one must abide, for practical reasons, by the demands of social majority.

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