Twelfth Night: A Gender-Bending Journey
Shakespeare enjoyed writing passionate plays about young lovers, but, after a while, the formula became exhausted and the Bard was forced to dig deeper, creatively speaking. Twelfth Night is an example of a Shakespearean love tale with a slight twist to keep things interesting. This play was the “Tootsie” of its time. Twelfth Night takes the audience on a gender-bending journey, while maintaining all the elements of true love throughout. At one point, Olivia wears a disguise in order to take on the traditionally male role of wooing her romantic interest, Cesario, who is also disguised. Although Olivia flirts with Cesario and tells him that his “scorn” only reveals his hidden love, she is mistaken. Her misinterpretation of Cesario’s manner is one of many problems contained within the drama. Cesario’s true gender, Olivia’s active pursuit of him/her, and the ambiguity of words with double meanings in this passage threaten to turn wholesome, romantic conquest on its head, or as Olivia says “turn night to noon” (139).
Perhaps the biggest upset to the traditional structure is the possibility that Olivia may be in love with a woman. Shakespeare allows his audience to excuse this by having Olivia be unaware that Cesario is actually female. Yet, Olivia's attraction seems to stem exactly from the more feminine characteristics like Cesario's "beautiful scorn" and "angry lip" (136-137). Olivia's words allow an audience, particularly a modern one, to perhaps read her as suspecting or even knowing that Cesario is female, yet choosing to love him/her anyway.
Olivia's description of Cesario's beauty, both here and upon their first encounter, praises typically feminine qualities, but curiously doesn't question Cesario's gender. The comparison of love to guilt tempts the readers mind to wonder if Olivia is guilty about her love for such female attributes. Olivia's oath on maidenhood also tempts the reader toward a lesbian reading by hinting that Cesario would also understand maidenhood (141). When Olivia declares that not even "wit nor reason"(143) can hide her passion, she suggests that she would love Cesario even if it were against logic, as a same sex couple would be. Despite the unacceptability of a same sex romance in Shakespeare's time, the hints toward this reading seem visible enough to have been thought of then as well as today. Although probably not intended to the extent of a lesbian courtship, the situation of a woman wooing another woman presents a comical picture for the audience, perhaps even more so in the Elizabethan era with two male actors wooing each other as women. Shakespeare is able to pose the question of homosexual love by using "Cesario" as a shield to protect both the characters within the play and the audience from having to deal with the question directly.
Although he avoids denying the Elizabethan romantic conventions...