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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

gender dissidence in twelfth night

Twelfth Night is among the most excavated textual sites for the dissertation of the queer in Shakespeare. On the one hand, there is the transvestism as appropriated by Viola; on the other hand, there are homosexual and bisexual attractions between the major characters. These queer manifestations on the characters’ part point to the gender subversion in the prevailing society then up to the contemporary times.
When she gets shipwrecked in Illyria, The female character Viola masquerades herself as a man in order to enter the service of Duke Orsino. This must mean that as a woman, she cannot be a page to the duke. However, by using the male disguise as a device for Viola to pass for a eunuch, the playwright had challenged gender conventions of his time. It must be remembered that during the time, the biological females with the royal exception of Queen Elizabeth I were banned from the theater and so, the exclusively-male domain of the theater had been tangentially interrogated by Shakespeare via the visibility of a female in male drag.
The aforementioned engenders a sexual confusion as the Countess Olivia becomes enamored to Viola’s guise as Cesario, who was asked by Duke Orsino to woo Olivia in the bachelor’s behalf. A lesbian reading of this presents Olivia being in love with a female, notwithstanding her thought of her as a male. Meanwhile, Cesario falls in love with the Duke but cannot articulate this love since the Duke assumes she is a male. The latter is not the case, however, since it can be read that the Duke, besides being in love with himself (a narcissistic love that can also be interpreted as homosexual for that self is the same: male), is attracted to the feminine-featured Cesario as he is attracted to Olivia, making him bisexual. Long after Viola sheds her male manservant disguise, Orsino still raves over the beauty of Cesario, an implication of his attraction to the male, not female, masquerade. When Orsino declares his love to Viola, he alludes to her as a boy and calls her by her male name, suggesting that the Duke is in love with Viola’s male mask. The revelation of Viola’s true female identity does not seem to stop Orsino from enjoying the pretense of his eunuch’s masculinity. Meanwhile, the homoerotic subtexts become already explicit in Antonio, who is enamored with his friend Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother. He does everything for him, even risking his life and giving him wealth, all in the name of love. His homoerotic desire for the shipwrecked boy may have been unrequited, and heterosexual marriages may have ensued after the ambiguities are resolved, but these two are mere complicities to the compulsory heterosexuality of the socio-historical context in which the comedy was produced.
If not for the gender-bending Shakespeare resorted to in presenting the play, Twelfth Night would have been an ordinary love charade. With the question of gender and sexuality coming to the fore, the comedy makes the reader examine the social construction of identity as indicated by gender. This has been expressed by the ambiguous impacts of Viola’s transvestism. Likewise, this has been shown by the non-exclusionary sexual representation of the homoerotic love between Orsino and his page, Olivia and Viola and Sebastian and Antonio. The gender dissidence in Twelfth Night serves as a subversion of the hegemonic dictatorship of heterosexuality in Shakespeare’s times’ until today’s norms.

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