Twelfth Night, or What You Will is one of the most challenging Shakespeare’s plays, as it explores issues of gender identity and sexual orientation, interrogates traditional representation of gender roles and suggests same-sex love and attraction between most of the characters, issues, which unfortunately, nowadays, almost 400 years later, are little debated or even considered taboo topics. Twelfth Night is with no doubt a play ahead of it is time. The innovative Elizabethan play, disturbs heteronormativity, which is the belief that heterosexuality, based on the gender binary, is the only valid sexual orientation. Binarism is imposed by society, as every human being is framed into two complementary genders: male or female, which have a natural role in life. Therefore, biological sex, gender identity and the social role attributed to each gender organize any person into masculine or feminine norms. Twelfth Night achieves to turn upside-down all these conventions, which are natural and righteous for a great amount of people and shows not only the disruption of heteronormativity but also the ambiguous and constructive essence of the gender.
Twelfth Night can be interpreted from the constructive gender theory view, which is the belief that gender is an essentialist construct. People do not born with a specific gender, it is not natural or permanent, otherwise it is built. Moreover, as binarism is also disrupted, this changeable gender does not need to be polarized into male and female and can be something in between or outside this dichotomy.
This fluid, ambiguous and constructed gender is perfectly reflected in the character of Viola. Viola does not renounce to her female gender identity when she becomes Cesario, indeed, we do not actually know. Rather, she easily switches between genders and takes advantage of this mobility to her favor in the situations that comes in her way, such as win Olivia’s attention or conquer Orsino. Viola’s blending into genders suggests that male and female are exchangeable identities, ergo equal to each other. Viola and Cesario are two characters at the same time, two different person in one single voice, she is both or neither. There is a clearly gender disruption when Viola said “As I am man / As I am women” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. II.II. 36-38), you cannot make a distinction between male and woman in the play. It is impossible to separate gender, to separate Viola and Cesario. Viola’s words can be attributed to the three levels (Viola, Cesario and the actor), we never know to what extent is her acting. Viola’s performance of male gender as Cesario demonstrates the fluidity and uncategorical nature of gender.
Viola manages to transform her gender, whether in the masculine, in an intermediate or in a fluid one, through disguise. Disguise is equally to gender, something you can wear, pull on and off. Dressing like a man, automatically makes you a man. A simply change of costumes demonstrates that gender, indeed, is only a performance.
Moreover, when Viola decides to assume her supposedly late brother identity by cross-dressing, she acquires exactly the same physical appearance and become indistinguishable from Sebastian. The ease that Viola has to become her brother is another evidence of the duality and ambiguity of gender, as Viola said “I am all the daughters of my father’s house / And all the brothers too–and yet I know not” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. II.IV.120-121), and suggest that gender is flexible and not necessary binary.
Further, the fact that Viola was played by a man in the theatre back in Elizabethan era, adds another level of gender identity. Viola was three level gender character: a man playing a woman playing a man. The audience in the theater was convinced that Viola, in fact, was a woman playing a man, and not just a man (the actor) playing another man (Cesario), this confirms that gender is a mere performed role.
Since binarism is rejected and there are not categorized genders, heterosexual attitudes are not possible, which leads to a disruption of heteronormativity. Both Orsino and Olivia desires Viola, but as her gender preserves ambiguous, it implies homoerotic traits between the three of them. Since we do not know the gender of Viola, or as far as her performance goes, we do not know if Orsino is really attracted to Viola, or if it is an homoerotic relationship with Cesario, just as we do not know if Olivia is sexually attracted to Cesario, or presents lesbian attraction towards Viola. Although some scenes suggest that, what most attracts Olivia of Cesario are his ‘feminine’ characteristics. Olivia praises Cesario’s beauty highlighting typically feminine beauty traits.
In addition, the fact that the entire cast was male, adds double homoeroticism to the play and further destroys the heteronormativity of the time. The sexual tensions between Orsino and Cesario, or Olivia and Cesario, were visually two men attracted romantically, which is completely subversive.
It is worth mentioning that the characters of Sebastian and Antonio, unlike Viola or Olivia, are two actors playing two men, that have a romantic relationship. Nevertheless, at the end of the play, Antonio’s fate is ignored and unresolved, as he is one of the few characters that remains solitary and unpaired, out of the heteronormative matrix.
At the end of the play, it seems that the heteronormative status quo is restored with the final pairings: Viola is finally together with Orsino and Olivia accepts her marriage with a completely stranger, Sebastian, just because he looks exactly like Cesario, which is completely improbable and even absurd. Almost everyone ends happily (and heterosexually) married and the order is re-established. A classic ending to a classic comedy appropriate for the Elizabethan era.
However, if we make a more detailed examination, there are some scenes that maybe suggest that these couples were not paired to restored the heteronormative but to challenge, one last time, gender roles and sexuality. We cannot overlook that in the Elizabethan era, sodomy was penalized even with death, so a comedy play with an homosexual ending was unthinkable. Perhaps, Shakespeare did not serve a normative ending with heterosexual marriage, but in a subtle and indirect way, he challenged these conventions. Paying attention to the actions and very well chosen words of the characters, it is noticeable that their actions belies these conventions.
In the very last part of the play, when Orsino discovers that Cesario is a woman, Viola, he stills refers to Viola, as a man “Boy thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never should’st love woman like to me” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. V.I.260-261). Either Orsino does not care about the gender of Cesario and yet decides to love him/her, or else, Orsino keeps the homoerotic relationship he had with Cesario and ignores Viola’s gender revelation “Cesario come – /For so you shall be while you are a man ;/But when in other habits you are seen ,/Orsino’s mistress , and his fancy’s queen” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. V.I. 372-375).
Either way, the heroine Viola, and the genius writer behind her, shows throughout the whole play that gender is not innate but constructed, that gender can be reduced as a simply performance, how binarism is dismantled and gender maintains ambiguous, and how this disruption of gender leads to a disruption of the heteronormativity, through disguise, sexual preferences and behaviors.