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Erasing Prejudices and Demarcations in Love: A Critical Analysis of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

Nyamweya is a Kenyan scholar who has done many years of research on a diversity of topics

Examining different types of love in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

Examining different types of love in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

William Shakespeare has portrayed his progressive genius in almost all of his works, from Romeo and Juliet to The Tempest. We cannot fail to notice how Shakespeare simply is writing a play with its own plot for performance at the court, deftly weaving in threads of his personal opinion, which forces the audience to relapse into a thinking space while raising several, several questions--many of which we are still answering today.

Shakespearean plays had no option but to use men in all roles for every gender. This, as Bruce R Smith has noted, implies that gender “is more like a suit of clothes that can be put on and taken off at will than a matter of biological destiny … However temporary such cross-dressing may be, it serves to remind audiences that masculinity is a matter of appearances.”

The theme of gender and class prejudices in love, as upheld in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, is one pressing subject that demands thorough research and thought. For clarity and ease of reference, this article has been divided into sub-topics/sections, all of which draw up into one complete circle in conclusion.

Viola: Shakespeare’s Hero or Heroine?

The role of Viola in this play is one primal, powerful and idiosyncratic approach to love. Deranged, alone, and insecure, she lands shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast without any means to support herself. In dire straits of needing a job for survival and security while she waits for her brother, she turns up at Orsino's palace and falls in love with him. It is evident that Viola had heard of Orsino before as well, as when she says,

“Orsino. I have heard my father name him.
He was a bachelor then."

Viola had probably heard of Orsino a long time back, as his constant status of matrimonial non-commitment is a matter of surprise to her.

Viola dresses up as a man, Cesario, to safeguard her identity in this unknown land and enjoy the privileges that a man might enjoy.

Viola/Cesario is shown as having a very charming and attractive personality. As Viola captures the affections of the Captain and he is kind to her, similarly, she also catches the eye of both Orsino and Olivia in ways more than just platonic affection. Her entry as Cesario, a mere messenger sent by Orsino, quickly grabs the attention of the mourning Olivia and she becomes passionately obsessed with him. Olivia has no idea that Cesario is a woman, just like Orsino doesn't know about Viola's true identity.

Meanwhile, Viola falls in love with Orsino, and she secretly harbours a strong attraction towards him. She says,

"I'll do my best to woo your lady: yet, a bareful strife!

Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife."

In the work Bisexuality and Transvestitism in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, we read, by Julie Discroll "Viola uses transvestitism to hide her desires to both Orsino and Olivia, unsure of how to display her true feelings. Torn between societal expectations of heterosexual behavior and her own private feelings, she is unclear as to how to express her sexual desires. While dressed as a man, Viola feels she cannot divulge her love to Orsino. When conversing with Olivia in disguise, she is able to speak as if she were a man, yet not confess her true feelings as a woman."

When appears at Olivia's house, she is intrigued to see her face. It might be due to an inquisition on her part to find out about the woman who Orsino is so taken with, or maybe, it was she who wanted to see the mouth that let the sweet yet sharp voice of Olivia out. She goes beyond her capacity of a messenger to woo Olivia maybe not exactly for Orsino.

However, when she realises that Olivia is passionately taken with her, she says , "Poor lady, she were better love a dream", for she knows that Olivia has been tricked by her disguise as Cesario and unknowingly fallen in love with a woman.

Viola dresses as Cesario, and to answer Orsino's question, she says, 'I am all the daughters of my father's house, / And all the brothers too'. Believing her brother to be dead, Viola keeps him alive by dressing in manly clothes and assuming his identity. It is a beautifully genderqueer moment and it is interpreted as one of the most powerful moments of gender nonconformity, yet a very assertive moment for a woman.

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As Valerie Traub notes, 'it is as object of another woman's desire that Cesario finds her own erotic voice'. Such a diabolical stance in Viola's gender identity is an approach by Shakespeare to challenge gender norms, but also a means to conclude the plot of confused, over dramatic, infatuated lovers.

We see Shakespeare's heroines always stepping up in a man's attire, picking up on manly qualities, letting go of all that is womanly, lovable, soft and graceful for the sake of their and their lover's survival, protection and security. Viola, however, is both Shakespeare's hero and heroine, strong and witty, yet bears a woman's charm, beauty and natural grace that attracts all.

Orsino: The "Man"

Orsino's role in this play is central to the theme of removing gender and class prejudices in love. Previously, in Act I, Scene I we see the love-sickness of Orsino that anyone might casually pass off as a very strong case of infatuation.

Shakespeare, when writing about a man's passionate love for a woman has always made his male characters speak of their female counterparts in ways of glorified romance and benevolent exaggeration that is quite common to the feeling of love , in it's infancy. This is something that we clearly see a lack of, in Orsino's love towards Olivia. He makes no long speeches or grand gestures in pursuit of her love, instead keeps wailing and whining about how :

" desires, like fell and cruel hounds,

E'ver since pursue me."

Orsino barely gives Olivia some importance in his whole fantastical idea of romance with the Countess. He is all about himself and loves exaggerating on his own whims and fancies.

He is completely desperate and orders Cesario to

"Be clamorous, and leap all civil bounds,

Rather than make unprofited return."

This would've seemed as ugly as it sounded, if not for Cesario's discretion and subtlety.

When Viola enters his court, dressed as Cesario, as a mere servant boy, he is immediately taken with him. Maybe it was because of his deftness in weaving words so beautifully or because of a womanly grace in him, but Orsino definitely has a certain weakness for Cesario. For when he says,

"Thou knowest no less but all; I have unclasp'd

To thee the book even of my secret soul:"

We understand how close Cesario must've become to him in a few days so as to open his heart to him, and ask him to be his messenger to the fair Olivia.

Orsino often throws remarks at Cesario's beauty and compliments him not-so-platonically which raises a homoerotic context in the play.

The audience in the Elizabethan era must really have been surprised to listen to a Duke, a rightfully "masculine" man to compliment his servant-"boy" with words like:

"Diana's lip

Is not more smooth and rubious. Thy small pipe

Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,

And all is semblative a woman's part."

Bruce Smith identifies the similarities between sodomy and expression of male friendship during the Renaissance when he states, "One signal difficulty with the policing of sodomy in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England was the fact that public ways of demonstrating friendship between men - Kissing, embracing, sharing effusive compliments - could also be interpreted as signs of sodomy". Orsino clearly hints at Cesario's womanly ways or form and assumes it is because he is very young in his years. Though in the end of this speech in Act I, Scene IV, he talks about :

"...thou shalt live as freely as thy lord,

To call his fortunes thine."

Which gives us some intimidation as to what is about to happen in the end of the play.

Orsino's fondness towards Cesario is definitely more than just a master-servant relationship. He talks to Cesario with ample pronouncing deviations from the way he usually addresses his other servants. Valentine(attendant to Orsino) tells Cesario,

"If the duke continue these favours towards you, Cesario, you are like to be much advanced.

He hath known you but three days, and already you are no stranger."

This emphasizes the notion of an instant connection between Orsino and Cesario which most likely would not have existed at all if Orsino was aware of Cesario's actual gender. It was clear to Valentine, who had been in Duke Orsino' s service for much longer than Cesario, that the Duke's treatment of Cesario was much different as compared to Valentine himself or even Curio. The Duke advises Cesario, takes interest in knowing more about him, pays attention to his physical aspects and mannerisms and compliments him so many times- things he clearly lacked for Olivia. Orsino's relationship with Cesario is a purely romantic attachment which meets its end in the last act.

As soon as Orsino finds out that Cesario is a woman, his object of affection shifts to Viola's form and he decides to marry her almost immediately. With the marriage of Viola to Orsino at the end of the play, the sexuality of Orsino is called into question. Joseph Pequigney calls attention to the fact that "Orsino, who proposes marriage to a girl he has known and come to love only as a male servant, has seen only in masculine attire, has addressed only with the masculine name Cesario and never once as Viola, and who when proposing to calls her "boy".

This leads to the question of whether or not Orsino has been attracted to someone he thought was a male but was just ashamed to admit it, or if he was just desperately searching for someone to be his wife. This is where the line between homoerotic attraction and male "friendship" is straddled in Twelfth Night as the play does not give any conclusive answer to this question but instead leaves the sexuality of Orsino ambiguous with the close of the play.

Thus, although Orsino is a very juvenile and urgent side of love, we can overlook this as a very probable effect of his long term status of matrimonial non commitment. Initially, we find his love to be very self engrossed and fantastical, but his very best capacity as a lover only shows itself off in his relationship with Cesario(Viola).


When Olivia falls for Cesario, she does so in the full belief of the servant's masculinity. As famously declared by the gender theorist Judith Butler, 'there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender … identity is performatively constituted by the very "expressions" that are said to be its results'. Cesario dresses as a man, and therefore for all intents and purposes is a man in the eyes of the other characters. Olivia infatuated with Cesario, and loving him passionately: serves as the play's central dramatic irony.

Olivia's attraction to Viola points at a homosexual angle, yet, albeit talks about a social angle where the mistress of a house is attracted to a mere messenger. Her marriage to Sebastian comes as a consolatory plot twist and doesn't leave the present day audience very satisfied who understand love as something beyond just the physical aspects of the other person.

Malvolio: Yet Another Fool in Love

The relationship between Olivia and Malvolio is both professional and romantic. As Becky Kemper suggests in her article "A Clown in the Dark House: Reclaiming the Humour in Malvolio's Downfall," Malvolio is a steward in Olivia's house, and he seeks her attention both as an employee and as a potential husband". It is believed that in the Elizabethan age there might have been some concern with the disintegration of the feudal system and the many people that had been left out of work because of this economic downturn. For Malvolio, this would have created a fairly large amount of stress for him over losing his job, leading to both tension between him and others in Olivia's household and a desire to secure his position in Olivia's household by marrying her. This explains the vindictive attitude that has been attempted to pass off as humour of the other house servants including Maria, when it came to dealing with Malvolio. Olivia had never been interested in Malvolio as a lover and may have often been annoyed by him as an employee, as Malvolio, the puritan was seen as a rather ridiculous character, fully deserving of everything he got and more. While she seems to respect him as her steward, she also sees the outrageousness of his actions. Malvolio only pursues Olivia as a lover to elevate himself in society which is totally the opposite of what a Puritan stood for, and is therefore never taken seriously by her as a suitor. Here Shakespeare has been most progressive by showing Malvolio's courage to fall in love with his mistress Olivia. Malvolio, not for once thinks of his societal status before falling madly in love with the mistress of the house. He offers himself as a very promising suitor in his opinion. Malvolio's stupidity and carelessness after being under the impression off his mistresses affections for him cannot be viewed as something stereotypical to the class of stewards or servants. Shakespeare has often portrayed men, very high in ranks doing foolish, juvenile things in love. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare had portrayed Portia's suitors as people who were very quirky and were used as comic characters in the play. Malvolio is no different. In order to win Olivia's affections he does everything that is possible for him, keeping in mind a gentleman's boundaries. In this regard he is certainly better than Orsino, who is ready to leap over all lines of civility to win the love, rather attract the attention of the Countess. Although he meets a very terrible end, in Shakespeare's portrayal of Malvolio, we see an example of how he choose to let the audience think about removing class prejudices in love.

Antonio: Sebastian's "Friend"

“If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant."

The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian has been the topic of much debate and discussion by various critiques. Sebastian was saved by Antonio after the shipwreck and Antonio has grown not-so-platonically fond of him. Even though Antonio has enemies in Illyria he insists on following Sebastian. His discourse and behaviour represents the strong feelings he has for Sebastian which seems like he most likely wants to be more than friends. Later Antonio discloses information saying that if he cannot have the love of Sebastian's then he wants to be his servant forever. This shows his obsession towards Sebastian. Antonio repeatedly prioritizes the safety of Sebastian before his own. He leaves no stone unturned to protect Sebastian and save his life in Illyria, where his own safety is questionable.

While Sebastian doesn't indicate that he has romantic feelings for Antonio, Antonio often expresses his adoration and love for Sebastian. The intensity of his feelings seems to imply erotic interest, as when he tells Sebastian "I could not stay behind you. My desire, / More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth."

Although as research suggests, in Elizabethan times, it was very common for men to engage in such lovely word plays with each other. Close male friendships were not unusual in Elizabethan England. In fact, in Shakespeare's day women were thought to be intellectually and emotionally inferior to men, so a bond between two men would have been a bond between equals.

The end of Antonio and Sebastian's relationship is not very pretty, but there was not a chance in hell that Shakespeare could have shown their love to reach a stable permanent destination. However Antonio's last words to Sebastian, "Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil

Are empty trunks o'erflourish'd by the devil"

show how deep his understanding of love was, indeed, unlike any other character in the play.

The Marriage of Sir Toby and Maria

Sir Toby deciding to marry Olivia's lady in waiting shows how he doesn't care about her social status. He marries her out of pure admiration. He is taken by her wit, her charm and her sense of humour. Maria doesn't seem to approve very well of his behavioural patterns but Shakespeare here highlights the ruling out of class prejudices in matters of the heart.


The languages of love as expressed in this Shakespearean drama , overpower all boundaries of gender and class. Characters that are genderfluid and nonconformists add to the dramatic irony of an Elizabethan drama. Orsino, Olivia and Viola are the three major characters in the play who give way into many smaller aspects of love and sexuality.

The alternate title for Twelfth Night is What You Will, a phrase which nods to a freedom of agency in terms of both sexual orientation and gender identity, while also recalling the name of the playwright himself. We may never know Shakespeare's own sexual identity, but it doesn't matter. His works, such as Twelfth Night, remind us that identity itself is relative. If music be the food of love – that is to say, gay love, straight love, queer love, trans love, or simply, what you will.


Primary Sources: Shakespeare, William "Twelfth Night or As You Like It". Cambridge Edition.

Secondary sources: Traub, Valerie. "Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare." The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, 2001, pp. 129–146., doi:10.1017/ccol0521650941.009.

Jagger, Gill. Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative. Routledge, 2008.

Crewe, Jonathan. "In the Field of Dreams: Transvestism in Twelfth Night and The Crying Game." Representations, vol. 50, 1995, pp. 101–121., doi:10.2307/2928727.

Internet Sources: Bisexuality and Transvestitism in William Shakespeare's...

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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