Exploring the Ambiguities of Gender Identity in Twelfth Night

Emma Luk

Writer’s Comment: I wrote this paper for John Garrison’s English 10A class fall quarter of my freshman year. It took me a while to figure out a research topic, but after consulting with John and listening to a lot of Lady Gaga, I finally found my focus: gender identity. I first heard the term gender identity when I was nine and heard a story on the news about a girl who was beaten to death after her boyfriend discovered she had been born a boy. I still think about this girl a lot, and I still have trouble digesting the idea that she was murdered for trying to be herself. I think that gender identity is an interesting and important topic worth exploring, so I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to talk about it in relation to my favorite Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night. I’m really proud of this paper, especially considering that it was my first college research paper ever. I only wish I had been able to keep my original title (Hint: the line in Lady Gaga’s Telephone video that confirms her lack of man-parts)!

Instructor’s Comment: Emma wrote this paper for my English 10A course, which surveyed medieval and early modern English literature. This was the final assignment for the class and represented a real capstone for some very good thinking Emma had done throughout the quarter. This assignment challenged students to respond specifically to at least two other scholars’ arguments about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. By engaging with other critics, Emma made her own argument very specific and quite sophisticated. While Emma successfully positioned herself in relation to those critics, she also kept her discussion based in a close reading of the text. In a few short brushstrokes here, Emma ties the curious gender dynamics of Twelfth Night to their classical antecedents in Plato, while subtly reminding us that situations depicted in the play very much resonate in today’s politics regarding gender and sexual identity.
—John Garrison, Department of English

After braving several cases of mistaken identity, accidental gayness, awkward sexual tension, and the general tomfoolery symbolic of the festival of Twelfth Night, our heroine Viola finds herself in the final scene of the final act preparing for marriage festivities. The heteronormative status quo appears to have been restored with the righting of the ambiguously gendered pairings: Viola is finally together with her beloved Duke Orsino, and Olivia appears satisfied with her replacement Cesario, Sebastian. A closer examination of various scenes in the play, however, suggests that perhaps the significance of these romantic pairings is not to establish heterosexuality as the social norm, but rather to challenge the entire notion of gendered identity and sexuality all together. By operating outside of a discrete heteronormative representation of binary gender identities to achieve her desired ends, Viola demonstrates that gender is a fluid identity and not a rigid role assigned at birth according to genitalia. 

After being shipwrecked at the start of the play, Viola must figure out a way to survive in the foreign land of Illyria. Since the Countess Olivia, the only potential female protector, is too distraught over her brother’s death to receive any visitors, Viola decides that her second best course of action will be to enter the service of Duke Orsino. As part of her survival scheme, she discards her gown and masks her female gender with the disguise of a male page. Her masculine clothing proves to be such a convincing disguise that several characters–Feste, Olivia, Antonio, and Sir Andrew–confuse her outright with her brother Sebastian– her twin brother, no less. For Feste and Sir Andrew, the outcomes of their confusion are amusing and harmless (though humiliating, in Sir Andrew’s case). For Antonio and Olivia, however, the results are far graver: Antonio, mistaking Viola for his beloved Sebastian, is left feeling betrayed and abandoned, whereas Olivia, mistaking Sebastian for her beloved Cesario, finds herself wed to a perfect stranger. So eerie is the twins’ similarity that, when the two are finally reunited on stage in the final act, Orsino can’t help but utter:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,

A natural perspective, that is and is not. (5.1.214-215)

This comment, combined with the bizarre fact that Viola is not explicitly named until this very scene, creates an interesting situation. If Viola and Sebastian are so similar that various characters can seamlessly interchange them, then perhaps they aren’t two separate characters after all. Instead, the play suggests they are actually two sides–feminine and masculine–of the same self. 

Shakespeare’s play is far from the first instance in which such an idea was explored. In fact, the concept of gendered duality predates Elizabethan England altogether. The classic Greek myth of the Androgynos is explained in Plato’s Symposium. The Androgynos were hermaphroditic beings that possessed a perfect balance of male and female qualities. The gods feared their power so much that “their punishment at the hand of Zeus was to be sliced in half, like an egg or apple, the severed skin being pulled together by a sort of pucker string at the belly-button” (Charles 331). After being thrust apart, the male and female halves strove to be harmoniously united once more. Shakespeare directly references this tale through the astonished Antonio, who upon seeing what he supposes are two copies of Sebastian, cries:
Have you made division of yourself?

An apple cleft in two is not more twin

Than these two creatures. (5.1.220-223)

In the context of this myth, Viola and Sebastian’s uncanny sameness points towards the duality and interchangeability of gender identity and suggests that discrete binary gender is itself a myth. Gender identity is a sliding scale; people are not necessarily exclusively male or female, but can possess a mixture of both masculine and feminine qualities. Casey Charles argues in Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night that Viola’s transvestitism: 

not only upsets essentialist constructions of gender hierarchy by successfully performing the part of a man as a woman, but in her hermaphroditic capacity as a man and woman…she also collapses the polarities upon which heterosexuality is based by becoming an object of desire whose ambiguity renders the distinction between homo and hetero-erotic attraction difficult to decipher. (Charles 127-128)

The fact that Viola was played by a young boy on the Elizabethan stage adds yet another level to the already dizzying maze of gender identity and romantic attraction that Shakespeare has created. In a patriarchal Renaissance society that barred women from the stage and “sought the similitude in boys and women,” female roles were almost exclusively played by young boys (Orgel 70). Thus, the Elizabethan Viola was a three-fold character: a young boy actor playing a shipwrecked young woman playing a male page. The unwitting lesbian attraction of Olivia (also played by a man) to Cesario is now doubly homoerotic, as is the affection Orsino has for his new page. The notion that audiences were willing to suspend disbelief and convince themselves that the Viola on stage was a young woman playing a boy–not simply a boy playing another boy–further destabilizes the illusion of male and female separateness by suggesting that gender is simply a performed role. As Orgel suggests in regard to the success of boys playing female roles, “the age of the actor is as irrelevant as the gender: womanliness is simply a matter of acting” (Orgel 70). Given that certain productions of Twelfth Night have utilized the same actor for both Viola and Sebastian calls into further question the nature of gender identity as represented in the play. In short, the character Viola was an allegorical hermaphrodite conjured up for the stage. 

Renaissance audiences were fascinated by the multi-layered concept of the hermaphrodite. It embodied the union of opposites and the harmony created by their joining together, an important symbol in an age defined by conflicts such as those between the Church and the advances of empirical science. The hermaphrodite was viewed simultaneously as “pure idea and grotesque image…an amusing freak and a serious symbol of the marriage of true minds and bodies at the turn of the seventeenth century” (Charles 129). While some thinkers interpreted the pagan myth about the male and female halves of the Androgynos seeking their opposites to fit religious views on the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, others construed it as a commentary on the duality of gender and viewed a hermaphroditic soul as ideal. Live, breathing hermaphrodites, on the other hand, were considered “unnatural prodigies” (Charles 127). Viola echoes this belief by declaring herself a “poor monster” because her dual gender is causing both Olivia and Orsino to fall in love with her. 

Nonetheless, Viola completely embraces the concept of a similar kind of third identity that, like the hermaphrodite, lies beyond the scope of binary gender. Though she dons a boy’s clothing, Viola does not present herself as a boy; rather, she presents herself as a eunuch. Viola is curiously specific about this detail when speaking with the captain about her plan for survival. When she learns that the Countess Olivia, similarly orphaned and mourning the loss of her brother, refuses to answer petitions due to her intense grief, Viola decides:

I’ll serve this duke.

Thou shalt present me as a eunuch to him.

It may be worth my pains, for I can sing,

And speak to him in many sorts of music. (1.2.51-54)

As Viola’s vocal abilities are not further mentioned in the play, it becomes clear that she does not decide to disguise herself as a eunuch simply because eunuchs, like the castrati of the Church, were known for their high-pitched voices. Castrated boys, like hermaphrodites, straddled the divide between the male and female genders. If she disguised herself as a regular boy, Viola would not be able to approach Olivia, who has sworn off men for seven years in mourning of her brother. Nor would she be able to approach Orsino, who might mistake her as competition for Olivia’s affections. Thus, by becoming a eunuch, Viola renders herself sexless and therefore non-threatening to either character. This androgynous identity also serves as protection by removing the sexual vulnerability she would have as a lone woman. Stephen Orgel links Viola to her anagrammatic counterpart Olivia, stating that, “she seems to be proposing a sexlessness that is an aspect of her mourning, that will effectively remove her, as Olivia has removed herself, from the world of love and wooing” (Orgel 54). Clearly, Viola’s androgynous identity as the eunuch Cesario is a key factor in her survival in Illyria. 

Despite renouncing her female gender identity, Viola does not completely relinquish her feminine qualities when trying to achieve her means. Rather, she evokes elements from both genders and fluidly switches between them in order to best handle whatever situation comes her way. In her first scene with Olivia, Viola utilizes her first-hand knowledge of the “feminine” mind in combination with her non-threatening androgynous appearance in order to win the countess’s attention. Likewise, Viola relies on her woman’s point of view and personal experiences when discussing the nature of love with Orsino. The duke, fed up with Olivia’s constant rejections, dismisses a woman’s ability to love as being like “appetite, no motion of the liver, but the palate” (2.4.86-87). Viola as Cesario corrects Orsssino’s rude view of female love with the authority of a male confidant by stating that she knows “too well what love women to men may owe. In faith, they are as true of heart as we” (2.4.105-106). 

As the progression of the above two scenes reveals, however, Olivia’s androgynous ruse is not entirely foolproof. Shortly after her meeting with Olivia, Viola finds herself in possession of a love token from the newly smitten countess. With horror, Viola realizes that in one brief exchange she has managed to do what all other men in Illyria have failed to do–win Olivia’s heart. To Olivia, Cesario stands out from all of the other men in her life. He does not pursue her romantically, he does not bore her with endless treatises about her beauty, and he enjoys entertaining her wit. He understands precisely the way her mind works, which baffles Olivia. Cesario’s mysterious nature and androgynous appearance only further intrigue her, giving her room to mold him into her perfect romantic vision and therefore allow her attraction to him to grow. When Viola realizes what she has done to Olivia, she curses her male costume for this knotty situation. “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness wherein the pregnant enemy does much!” she laments, blatantly suggesting how easily social gender perception can be affected by something as changeable as clothing (2.5.26-27). 

With Orsino, Viola finds herself in the reverse situation. Though she loves Orsino, she cannot openly act upon her affections, as Orsino clearly prefers to romantically pursue women instead of eunuchs. She can only subtly hint at her feelings, blending female identity with her sexually ambiguous and vaguely masculine appearance:

My father had a daughter loved a man

As it might be, perhaps, were I woman

I should your lordship. (2.4.106-108)

Viola proceeds to weave a tale of a sister who wasted away due to the terrible burden of a secret and unrequited love. When Orsino asks if the sister died from her grief, Viola further collapses the separateness of her male and female identities in her response: 

I am all the daughters of my father’s house,

And all the brothers too–and yet I know not. (2.4.120-121)
Once again, Viola’s mixed-gender language suggests that male and female are equivalent and therefore exchangeable identities. Furthermore, her consistent ability to nimbly adopt, discard, and blend male and female aspects in order to adapt to her ever-changing surroundings lends itself to the notion that gender identity exists on a gradient scale rather than as a strict male-female binary. Viola’s skill at juggling male and female genders, however–despite successfully preserving her well-being–comes at a great cost to her romantic life; despite allowing her to be in constant close contact with the object of her affections, the ambiguous gender of her disguise prevents her from openly professing her love to Orsino in a socially acceptable manner. 

Orgel sums up Viola’s precarious situation, stating that “Viola as a eunuch, then, both closes down options for herself and implies a world of possibilities for others–possibilities that were, to a post-Reformation Protestant society, particularly (perhaps temptingly) illicit” (Orgel 56). Orsino is not completely ignorant of Cesario as a tempting romantic option, however. The tension between Orsino and his new page is not merely a one-sided, frustrated crush on Viola’s part. In an exchange between Viola and one of Orsino’s attendants, it is revealed that Orsino is exceptionally fond of his new page: 

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

Viola: …is he inconstant, sir, in his favors?

Valentine: No, believe me. (1.4.1-7)

Furthermore, Orsino wastes no time in marveling at how lovely Cesario is, noting his “smooth and rubious lips” and his high-pitched “maiden’s organ,” an unintentional double entendre hinting at the page’s true sex.  This slight homoerotic tension between Orsino and Cesario is not fretted upon much, partly because the smitten Viola doubtless enjoys the attention, and partly because such behavior wasn’t particularly startling in Shakespeare’s time.  The Renaissance view of love and attraction was far different from the relatively modern notion that one can identify oneself based on sexual attraction and gender identity. As Orgel notes, “To use the terms homosexual and heterosexual to describe the pre-enlightenment situation… is anachronistic and misleading” (Orgel 64). 

Thus, we return to the ending of the play. At first glance, the proposed relationships seem heteronormative. Upon closer inspection, several aspects of the interaction between Viola and Orsino remain vague. Orsino continues to refer to Viola as “boy” after her reveal; though his tone is affectionate, this address is troubling because it does not resolve the crisis of Viola’s binary gender identity with finality. Furthermore, Viola lacks a scripted costume change into her “maiden weeds”– her main identifiers in the play as a woman. This leaves Orsino married to Cesario, and Olivia wed to a person who is both “maid and man.” Viewed in context of the subtleties of gendered love and sexual attraction presented in the play, this ambiguous marriage of characters only reaffirms the notion that gender and sexual identities are fluid characteristics that the self creates and performs based upon cultural norms and individual preference. 

Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in “Twelfth Night.”” Theatre Journal 49.2 (1997): 121-41. Rpt. in Johns Hopkins UP. Jstor. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

Greenblatt, Stephen., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
New York: Norton, 2006.

Orgel, Stephen. “The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England.” Impersonations: 53-82. Rpt. in Cambridge UP, 1996.