Sebastian’s final lines in Shakespeare’s Twelve Night sums up the play’s central conundrum:
“You would have been contracted to a maid;
Nor are you therein, by my life, deceived,
You are betroth’d both to a maid and man.” (67).
On its surface, the play shows the confusions, struggles, and silliness of romance, and a love that the ancient Greeks called a sickness, infatuation, through the themes of identity and gender. However, dealing with these themes, there is an underlying question presented throughout the play, particularly about sexuality and gender and identity. The implications the content and conclusion of this play suggests raises questions about gender being the focal point of judging one’s sexuality, especially through Viola disguised as Cesario and through the conclusion of the play.
Viola is perhaps one of the most famous gender-bending character of all English literature. Her disguise as a male servant, under the Duke, defies all the conventions on its own. What is interesting about this concept is the emphasis on clothing to differentiate the genders. While Viola wears the clothes of a man, she fools all the other characters around her into thinking that she is a man: she succeeds in making a woman fall in love with her, Olivia, and become “bros” with the man she loves. For the first few lines she meets Sebastian again in the very last scene, she even has her own brother believe she is some long-lost cousin, which she, though happily, must prove she is his sister nevertheless. Before the Duke is convinced of her true identity as a woman, he must see her in her “weeds” (67) and still calls her Cesario, her male alter-ego, until he sees her in “other habits [she will be] Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen” (71). The emphasis on Viola’s clothes not only hides her true identity and gender, but also almost obscures the truth underneath those clothes, almost obscures her true gender and identity and makes them as flexible, as changeable, as the different clothes she wears.
If Viola’s disguise implies gender as a superficial identity, as the clothes she wears, then the ending of the play, where the characters swap lovers, forces a question of sexuality. Ironically, the only character out of the four main lovers in the end to remain consistently in love with one person of the opposite gender is Viola (perhaps Sebastian too, but his interactions with Antonio is questionable). Olivia fell in love with Viola as Cesario, but then, out of fortunate accident, she ends up marrying Sebastian (which touches upon a whole different issue); and with the Duke too, who was in love with Olivia for the whole play except in the last act, quickly changes his love toward Viola when she reveals she is a woman. The Duke’s strange and sudden confession of his love for Viola, without any hints or signs of romantic affection, begs the questions of whether he truly loves her and since when did he begin loving her. Had he felt something while he thought she was a man, he would not have been much confused and, I think, not accepted her love after he finds out she is a woman, if gender played a great role in his sexuality. Olivia, too, shows some fluidity with gender, though not as explicit as the Duke. One could say that she is a very vain character and only fell in love with Viola as Cesario because she flattered her (though not really). However, this is not how sexuality works: physical attraction plays a big part in romantic love, and gender is a big factor in how physically attractive a person is to another. In this perspective, one can view Olivia’s attraction to woman disguised as a man and then changing to a true male character as gender sexual ambiguity.
The questions about gender identity and sexuality is a big topic today, especially with the loud advocacy for transgender freedom and equality. It seems that, especially with the new movement to put transgender terminology into our everyday speech, we are met with such questions Viola’s disguise and the gender-switching lovers raises more frequently. But, on a deeper level, the questions about gender identity and sexuality is less about the physical, but more about the spirit. If gender is as fluid and changeable as the clothes Viola changes into, then what does that do to our spiritual identity? Some may interpret the end as a purer kind of love, because the characters are not so much focused on the genders or the physicality of their partner, but their spirit, their true identity. However, this also asks the question of whether gender is not part of one’s true spirit and identity also. If one turns away from gender as part of themselves, their love for themselves, to me, does not seem as full, as rich. The lovers at the end of Twelfth Night does not seem as full and genuine a love as it could have been.