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Blog

Gender Bending in Shakespeare’s“Twelfe Night, or What You Will”

John Hodges

Richard III Belasco Theatre Joseph Timms Mark Rylance

Broadway’s all-male production of Shakespeare’s comedy of gender confusion closes in February.  One critic says, the “. . . performance brings to funny and delicious life the play’s message of the power of love and desire to transcend the limitations of gender.”  Wait, what?  Is that what Shakespeare’s point was? 

It is simply the Bard’s genius to create a love triangle that serves as a love circle.  Viola loves the Duke, the Duke, Olivia, but Olivia can close the circle and love Viola because Viola appears in the guise of a man, Cessario.  This makes for some wonderful comedy onstage and off, that is, among the critics.

It is popular now in universities to think in “politically correct” terms about classics.  A feminist perspective (that women have no significant power unless it is through a man) finds traction in this play as Viola is powerless and insignificant until she takes up the livery of a man.  Olivia lends support as an empowered woman, head of her household, who scorns the Duke’s proposals and resists the attempts by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio to tame her to their wishes.  With her newfound freedom of choice, however, she pursues Cessario, not knowing that Cessario is really the girl Viola, and this aspect of the plot lends credence to a popular homosexual perspective, that men and women have latent erotic tendencies toward their own genders.  To further this notion, there are  the sparks of attraction the Duke seems to feel toward Cessario (again not knowing she is a girl), and the love of Antonio proclaims for Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother) without any mistaken identity.

However, while Viola may gain some power and position when she is taken for a man, her decision to dress and act like a man was for security not power. She thought it was dangerous for a woman to go around in an unknown territory alone, a problem that is timeless.  While she IS a man, pining for the Duke and avoiding Olivia’s advances, she wishes she were NOT a man, and we know that she won’t be satisfied until she can again safely appear in public as a woman.

Sad is an “empowerment” that grants security but makes love impossible.  The homosexual argument falls apart by simply recalling the biblical distinctions between erotic love and brotherly love.  Olivia’s attraction to Viola is humorous only when it is taken as misguided eros, and the Duke’s attraction to Cessario is likewise funny when it is seen as misguided philia.  If either had known what both Viola and the audience know, these pursuits would end.  Additionally, the love of Antonio for Sebastian is proper philia (as is that of Jonathan and David in the bible) and, if mistaken for eros, spoils the happy ending we want for Olivia with Sebastian.

These feminist and homosexual interpretations are not only invalid (in that they fail to account for the play as a play), but they turn out to oppose the clarity of the biblical categories of love and gender which are the very things that make the play funny.  The comedy in Twelfe Night is lost on those who refuse to take such categories seriously.  Just another example of how political correctness has no sense of humor, and, if taken seriously, tends to rob the rest of us of ours.