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On Love in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Monday was Twelfth Night, or the Twelfth day of Christmas in the old western church calendar. Advent season is marked by the 4 Sundays and weeks before Christmas Day, and the “Twelve Days of Christmas” run from December 26th to January 6th, the eve of Epiphany. So the twelfth night of Christmas marks the end of the celebration of Christmas, and in Shakespeare’s time, that meant parties and reveling…the perfect time for a light-hearted comedy. So, he wrote Twelfth Night, or What You Will in the year 1601 with its first performance in 1602. The fun of the plot revolves (as so many comedies do) around love. Pining and longing for the beloved, foolish actions and resulting misadventures, finally happy endings (though somewhat bittersweet for some characters) and more than one wedding.

What genius to create a love triangle that serves as a love circle! Three people, and each loves the next: A loves B, B loves C, and C loves A! Impossible you say? Not if A is a girl posing as a boy. Viola can love the Duke, who loves Olivia, but Olivia can close the circle and love Viola because Viola appears in the guise of the man, Cessario. This makes for some wonderful comedy both onstage and off, that is, among the critics.

In recent decades of questionable scholarship it has become fashionable to think in ideological terms about Shakespeare’s plays, often interpreting characters and situations with a homosexual or feminist slant (among others). Twelfth Night, with its “gender-bending,” is ripe fruit for such interpretations.[1]

The feminist complaint, that women in Western culture have no significant power unless it comes through a man, finds traction in Twelfth Night in two ways. First, the fact that Viola is powerless and insignificant until she takes up the livery of a man, and second that Olivia, empowered now as head of her household, scorns the Duke’s proposals and resists the attempts by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Malvolio to tame her to their wishes. She then pursues her own love interest, and her heart leads her toward Cessario.

The homosexual perspective, that men and women have latent tendencies toward erotic feelings toward their own genders, may seem to find support in Olivia’s open love for Cessario (Viola in men’s clothes), and simultaneously the sparks of attraction the Duke seems to feel toward Cessario (even though she is a “young man”). Additionally, there is also the open love of Antonio for Sebastian without any mistaken identity, that becomes all the more poignant when Viola/Cessario (Sebastian’s twin) denies that love after Antonio mistakes her for Sebastian. (still with me?) Cessario proves attractive to Olivia, and Viola is definitely attracted to the Duke; Cessario, looking for all the world like Sebastian, doesn’t know Antonio at all, and thus denies him when the two come face to face.

The feminist argument loses traction, when we dig into the play a little farther. Viola may gain power and position when she is taken for a man, but her decision to dress and act like a man was not to gain power as such, but rather to gain security. She thought it would be dangerous for a woman to go around in an unknown territory alone, a problem that is timeless and of which wise women are aware. 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. How many women have listened to that siren call, pursuing security over love by competing with men in the marketplace, only to find that married love and family is what they wanted more than anything? They may realize too late the real power that women have: the power to bear and shape the next generation.

The homosexual argument falls apart by simply recalling the biblical distinctions between erotic love and brotherly love. In fact, the comedy in Twelfth Night is possible only for those who take such categories seriously. 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, it would no longer be funny. 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, namely a happy marriage to Sebastian, Viola’s twin.

So, feminist and homosexual interpretations, when taken to their logical ends, fail to account for the play as a play, or for its humor, and would have confused and irritated both the playwright and his audience. The biblical categories of love and gender give clarity, delight, and meaning.

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