A Queer reading of Twelfth Night

Miranda Fay Thomas explores how Twelfth Night interrogates conventional ideas about gender and sexuality, portraying gender as performative and suggesting erotic possibilities between same-sex pairs.

At the end of the film Shakespeare in Love, a heartbroken Shakespeare bids farewell to his lover and immortalises her in a new play that he begins to write as the film credits roll. When he first meets her, she is dressed as a boy as she is determined to act upon the Elizabethan stage despite its ban on female performers. Shakespeare writes his lady into a plot where, once again, she must disguise herself as a man, only to fall in love and be unable to declare it due to her newly assumed gender.

Of course, the plot of Shakespeare in Love is fictional: there is no evidence that Shakespeare based the character of Viola upon a real person. But the film introduces us to one of the key elements of Twelfth Night: the way in which gender can be constructed, or performed, by anyone with the means to do so. However, while Shakespeare in Love toys but briefly with the queerness of Shakespeare having a relationship with a person who dresses as a man, the plot ultimately reinforces heteronormativity (that is, traditional expectations of gender and sexuality) in a way that Twelfth Night more actively questions.

Gender as performance

Because female performers were banned from the English stage in Shakespeare’s day, all of a play’s characters – be they male, female, or somewhere in between – were played by men. While the audience would certainly suspend their disbelief over the actual gender identity of the actors, the effects of this casting should not be underestimated. First of all, it would have inevitably lent an extra frisson to the heterosexual relationships portrayed onstage, which would only be further enhanced by a play like Twelfth Night, where you have a boy actor pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. But secondly, as Bruce R Smith has noted, it 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.[1]

Photograph of Mark Rylance in Olivia costume in Shakespeare's Globe's production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Photograph of Mark Rylance in Olivia costume in Shakespeare's Globe's production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Mark Rylance plays Olivia in a modern return to the original practice of all-male casting.

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Copyright: © Photo of John Tramper, courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe

Photograph of Mark Rylance applying makeup for Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Photograph of Mark Rylance applying cosmetics for Shakespeare's Globe's production of Twelfth Night

Mark Rylance plays Olivia in a modern return to the original practice of all-male casting.

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Copyright: © Photo of John Tramper, courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe

Photograph of Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario and Rhys Meredith as Sebastian in Shakespeare's Globe production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Photograph of Sebastian and Cesario - looking remarkably similar due to makeup and wigs

Men playing women disguised as men: Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario (right), alongside Rhys Meredith as Sebastian.

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Copyright: © Colin Willoughby / ArenaPal

When Viola dresses as Cesario, one of their most poignant lines is, ‘I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too’ (2.4.120–21). Believing her brother to be dead, Viola keeps him alive by dressing in drag and assuming his identity. It is a beautifully genderqueer moment, and different productions of the play may interpret Viola’s gender presentation in a number of different ways. It could be interpreted as a new lifestyle choice, reflecting a truer version of the person that Viola/Cesario is but has never before had the opportunity to present; or more simply, it could be a plot device and part of the means to an end for the play’s storyline of confused lovers. But, as Valerie Traub notes, ‘it is as object of another woman’s desire that Cesario finds her own erotic voice’.[2] 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’.[3] Cesario dresses as a man, and therefore for all intents and purposes is a man in the eyes of the other characters. Cesario is both beloved of Olivia and infatuated with Orsino: gender fluidity, then, serves as the play’s central dramatic irony.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Orsino, Viola as Cesario, and Olivia. Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1 by William Hamilton

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In her introduction to Shakesqueer, Madhavi Menon describes queerness as a concept which, ‘recognizes the absurdity of limits and interrupts the ways in which we live our lives and write our texts’.[4] While it is true that straightness (either in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity) as a category did not fully exist in Shakespeare’s day, some were outspoken against what would now be described as cross-dressing. The prolific pamphleteer Philip Stubbes writes in his Anatomy of Abuses (1584) that:

our apparell was given as a sign distinctive, to discern betwixt sexe and sexe, and therefore one to wear the apparell of an other sex, is to participate with the same and to adulterate the veritie of his own kind.[5]

But of course, that is the whole point of Cesario’s transformation: Twelfth Night depicts one’s gender as essentially a performed role, a simple change of costume marking a change in identity.

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

Anti cross-dressing literature: Stubbes writes against ‘Women wearing Dublets and Jerkins’.

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Engraving of Plato

Engraving of Plato

Plato, whose vision of love is both homosexual and heterosexual.

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Shakespeare’s sources for Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night was written around 1601 and first performed in 1602. Composed at the end of the Elizabethan era, its plot is thought to spring from a number of possible sources, many of which influence Twelfth Night’s fixation with sexual identity and gender. The first of these sources is Plato’s Symposium, where Aristophanes describes the origin of love. Originally, he says, humans were conjoined, with each pair making a complete person. Some of these pairs were both male, some both female, and some partnerships contained a male and a female. However, Zeus decided to punish humans for their arrogance, splitting the creatures down the middle and detaching ourselves from our literal ‘other halves’. At the conclusion of Twelfth Night, Antonio uses language which recalls this story. Upon gazing at the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, he is agog:

How have you made division of yourself?
An apple cleft in two is not more twin
Than these two creatures. (5.1.223–25)

Barnaby Riche’s Riche his farewell to his military profession (1581), contains a number of stories, the second of which is a source for Twelfth Night: ‘Apolonius and Silla’, a tale of two twins and their respective love interests. Unlike Viola, Silla takes the name of her lost brother, Silvio, when she presents as a different gender. The Italian play Gl’Ingannati has also been noted as a possible source for Twelfth Night. Its similarities of plot were first noted by John Manningham in 1602, whose diary records a performance of Twelfth Night he saw: he commented that it was ‘most like a neere to that Italian called Inganni’, given that the plays share a set of identical twins who are confused with each other. However, unlike Twelfth Night, Gl’Ingannati would have featured women on the Italian stage.

Rich his Farewell to Military Profession, 1594

Rich his Farewell to Military Profession, 1594

In this tale, Silla disguises herself as her brother Silvio to work for and win the love of Apolonius, the duke.

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Gl’Ingannati, an Italian play about twins and mistaken identity

Gl’Ingannati, an Italian play about twins and mistaken identity

This possible source for Twelfth Night also features twins and cross-dressing.

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Shakespeare and sexuality

Questions of sexuality in Shakespeare, and indeed questions about Shakespeare’s own sexuality, began scarcely before the ink was dry. While married to Anne Hathaway, who remained in Stratford-upon-Avon throughout Shakespeare’s career in London, he addressed 126 of his sonnets to a young man. And yet as early as 1640, editors were keen to expunge any whiff of homosexuality from the sonnets, with John Benson publishing an edition of the poems with many of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ revised to ‘she’ and ‘her’. This dismissal of queerness in canonical works of literature, particularly from this period, is not only disappointing and intellectually dishonest; it is also simply inaccurate: labels such as homosexual or heterosexual ‘did not exist as conceptual categories’ at the time Shakespeare was writing.[6] As such, looking for LGBTQ identities in plays such as Twelfth Night enable us to rediscover approaches to gender and sexuality that defy the binaries imposed on Western society since the introduction of the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ in the late 19th century. Finding queer love and identity in Shakespeare’s plays would not have been defined as queer back then, but the practice of censoring same-sex relationships in Shakespeare, from Benson and beyond, is still in the process of being righted and re-explored by both critics and performers. Twelfth Night, with its homosexual overtones and its depiction of a character presenting as an alternate gender, is a particularly rich case in point.

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Although this poem is to a man, Benson titles it ‘An intreatie for her acceptance’.

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Sebastian and Antonio

Let us turn now to the characters of Sebastian and Antonio, described by Stephen Orgel as ‘the only overtly homosexual couple in Shakespeare except for Achilles and Patroclus’.[7] The Renaissance period was keen to promote the strong bonds of male friendships, but the words exchanged between these two characters certainly moves beyond this into the language of erotic love. Antonio says of Sebastian, ‘I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport’ (2.1.43–44). The gulf of social status between the two could be one reason for the language of servile devotion, which also occurs in the exchanges between Olivia and Cesario, and Cesario and Orsino; but if the latter two relationships are noted for their erotic charge, we must also consider the possibility of a romance between Sebastian and Antonio. Productions such as Lyndsey Posner’s for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001 emphasise such readings, with the two men enacting Act 2, Scene 1 while getting dressed beside an unmade double bed.

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 – play on.


[1] Bruce R. Smith, Shakespeare and Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 3–4.

[2] Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 57.

[3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 2007 [1990]), p. 34.

[4] Madhavi Menon, ‘Queer Shakes’, pp. 1–27 in Shakesqueer: a Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 7.

[5] Philip Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses (London: 1584), p. 38; quoted in Dympna Callaghan, ‘“And all is semblative a woman’s part”: Body Politics and Twelfth Night’, in Twelfth Night: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. by R S White (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave, 1996), p. 135.

[6] Mario DiGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 39.

[7] Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 51. NB Achilles and Patroclus are from the play Troilus and Cressida.

  • Miranda Fay Thomas
  • Miranda Fay Thomas is writing up her PhD at King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe, where she works on gender and performance in Early Modern drama. Her writing on Shakespeare has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and The Independent, and last year she convened Gesture Lab at the Globe: a public engagement workshop exploring shaming gestures in Shakespeare’s plays. In addition to her thesis, she is starting work on a new project on the history of the Renaissance history play, and will teach on summer schools at both King’s and Oxford University this summer.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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