Engraving of Plato


This is an image of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.429 –347 BC), whose text The Symposium informs the themes of gender, love and twinning in Twelfth Night. Though it has different meanings now, a ‘symposium’ was originally a drinking-party at which intellectual issues were discussed.

Finding our other half

At the party described by Plato, a character called Aristophanes delivers a fable explaining the origin of love. As humans, we were originally two creatures joined together with four hands, four feet and two faces, and emotional self-sufficiency. There were then three genders: male, female, and ‘androgynous’, a mixture of the two. When we grew overconfident, the god Zeus punished us by splitting us down the middle, separating us into the forms we now recognise as human bodies, and a permanent sense of loneliness and incompleteness which can only be remedied by finding our other half.

This story explains gender and sexuality with the detail that these ‘other halves’ vary. Those who began as a half-male, half-female creature will be attracted to their heterosexual other. Those who began as two males, or two females, will accordingly be searching for their homosexual other.

Shakespeare was writing in the context of the European Renaissance (a revival of Latin and Greek learning), and Plato’s thought had been translated from Greek into Latin by the Italian priest and scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). More immediately, Plato’s thought was present in the work of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, notably that of Ben Jonson (1572–1637) and Edmund Spenser (1552–1599).

An apple cleft in two

In Twelfth Night, this splitting is literally true of Viola and Sebastian: the play opens with their separation in a shipwreck, and closes with their reunion. In Act 5, Antonio echoes the language of the Symposium when he remarks of them

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

By dressing as Cesario, Viola becomes androgynous in a way which confuses many characters in the play. But Shakespeare keeps his comedy relatively light by avoiding the incest motifs which appear in some contemporary drama, and Viola and Sebastian’s sexual ‘other halves’ are represented by Orsino and Olivia.

Full title:
Plato, Aristonis F. ... [graphic] / Pet. Paul Rubens pinxit ; Luc. Vorstermans sculp.
17th century, Antwerp?
Print / Engraving / Illustration / Image
Lucas Emil Vorsterman [printmaker], Paul Rubens [painter]
Usage terms

ART File P718 no.1 (size M) Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Folger Shakespeare Library
ART File P718 no.1 (size M)

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