Twelfth Night and Shakespeare’s Attitude toward Homosexuality

Twelfth Night is a play that touches on issues that are incredibly sensitive, even by current standards. Homosexuality is the source of a great deal of debate and controversy in today’s world, but Shakespeare wrote this play in the late sixteenth century, approaching the subject of homoerotic desire through humor and comedy. While we have no direct evidence of Shakespeare’s personal views, his treatment of homoeroticism in this play, especially through the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian in Act II Scene I and Act III Scene III, can provide us with insight to his attitude toward such relationships. Antonio seems to be deeply infatuated with and devoted to Sebastian, who has no qualms taking advantage of Antonio in spite of the fact that he is essentially indifferent to him. If this relationship is any indication of Shakespeare’s attitude toward relationships that have homoerotic elements, then his sympathetic treatment of Antonio and his portrayal of Sebastian as opportunistic would suggest that Shakespeare understood the strain that societal attitudes placed on homosexuals.

In approaching this issue, it is important to first look at how Shakespeare ended Twelfth Night by providing safe, heterosexual outlets for the homoerotic overtones that characterize the play. One of the central conflicts of the play—which is apparent in Olivia’s lines Act IV, Scene I—is solved by the mistaken identity of Sebastian. When the play begins, Duke Orsino seeks to woo Olivia, who will have no suitor as she mourns her brother. She allows Cesario to come forth and present Orsino’s suit, but instead of accepting Orsino’s propositions, she falls in love with Cesario. Because Olivia believes that Sebastian is Cesario, a marriage is arranged in Act IV, Scene I between the two. Because Viola has developed a warm relationship with Orsino as Cesario, Orsino does not need to be terribly disappointed at losing Olivia to Sebastian. The appearance of Sebastian in this scene as a character who will accept Olivia’s advances frees Viola not only from Olivia’s pursuit, but also to reveal her true identity and her love for Orsino. This scene is crucial to the peaceful resolution of the play. Sebastian’s appearance at this point in time serves both to redirect the homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships and to allow for a comic rather than tragic ending.

Shakespeare was constrained in his writing by the sensibilities of his audience and society at large. The redirection of homoerotic energies into heterosexual relationships does not necessarily provide an accurate impression of how Shakespeare felt about homoerotic relations. His treatment of Sebastian and Antonio provides more insight into his views, especially because Antonio is portrayed as a character who actively embraces homoerotic desire for Sebastian. Orsino’s admiration for Cesario is apparent, but in the action of the play, it is made clear that these characters will not act on their desire, at least before the true identity of Cesario is revealed. Similarly, Olivia’s attraction to Cesario, however obvious, comes across clearly as desire that will not be fulfilled, at least not by Cesario. As we see in these instances, while it might have been on the edge of social acceptability to feature homoerotic desire, Shakespeare avoids treating the desire as acceptable by making it clear that in neither case will the desire be fulfilled. This was not necessarily the case with Antonio and Sebastian.

Beginning in Act II Scene I, Shakespeare introduces the tension between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio has rescued Sebastian, who has called himself Roderigo, and brought him safely to land. Sebastian, in urging Antonio to go his own way, says “I may bear my evils alone: it were a bad recompense for your love, to lay any of them on you.” The love that Antonio has shown Sebastian may simply be the rescue and safe voyage to land, but it seems likely to me that in that safe passage, Antonio and Sebastian might have indulged in their homoerotic desires. It would serve as an explanation for Sebastian’s desire to keep his name secret, as well as Antonio’s remark, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.” This remark certainly seems to give Antonio away as having overt homoerotic desire for Sebastian, but even then, for Sebastian to kill him seems rather extreme. He would, however, have much more reason for wanting to do away with Antonio if they had, in fact, been involved with each other in physical intimacy. Sebastian has no real reason for concern being the object of Antonio’s desire, as that says nothing about his character. If he had, however, been involved with Antonio romantically, he would have much more reason for wanting to be rid of him for good, whether that meant by killing him or simply walking out of his life.

Cristina Malcomson, in her article “What You Will,” says that “the ideology of the play resides in its formulation of love, which includes both dominant, traditional notions of interdependence, and newly emerging attitudes toward individual choice and personal desire, or, as the play puts it, ‘will'” (Wayne 31, 32). In the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, Antonio alone feels the love, and his attempts at establishing interdependence are apparent in his admonishment to Sebastian: “let me be your servant.”

Malcomson also states in her article that “Twelfth Night considers advancement in terms of a marriage market which in the play is much more open to personal choice and status exogamy than it is in traditional society, and which also firmly closes down at particular moments” (Wayne 31). Antonio’s love for Sebastian might be considered one of those moments to which she refers. And because Antonio could never hope to marry Sebastian, neither in traditional society nor in the “more open” marriage market of Twelfth Night, the best he can hope for is the attachment to Sebastian through servitude.

Antonio’s role as a minor character in this play, however, was likely a choice made based on Shakespeare’s preference to focus on other issues. “Not only are female triumphs compared to male inadequacies; the proper attitude towards marriage becomes the mirroring reflection of the proper attitude towards social advancement. . . the play dramatizes the superiority of women to men in order to call into question the rigid structures of the traditional order, and, in the process, to validate certain forms of social mobility” (Wayne 31). Shakespeare’s decisions are not unlike the decisions made by certain civil rights leaders in the twentieth century, who believed that there would be much less resistance to extend rights a little bit at a time, to one group at a time, than to grant equal rights across the board to all minority groups. Not that I think that Shakespeare even vaguely considered the notion of same-sex marriage, nor even hoped to use this play (or any of his others of which I’m aware), to challenge social attitudes toward homoerotic behavior. But while one of this play’s main goals might be to “challenge the rigid structures of the traditional order,” Shakespeare still introduces Antonio on the periphery and through him, gives evidence of a peripheral attitude—namely the attitude toward homoerotic relations that he deftly avoids addressing through his treatment of major characters in the conclusion of the play.

However, Antonio is still involved in the new social mobility to which Malcomson refers. She says of Antonio: “[he] is the model for the new servant imagined by the play, since his service is based on desire rather than duty or reverence.” She suggests that all social mobility, according to this play, should be based on that same desire, as it is with the women. Most social roles at the time, especially those of servitude and other lower-class roles, were the function of a person’s birthright, not their talents, aptitudes, or aspirations. While the women of this play are given freer reign than would have been socially acceptable at the time, there are still relative constraints to that freedom. Sebastian and Viola seem to be of decent stock from whichever country is theirs—the Captain in Act I Scene II addresses Viola as “lady”—so it does not seem outrageous that they would be able to marry Olivia and Orsino, respectively. Even Maria is not too far removed from Toby Belch in social status, and her marriage to him is bestowed as a “reward” for her cleverness. She seems to enjoy, or desire, her service to Toby as Antonio does his service to Sebastian. Malvolio, on the other hand, is too wrapped up in himself to bee very concerned with his service to Olivia, and though he is ecstatic at the false prospect of marriage to her, it has more to do with his desire for social advancement than his desire for her as a lover. Between that and Olivia’s preoccupation with Cesario, Malvolio never stood a chance, much like Antonio, whose desire seems to operate on a completely different level. Malvolio’s desire for service is motivated by a drive to advance himself in terms of social status, and as Malcomson pointed out, “female triumphs [are] compared to male inadequacies” (Wayne 31).

Valerie Traub points out that “the meanings of homoerotic desire during the early modern period seem to have been remarkably unfixed, with contradictory meanings existing across a complex and fractured field of signification. . . homoerotic activity—for men or women—was not a primary means of identification of the self. Homoeroticism had little to do with any of the social roles, statuses, and hierarchies in which an early modern subject might be located and thereby define him/herself.” Antonio might have been well aware of his homoerotic desires, for Sebastian and possibly others, but according to Traub’s suggestions, he likely did not identify himself too strongly with those desires. Other concerns, “social roles, statuses, and hierarchies,” were of much greater importance than a person’s sexual orientation. Marriage between man and woman, whether founded on desire and love or social pressures and constraints, would probably have had very little effect on homoerotic relations, which posed no threat of producing illegitimate children. For Antonio to become Sebastian’s servant leaves open the possibility of ongoing involvement, regardless of Sebastian’s marital status, and this type of relationship would mark the height of what could be hoped for by two men bound by mutual homoerotic desire.

Cristina Malcomson’s suggestion that this play “dramatizes the superiority of women to men” provides an explanation for Antonio’s failure to advance himself socially through his desire to serve Sebastian, but it does not seem to address Sebastian’s own successful social advancement through his marriage to Olivia. In Act IV Scene III, just before he is to be married to Olivia, Sebastian yearns for Antonio’s counsel, in the face of “this accident and flood of fortune.” He imagines that he must be losing his mind, or that Olivia has lost hers, but wonders, “if ’twere so, She could not sway her house, command her followers, take and give back affairs and their dispatch with such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing.” While the marriage between the two should be considered a triumph more for Olivia than for Sebastian, it seems to be significant that he is preoccupied not only with Olivia’s status, but also with Antonio’s whereabouts. When Sebastian encounters Antonio again in the final scene of the play, he greets him: “Antonio, O my dear Antonio! How have the hours rack’d and tortured me, Since I have lost thee!”

While Valerie Traub suggests that “the homoerotic energies of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino are displaced onto Antonio, whose relation to Sebastian is finally sacrificed for the maintenance of institutionalized heterosexuality and generational continuity,” she goes on to explain that “the fear expressed, however, is not of homoeroticism per se. . . [it is] fear of erotic exclusivity and its corollary: non-reproductive sexuality” (Traub 123). The problem that the love between Antonio and Sebastian poses is circumvented by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, which frees the two to continue in their relationship, as long as it remains subordinate to Sebastian’s marriage.

Antonio displays a very favorable sort of love in Twelfth Night in that he is as devoted to serving his love as Viola to Orsino and as determined in his desire as Olivia to Cesario/Sebastian. Not only is his plight treated by Shakespeare with extreme sympathy, Antonio is consistently portrayed as a character who maintains his honor and dignity throughout the play. By the end of the play, Antonio is not “sacrificed,” as Traub suggests, but has achieved a rather smashing success in his role as servant to Sebastian, and their relationship is not lost to, but rather legitimized by, Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia. In finishing this play, Shakespeare reinforces social conventions of heterosexual marriage in order to ensure reproductive sexuality, but his treatment of the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian leaves open the possibility for viable non-reproductive sexuality between respectable, even favorable, characters, suggesting that he sympathized with those who are prone to homoerotic desire.

Works Consulted:

  • Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London, Routledge, 1992.
  • Wayne, Valerie, ed. The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1991.
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