Study Guide

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night Essay - Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night

Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night

Introduction

Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night

Casey Charles, University of Montana

See also, Twelfth Night Criticism and volumes 34 and 85.

The emergence of queer studies in the academy has led to many influential rereadings of Renaissance works, including those of Shakespeare.1 While Twelfth Night continues to be one of the major textual sites for the discussion of homoerotic representation in Shakespeare, interpretive conclusions about the effect of same-sex attraction in this comedy are divided, especially in light of the natural "bias" of the heterosexual marriages in act 5.2 The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian has proven the most fertile ground for queer inquiry; for example, Joseph Pequigney recently has set out, in New-Critical fashion, to prove the "sexual orientation" of these two characters as unquestionably "homosexual" in a play whose "recurring theme" is "bisexuality."3 Although Pequigney's observations are refreshing as well as important, "The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love" unproblematically applies contemporary constructions of sexual identity to an early modern culture in which the categories of homo- and bisexuality were neither fixed nor associated with identity. In fact, as I will argue, Twelfth Night is centrally concerned with demonstrating the uncategorical temper of sexual attraction.

The other main focus of queer study in this drama continues to be the relationship between the Countess Olivia and the cross-dressing Viola/Cesario, though critics, tellingly, have discussed the lesbian erotics that are integral to the first three acts of the play much less often.4 In her recent Desire and Anxiety: The Circulation of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, Valerie Traub has acknowledged the lesbian overtones of the erotic scenes between Olivia and Viola as part of what she calls the play's "multiple erotic investments"; but her careful and ground-breaking study warns us that Viola's homoerotic investment is not celebrated in the play and concludes that Twelfth Night is less "comfortably" open in its representation of the "fluid circulation" of desire than As You Like It.5 In my view, the Olivia-Viola affair is more central to Twelfth Night than previously has been acknowledged. This centrality—along with the homoerotics found in relations between Antonio and Sebastian as well as between Orsino and his page—establish same-sex erotic attraction as a "major theme" in the play, to use Pequigney's shopworn term. But this theme functions neither as an uncomplicated promotion of a modern category of sexual orientation nor, from a more traditional perspective, as an ultimately contained representation of the licensed misrule of saturnalia.6 The representation of homoerotic attraction in Twelfth Night functions rather as a means of dramatizing the socially constructed basis of a sexuality that is determined by gender identity.

Judith Butler's critique of the notion that there are fixed identities based on the existence of genital difference provides a useful model for understanding how Twelfth Night uses the vagaries of erotic attraction to disrupt paradigms of sexuality. In Gender Trouble, Butler argues that the cultural meanings that attach to a sexed body—what we call gender—are theoretically applicable to either sex. Initially, Butler questions the idea that there is an essential, prediscursive subjectivity that attaches to the biology of either male of female, arguing that the "production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural constructions designated by gender."7 In other words, what she calls the law—the cultural, social, and political imperatives of social reality—actually produces and then conceals the "constructedness" that lies behind the notion of an immutable, prediscursive "subject before the law" (2). Her attack on the concept of biological inherence is followed by an equally strong indictment of the "metaphysics of gender substance"—the unproblematic claim that a subject can choose a gendered identity, that the self can "be a woman" or a man (21).

In Bodies That Matter, Butler's subsequent work, she partially retreats from this position of radical constructivism, returning to the sexed body by shifting the terms of the debate from the "construction" of "gender" through an interpretation of "sex" to an inquiry into the way regulatory norms "materialize" the sexed body, both in the sense of making it relevant and fixing or "consolidating" it. The reiteration of norms simultaneously produces and destabilizes the category of sex, creating "terrains" and "sedimented effects" that influence the way we understand the sexed body. Even as the process of materialization creates boundaries, surfaces, and contours by which sex is established as heterosexually normative, these strategies of materialization simultaneously expose the exclusions and "gaps" that are the constitutive instabilities inherent in these norms.8Bodies That Matter seeks to

understand how what has been foreclosed or banished from the "proper" domain of "sex"—where that domain is secured through a heterosexuaiizing imperative—might at once be produced as a troubling return, not only as an imaginary contestation that effects a failure in the workings of the inevitable law, but as an enabling disruption, the occasion for a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to matter at all.

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In both Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter the primary way that the categories of sex are both established and disrupted is through a process of what Butler calls "performativity," the means by which the norms of sex are naturalized and substantiated simply by their continual pronouncement as foundational and ideal—by the sheer weight of their repetition. Yet because this reiteration necessarily creates erasures that are the very cites of deconstructive possibilities, the interrogation of those exclusions is one strategy by which the symbolic hegemony of sexuality can be challenged.9 Although performativity is primarily a discursive practice derived from the notion of the performative in rhetoric, Butler acknowledges cross-dressing as a performative practice in which the "sign" of gender is parodically reiterated in a potentially subversive way. The performance of cross-dressing can be disruptive, Butler argues, to the extent it "reflects the mundane impersonations by which heterosexually ideal genders are performed" (231) or "exposes the failure of heterosexual regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals" (237).

Within the context of early modern theatrical culture, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night functions as a dramatic critique of the ideal norm of imperative heterosexuality in three interrelated ways. First, the effects of Viola's cross-dressing point to the socially constructed nature of gender in Shakespeare's play. Secondly, Shakespeare's drama interrogates the exclusionary nature of the constructed categories of sex and challenges the symbolic hegemony of heterosexuality by producing representations or "citations" of same-sex love between Viola and Olivia as well as Antonio and Sebastian. Lastly, I will argue that the final act, through a series of improbable turns of plot and phrase, exposes the failure of heterosexual "regimes ever fully to legislate or contain their own ideals."

I. The Renaissance Context: "I, poor monster" (2.2.33)10

The early modern English theatre, unlike its counterparts in other European countries, maintained the practice of using all-male acting companies to perform the parts of both men and women. Thus, an element of what Butler calls the "denaturalization" of gender difference is built into the structure of Elizabethan stage convention, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, like many other plays of the period, dramatizes the consequences of this ambiguity by casting its heroine Viola, played by a boy, as a character who cross-dresses as the male page Cesario.11 In the doubly androgynous role of male actor playing a woman playing a man, Viola/Cesario must literally perform the role of the male; her success before the aristocratic Orsino and Olivia consequently points to the constructedness and performative character of gender itself. In other Renaissance critical venues, the concept of performance in social roles has been discussed convincingly by Stephen Greenblatt as "self-fashioning" and by others in relation to the role of the courtier in Castiglione's famous treatise.12 Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is arguably about the fashioning of gender. This staging of gender imitation by Viola, the performance of her gender performance, uses her disguise and her identity with her brother Sebastian as vehicles to demonstrate that erotic attraction is not an inherently gendered or heterosexual phenomenon.13 The homoerotic and cross-gendered disruptions that ensue, finally, operate within a world that is properly named Ill-lyria in order to demonstrate how the phenomenon of love itself operates as a mechanism that destabilizes gender binarism and its concomitant hierarchies. Lovers like Olivia, Orsino, Malvolio, and Antonio construct fantasies that turn the objects of their affection into something more than they are, thereby disrupting the boundaries of compulsory heterosexuality and classconsciousness through the performance of these imaginary fantasies.

Butler's postmodern promotion of gender trouble and its application to Shakespeare's dramatization of sexual identity finds historical support in Renaissance conceptions of masculinity and femininity that, by most accounts, were much less essentialized than today's fixed categories of woman and man. Arguably more patriarchal, more homophobic, and more misogynist than contemporary western culture, the polarized rhetoric of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe nevertheless masks a decided anxiety about what is feared to be the actual fluidity of gender.14 Studying the pseudomedicai treatises of the period, commentators like Thomas Lacquer have argued convincingly that sixteenth-century anatomists viewed female genitalia as merely an inverted male penis and testicles.15 Renaissance scientist Johann Weyer, for example, states, "although women are feminine in actuality, I would call them masculine in potentiality," indicating the degree to which women were thought of as merely incomplete males, capable on certain traumatic physical occasions—a particularly tall hurdle or heated liaison—of springing forth a penis.16 What Weyer refuses to admit, in spite of evidence to the contrary from the physician Ausonius, is that men, given the proper circumstances, could as it were suck in their genitalia and become women. "[N]ature always adds, never subtracts," Weyer insists, "always thrusts forth, never holds back, always moves toward the more worthy, never toward the less" (346). Weyer's phobic response to the possibility of reciprocated interchange between men and women, his resort to ethics to uphold his science, is a telling sign that the barriers between masculine and feminine in Renaissance discourse were considerably more blurred than they are today. Although Greenblatt has argued that this homology between the sexes was almost always presented within the rhetorical context of a patriarchal ideology, the possibility of women becoming men and to a lesser extent men becoming women was a real one for the physiologic consciousness of the Elizabethan, who upon viewing the final scene of Twelfth Night saw just how interchangeable sex as well as gender were.17

The English Renaissance popularity of both the all-male stage companies and plays about gender switching reflects a social and cultural fascination with the subject who symbolized the bodily cite of this gender ambiguity: the hermaphrodite—strictly speaking, a person who possesses both male and female sexual organs, but more broadly defined as an androgynous subject with both male and female characteristics. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass have argued that Renaissance discussions of hermaphroditism reveal that all attempts to fix gender during this period were essentially "prosthetic," that gender in the Renaissance was "a fetish" that played "with its own fetishistic nature" unhampered by the essentializing claims of medicine and biology in the nineteenth century.18 Their view is usefully contrasted to that of Greenblatt, whose essay on Twelfth Night focuses finally on the way the discourse of androgyny is recuperated into a masculine ethos that supports a patriarchal gender hierarchy.19 The views of these critics are not, however, mutually exclusive; anxiety over the "prosthetic" nature of gender difference could well have produced the exaggerated rhetoric of misogyny and male superiority common in Renaissance discourse. In a play like Jonson's Epicoene, for example, representations of the ambiguity of gender in the silent woman exist in conjunction with the rhetoric of antifeminism in speeches by Truewit and Morose. When Sir Edward Coke, the foremost English jurist of the Renaissance states in his Commentaries that "every heir is either a male, or female, or an hermaphrodite, that is both male and female," he is acknowledging the degree to which official discourse sanctioned what Trumbach calls the "third sex."20 But when the same jurist states that hermaphrodites are required by law to follow either a masculine or female role exclusively, his injunction manifests an official desire to place that third term within a juridical binarism that reduces gender to the binary of sex.

The figure of the hermaphrodite, both on and off the stage, gives Renaissance culture a more ready and accepted focus for the questioning of the ideology of gender, even though the rhetoric of that ideology remains more strident. The Renaissance preoccupation with hermaphrodites in medical discourse accompanies social concerns about transvestites walking the streets of London like Moll Cutpurse or the ingle in Middleton's "Microcynicon," as well as in political concerns about queens who were kings...

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II. "I am the man" (2.2.24)

If part of the problem with the recent criticism of Twelfth Night comes from a proclivity on the part of some to reduce the concerns of gender studies to the us-against-them binarism of traditional feminism, Shakespeare's play arguably introduces patterns of homo-erotic representation in order to disrupt that binarism and to show how gender identities that uphold such duality are staged, performed, and "playable" by either sex. Viola/Cesario is the primary performer: she is that strange androgynous "monster," that eunuch/castrato/page or "script" who, through her gender ambiguity, retunes the music of love that has fallen out of key under the belated courtly scripts that the Count and Countess banally reenact...

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III. "I do adore thee so, / That danger shall seem sport" (2.1.46)

In counterpoint to the ironies and ambiguities that closet the lesbian subtext in the main courtship of Twelfth Night, the representation of male homoeroticism in this comedy is by contrast glaring and ultimately inexplicable. Metaphors of adoration, devotion, and passionate oblation saturate the heated but highly stylized rhetorical interactions between Sebastian, the twin brother of Viola, and Antonio, the erstwhile pirate, who redeems Sebastian "[f]from the rude sea's enrag'd and foamy mouth" and gives his life back to him, adding thereto his "love, without retention or restraint / All his in dedication" (5.1.76-80). Neither the Ciceronian tradition of male friendship nor attention to the intensity of...

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IV. "Thou hast put him in such a dream, that when the image of it leaves him he must run mad" (2.5.193-94)

Like Olivia's love for Cesario/Viola, Antonio's love for Sebastian partakes in a psychological enactment of fantasy that functions as an inward performance of gender trouble. Mistaking Viola for her twin brother in act 3, "even in a minute" Antonio has his faith undermined by the confused Cesario (3.4.370-72), who is unable to return Antonio's purse because he does not have it. In his crestfallen state, Antonio announces that he has done "devotion" to Sebastian's "image" with a "sanctity of love," but that this "god" has proved a "vile idol" unworthy of Sebastian's handsome features (3.4.374-75). Antonio's passionate disenchantment—reminiscent of Othello's—is based on a mistaken interpretation of objective...

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