Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night
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.
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...
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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 in Illyria. Like the drag queen Butler discusses in Gender Trouble, Viola/Cesario demonstrates a parodic awareness of the three contingent dimensions of her corporeality: her anatomical sex as a boy actor, her gender identity in the drama as a woman washed ashore, and her gender performance as the page Cesario in the employ of the sexist Orsino.
Cesario points to himself as actor or performer in the metadramatic comments he makes in his first encounter with Olivia in act 1, scene 5. Having reluctantly been asked to woo the countess on behalf of the man she loves, Cesario initially feels conflicted about delivering the "speech" he has "penned" and "conned" (1.5.174-75). When Olivia asks where he has come from, Cesario...
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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 homosocial male bonding in the Renaissance can explain away Antonio's melancholia. He is prepared, we learn, to spend three months with his foundling after rescuing him, prepared to risk his life to follow Sebastian to Illyria (where he is wanted on criminal charges) prepared to give this young man his purse, and prepared finally to intercede on his behalf in the midst of a duel: "I do adore thee so," Antonio states, "That danger shall seem sport, and I will go" (2.1.46-47; emphasis mine). Like Olivia, Antonio has "exposed himself pure for love"—an exposure doubly dangerous because its gendered object represents an unmentionable anathema to the religious and judicial laws that officially condemned such homoerotic behavior. To put...
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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 reality, and like the amorous image-making that preceded it, his recasting of Sebastian into the image of a deceiving "devil" partakes of the same process of transference that marked his process of falling in love. He turns his lover into something more than he is through a mentality that seeks finally the attention of the idol that he has created, fashioned, and enacted in the realm of his imaginary fantasy. Although his bitterness is played out within the comedic context of his mistaking a "girl" for his "boy," his virulent disappointment stands in marked contrast to his unexplained silence in the play's final act, when his beloved Sebastian has cavalierly married and when, from a contemporary point of view, Antonio would seem to have more...
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