What literary criticism can be found connecting Elizabethan social issues to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One social issue literary critics have connected Twelfth Night with concerns the prejudicial rejection of homosexuality. Literary critics notice Antonio's dedicated love for Sebastian and liken it to homosexual feelings. Critics also point out that at the end of the play, Antonio is left alone, abandoned, and ostracized from society, which critics say would point out the homophobia of the Elizabethan society. However, Nancy Lindheim disputes these critics' arguments and asserts that Shakespeare was not trying to make a point of Elizabethan homophobia because Elizabethans simply did not think of male-to-male relationships in the same way that our society does today ("Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night").

We clearly see Antonio's strong affection for Sebastian in several places. We especially see Antonio's declaration of love for Sebastian in the first scene in which we meet both of them in his lines, "If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant" (II.i.30-31). These lines can be translated as saying, "If you do not wish to kill me for the depth of my love for you, let me be your servant," which is another way of saying, "I shall die if you refuse to let me serve you" (Shakespeare-online, Twelfth Night). Antonio further shows his affection for Sebastian by being unable to stay behind; he absolutely must follow Sebastian into Illyria, even though he knows he will be arrested. He therefore loves Sebastian so much that his is willing to endanger his life for him.

However, Lindheim points out male-to-male friendships of this sort were not only common, but expected. According to Renaissance theory, male-to-male relationships were even considered to be a stronger bond than male-to-female relationships because males connected with each other on a spiritual and intellectual level. Male friendships were a "product of a moral choice" rather than the product of an instinctual sexual desire ("Rethinking," p. 11). Furthermore, this type of male friendship did not necessarily also imply sexual relations. In fact, Alan Bray also asserts that the Elizabethan society held moral and legal punishments for that type of activity, believing it to be "treason, witchcraft, and heresy" (as cited in Lindheim, p. 15). Hence, ultimately, we can argue that Antonio has not been ostracized by the end of the play for feeling this type of love for Sebastian because this type of love was typical and did not also imply homosexuality. Instead, Lindheim further points out that Shakespeare frequently makes use of male-to-male bonds "between men who are unequal in age or social standing" ("Rethinking"). Antonio is most likely older than Sebastian, and Sebastian is a member of the landowning gentry while Antonio is merely a sea captain, making them unequal in education and social status. Shakespeare uses a similar device in Love's Labour's Lost. The inequality of the friendships can make a person wonder just how mutual the friendship is. In other words, one can argue that Sebastian simply doesn't feel the same way about Antonio and that that is the real reason why Antonio is ostracized by the end of the play.

Therefore, while one can connect Twelfth Night to social issues like homosexuality and homophobia, it can be argued that those issues were not Shakespeare's intent because the issues simply did not exist in Elizabethan times.