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."