Twelfth Night On Not Being Deceived: Rhetoric and the Body in Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

On Not Being Deceived: Rhetoric and the Body in Twelfth Night

Lorna Hutson, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London

Elder Loveless. Mistres, your wil leads my speeches from the purpose. But as a man—

Lady. A Simile servant? This room was built for honest meaners, that deliver themselves hastily and plainely, and are gone. Is this a time or place for Exordiums, and Similes, and metaphors?1

"Shakespearean comedy," writes Stephen Greenblatt, "constantly appeals to the body and to sexuality as the heart of its theatrical magic."2 Without wishing to disparage the enterprise of writing histories of the body, or indeed to underestimate what such histories have accomplished in terms of enhancing our understanding of early modern culture , I would like in the following pages to challenge the operation of a certain kind of "body history" within recent Shakespeare criticism. I do not so much want to disagree with Greenblatt's statement as it stands, as to argue that our understanding of how Shakespeare's comedy intervened, both in its own time and subsequently, to modify attitudes to sexuality and to gender has been more obscured than enlightened by the obsession with the "body" as Greenblatt here understands it, and with the kind of body history to which he and others have prompted us to turn.

1. Circulating Arguments: The "Single Sex" Body

(Shakespearean Criticism)

I shall focus my argument on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, a play which, for all the curiously metaphoric, even disembodied nature of the language in which it articulates the desires of its protagonists, has nevertheless become the touchstone of this "body" criticism within Shakespeare studies. Yet it is worth remarking that the current critical interest in Twelfth Night as a play about the indeterminacy of gender and the arbitrary nature of sexual desire actually began with the contemplation not of the materiality of the body, but with that of the signifier. In much earlier twentieth-century criticism, Shakespeare's comedies have been appreciated as temporary aberrations from an established sexual and social order for the purposes of a thoroughly conservative "self-discovery" and return to the status quo.4 Saussurian linguistics, alerting critics to the way in which meaning in language is always the effect of a play of differences, enabled them to challenge such interpretations on their own terms by arguing that the conservative denouement was inadequate to contain and fix the meanings released by the play of differences. This was especially the case in comedies such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night, in which the fiction of a woman's successful masquerade of masculinity is complicated by the understanding of its having been originally composed for performance by a boy. Suddenly, instead of being about the discovery of one's "true" identity, or a "natural" social and sexual order, it seemed that what the comedies were about was the ease with which systems of sexual difference could be dismantled, and the notion of gendered identity itself called into question. This was important when it happened—the mid-1980s—because at the same time feminist critics were beginning to draw attention to the misogynistic implications of the transvestite theater, thereby throwing into confusion that venerable tradition of critical delight in the sprightliness of Shakespeare's girls-dressed-as-boys. How could we go on liking Rosalind and Viola in the knowledge that what they really represented was the denial to women of access to the histrionic exchanges in which they excelled and we took pleasure?5 Just in time poststructuralist criticism saved us from the agony of this dilemma by recuperating the double transvestitism of the comedies as a calling into question of the "fully unified, gendered subject," thereby producing, instead of a patriarchal Shakespeare, a Shakespeare who, in the words of Catherine Belsey, offered "a radical challenge to patriarchal values by disrupting sexual difference itself."6

Subsequently, the notion that what the comedies were about was really the...

(The entire section is 15,683 words.)