Twelfth Night a play about LGBTQ relationships

I wish I could be an audience member in the Globe Theater, watching a boy cross-dress as a girl, that cross-dresses as a boy in the role of Viola. I can only imagine the hilarity of watching Twelfth Night live and being able to fully understand Shakespeare’s vision; I like to keep in mind that the theater was a place where only men performed on stage, and that Olivia and Viola would be played by actors comparable to young boy actors, sort of like “eunuchs” of the time that Viola parodies. Shakespeare used the actors to his advantage in Twelfth Night as an added layer of complexity and comedy. Thinking about Twelfth Night as a contemporary reader creates an image of Twelfth Night in the light of modern issues with the LGBTQ community, and the apprehension that a modern audience would have if this were released today.

Shakespeare seems to have a knack for shaking up gender roles and explicitly using gender as a tool for comedic effect in his plays. Twelfth Night is especially explicit in that Shakespeare utilized ideals of desire, marriage, and the basic human need for companionship through an androgynous lens to allow relationships and complex emotions to develop throughout the play. There is an overall fluidity in gender and human relationships that Shakespeare does not hesitate to explore. For example, a more blatant same sex relationship is when we first meet Sebastian and Antonio. Antonio strongly notes a bond he feels with his distressed friend:  “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant.” [2.1.30] I think it is fair to say that Shakespeare could be suggesting a homosexual bond that Antonio feels towards Sebastian.

I like that Shakespeare is not afraid to exploit gender and complex sexual relationships; but again, I like to imagine how a modern audience would approach it. Would an LGBTQ audience declare him homophobic because he is satirizing homosexuality? Would it be condemned just because it is so bluntly explorative of these relationships? 

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4 thoughts on “Twelfth Night a play about LGBTQ relationships

  1. Cmckinney

    I like the idea of your blog topic. How you had mentioned you would loved to had been in the audience to see how people reacted to this cross gender dressing and the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. I too thought how it was a little odd that Antonio had saved Sebastian but Antonio seemed to be the one pursuing Sebastian and following him around. It wasn’t as though Sebastian was just great-full for Antonio saving his life and thought he had owed him something. This was an entirely different type of relationship. I think if this play were to be seen now for the first time given how our society is a little easy on the subject of same sex marriages now it would of just been played out and no one would of really thought of it in any way. Who knows maybe in Shakespears time it was accepted too for men to have relationships like this.

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  2. Alexander Hall-Hognason

    I do not think there was any homosexual connection between Antonio and Sebastian. I don’t think anything in the text suggests that a desire on Antonio’s part to “know” (in the biblical sense) Sebastian in that way.

    I know that when I make new friends, and especially when those new friends are about it for me in terms of friends – then I make like a barnacle and stick myself onto my new friends (not in a literal sense). For me, the relationship is certainly a platonic one – and even, like Antonio, I do not need to feel quite the reciprocation that I might deserve, because it makes me happy just to be in a social atmosphere.

    There certainly is a lot of LGBTQ relations going on as far as the audience is concerned, but again, for the characters, everything is mainly heterosexually charged. Not that Shakespeare wasn’t forward thinking, but I think seeing sex in everything instead of just social desire, kind of makes you miss the point of the relationships in the play.

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  3. alexsokolinski

    I actually do agree with your thoughts about Antonio and Sebastian, there are multiple times throughout the play that Antonio expresses a love for Sebastian in a different way than Shakespeare has explored in other plays. Understanding the dynamics of male relationships of the time is a huge advantage when it comes to situations like this in the plays because it lets us distinguish between a friendly or a homosexual love. I as well would love to see how these boys/men would preform this play and it leads me to my own question of how much did Shakespeare think about who was preforming these roles. Did he consciously think of how funny it would be to have a boy play a woman who plays a boy? Or was it not even a thought because of how women did not preform in his works when they were originally preformed.

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  4. Lex

    I’m also leaning towards the reading of a more profound bond between Sebastian and Antonio than what may, at first, meet the eye. I think the point that solidified this reading of the relationship for me was when Antonio believed Cesario to be Sebastian and therefore refusing to acknowledge the fact that they knew each other. As Antonio is carted off by the police he calls out about how injured and hurt he is by Sebastian’s refusal to hand back the purse, but also his acknowledgement. If they were simply friends there would be injury, but I do not believe it would be to the level of hurt displayed by Antonio. That kind of pain is reserved for those whom have had their heart broken by the ones they entrusted said heart with.

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