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?