In Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, we see a woman of noble birth, named Viola, cross dressing as a man, and working for a love sick Orsino. The object of his affection, the lovely Olivia, awkwardly falls for out disguised heroin, all the while what Viola is falling for her employer, the Orsino (and that’s just the three main characters). What could Shakespeare be saying about these pairings? Was it just to give the boy playing Viola a break from wearing dresses? Or was he trying to say something more about true love that transcends the physical body?
It is a well established belief, and hot topic of debate, that Shakespeare himself was not necessarily picky when it came to the gender of his romantic interests. Based on analyses of his sonnets, it is thought that he not only had an affair with several women, including the infamous ‘Dark Lady’ (who is the subject of 26 sonnets), but had an intense infatuation (at the very least) with the subject of 126 of his sonnets, known as the ‘Fair Lord’ sonnets.
It could be argued that Shakespeare, who loved to play with cross dressing his famous females, was saying something to how sexuality, gender, and love don’t have to be exclusive. In Twelfth Night, we see the homosexual subtext of Olivia falling for Viola (as Olivia believes Viola to be the pretty young man named Cesario), and Viola falling for the Orsino, but Orsino being extremely affectionate with his new employee, Cesario/Viola, going so far as constantly remarking on his/her beauty.
“Dear lad, believe it; […] Diana’s lip Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound, And all is semblative a woman’s part.” (1.4.5)
Thus showing early on that Orsino, even in his early relationship with Cesario/Viola is, at the very least, acutely aware of the youths attractive features and, in a way, foreshadows his eventual romantic inclinations toward him/her, even before discovering that Cesario is, in fact, Viola.
We can also see, what some would call blatant, homosexual context with the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian.
“ANTONIO: If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant. SEBASTIAN: If you will not undo what you have done— that is, kill him whom you have recovered—desire it not. … My bosom is full of kindness, and I am yet so near the manners of my mother that, upon the least occasion more, mine eyes will tell tales of me.” (2.2.34-41)
“This youth that you see here I snatched one half out of the jaws of death, Relieved him with such sanctity of love, And to his image, which methought did promise Most venerable worth, did I devotion.” (3.4.378-382)
“But, O, how vile an idol proves this god! Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame. In nature there’s no blemish but the mind; None can be called deformed but the unkind. Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil” (3.4.384-388).
All three of these quotes help solidify the idea that Antonio hold Sebastian in high esteem, comparing him to a god, and connecting Sebastian’s virtue to attractiveness, but that the pirates esteem seems biased almost entirely on a physical attraction to the youthful nobleman.
Although we can never be sure of Shakespeare’s true intentions with this play, or his thoughts on love and it’s transcending gender. We also have no solid proof to tell us if Shakespeare played for both teams, seeing a persons beauty and soul as more important to what their gender is. Yet, with Twelfth Night, we can certainly make an argument that Shakespeare cared more for the love of the person over the love of their gender.