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Same-Sex Relationships in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night, Or What You Will"

Updated on May 5, 2014
William Shakespeare; copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout
William Shakespeare; copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout | Source

Unsatisfied Love In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"

In Shakespeare’s entertaining romantic comedy “Twelfth Night, Or What You Will,” the reader encounters many types of love and relationships, as well as happy endings for three lucky couples. We see Sir Toby marry Maria, Olivia wed Sebastian, and Orsino happily committed to Viola. Despite the humorous love triangle that had developed over the play, no one was hurt in the end, and everyone got their happy ending—or so it seems. Upon the conclusion of the play it is interesting to ponder over the unsatisfied feelings that must be present within the same-sex relationships that had formed within the play. In each pairing there is a third person who, given the nature of human emotions, should feel some discontent at the outcome of the marriage, two of those relationships being homoerotic in nature. It would be expected for Sir Andrew, Antonio, and Olivia to all feel a bit displaced and unsatisfied with the apparent happy endings that conclude the play.

 Poster for performances of William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night," performed by the Yale University Dramatic Association in 1921
Poster for performances of William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night," performed by the Yale University Dramatic Association in 1921 | Source

Olivia's Love Relationships In "Twelfth Night"

In the play we see Olivia fall for Viola dressed as Cesario, after months of having sworn off men. Viola did not encourage this, but Olivia was drawn to her anyway. Why is this? Olivia did not fall in love with a man; she unknowingly fell in love with the woman that Cesario was. It was after Cesario’s speech in act 1.5 lines 254-62, that we see Olivia’s love take forth. Viola’s passionate words, spoken with the power of her own love for Orsino resonated with Olivia and captured her heart. Olivia falls hard for Viola, for her passionate speech and quick wit, “thy tongue thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit/ Do give the fivefold blazon (1.5.279-80). It is not Viola’s face, but Viola herself that Olivia has fallen for.

Olivia by Edmund Blair Leighton
Olivia by Edmund Blair Leighton | Source

Suddenly Olivia finds herself with Sebastian—who shares the face of her love Cesario—but is a completely different person. Sebastian is very masculine, he is quick to fight, and holds a personality very different than that of Cesario. We see little of Sebastian, but what we do see is a masculine man who fights well and marries Olivia even though he knows she has him mistaken for someone else. It seems the honorable thing to do would have been to explain to Olivia that he was not Cesario, but he was of course captivated by the lady Olivia. “Or I am mad, or else this is a dream. / Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep; / if it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!” (4.2.58-60).

In the end Olivia is married to a stranger with the person she really loves becoming her new sister—a likely scenario for emotional turmoil, but we see none from her. The only lines we see pertaining to Viola and Sebastian from Olivia are “Most wonderful!” (5.1.223), and “A sister! You are she” (5.1.323). One can only assume that a scenario such as this would create great feelings of disappointment in Olivia—after all, the person she really loves is not the person she married, but is instead her soon to be sister-in-law.

Antonio's Devotion to Sebastian in "Twelfth Night"

It would seem that Antonio may also feel displaced and unhappy at the end of the play, with the marriage of Sebastian and Olivia. Throughout the play in the scenes with Antonio and Sebastian it becomes evident that these men have become dear friends. It is clear that Antonio feels some commitment for Sebastian, and eagerly persuades him to take him on as a servant. This is seen in Act 2.1 as the two men discuss their journey, as Antonio states, “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant” (2.1.31-32). This choice of wording seems to hint to the reader that the love Antonio feels may be taboo—that he could be murdered for it. Sebastian’s response also displays the tender emotions that they seem to feel for each other. “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 takes of me” (2.1.35-37). These lines indicate a closeness created between the men since Antonio saved Sebastian from his death. There are more such indicators of a love present between the two throughout the text. The fact that Antonio is willing to risk his life from his enemies by staying close to Sebastian also says as much.

“I have many enemies in Orsino’s court,

Else would I very shortly see thee there.

But come what may, I do adore thee so

That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (2.1.40-43).

Antonio’s devotion is shaken when he encounters Cesario and mistakes him for Sebastian. His extreme hurt at thinking he has been cast aside by the one he holds so dear is evident in his heartbroken lines.

“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” (3.4.344-47).

It seems obvious that the devotion and passion that Antonio feels for Sebastian seems to go beyond the expectations for male same-sex friendships.

The Duel Scene from "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare
The Duel Scene from "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare | Source

A Fooled Sir Andrew In "Twelfth Night"

A contrasting same-sex relationship than those mentioned previously is that of Sir Andrew, and his close heterosexual friendship with Sir Toby. It is apparent that their friendship could also be altered by the marriage of Sir Toby to Maria. Here the feelings of dissatisfaction felt by Sir Andrew over his friend’s marriage are not homoerotic nature, but instead could possibly from loneliness over feeling as though he has lost a friend, paired with some minor jealousy at not getting to marry Maria himself.

Poor Sir Andrew is unaware that his friendship with Sir Toby is not one of equal value. It seems at first that these two are good friends, but certain asides throughout the play spoken by Sir Toby seem to indicate otherwise. Nancy Lindheim, author of “Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night” stated, “His sole plan is for Sir Andrew to finance their good times until he has been milked dry. We are of course aware that this is an indefensible basis for friendship… Sir Andrew is offstage and insulted in at the end… Deprived of the illusion that he is a valued member of their society” (703-704). It becomes evident in the end that Sir Toby uses Sir Andrew as a means of entertainment and money. He even attempts to create conflict between Sir Andrew and Cesario, and takes Sir Andrew’s horse for his own. “Marry, I’ll ride your horse as well I ride you” (3.4.276). Sir Toby marries Maria, and Sir Andrew is left without his friend, without the girl Maria, and no longer a chance with Olivia—not that he had one—he is even left hurt in the final scene, a result of Sir Toby’s mockery of him gone awry.

Love in "Twelfth Night" is Superficial

In the end, it begins to hit that the love seen in this play is superficial and the happy endings that were apparent are not so happy after all. The readers leave with an understanding that their characters are flippant and apparently blind to what love really is. No relationship that takes root in the play has even had the chance to form real love, and it becomes apparent at the end that that was Shakespeare’s intention all along. Author Alexander Leggatt expresses it well when he states, “There are no apologies or statements of forgiveness as the lovers join hands; indeed their minds are hardly examined at all. The ending takes little account of the reasons for particular attachments; it is, on the contrary, a generalized image of love” (251). It seems as though Shakespeare wanted to show that in all happy endings, there is always someone who has been hurt or displaced by the process.

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Works Cited

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1974. Print.

Lindheim, Nancy. “Rethinking Sexuality And Class In “Twelfth Night…” University Of Toronto Quarterly 76.2 (2007): 679-713. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.


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    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      Kudos for writing such an engaging hub on one of the key figures of literature. Enjoyed reading the topic you selected.

    • summerclark7387 profile image

      summerclark7387 3 years ago from Beautiful Southern Oregon

      Thanks so much :) I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it

    • uNicQue profile image

      Nicole Quaste 3 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Very thorough analysis of relationships. Great job! There are endless topics of discussion for Shakespeare, so I hope you choose to do some more! I enjoyed reading it.

    • summerclark7387 profile image

      summerclark7387 3 years ago from Beautiful Southern Oregon

      Thanks so much Phoebe. :) I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • profile image

      Phoebe Pike 3 years ago

      Wonderfully written hub! I've always been a fan of Hamlet myself, but this one is high on the list as well.