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Shakespeare Twelfth Night Themes - Homoeroticism, protectiveness, loyalty, and deceit

Updated on May 6, 2013

Antonio's Speech

I could not stay behind you. My desire,

More sharp than filèd steel, did spur me forth.

And not all love to see you, though so much

As might have drawn one to a longer voyage-

But jealousy what might befall your travel,

Being skilless in these parts, which to a stranger,

Unguided and unfriended, often prove

Rough and unhospitable. My willing love,

The rather by these arguments of fear,

Set forth in your pursuit. (3.3.4-13)


Antonio says this speech to Sebastian in Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, shortly before Sebastian leaves on his quest to Illyria. This passage reflects strong elements of homoeroticism, protectiveness, and the chaos between loyalty and deceit. These are three very strong elements in the play and there is a constant struggle between the characters regarding these three elements, as much of the conflict in the play revolves around them. By analyzing this passage, a greater understanding of the relationship between all of characters in the play can be realized.

Homoeroticism and Analysis

Homoeroticism is one of the strongest themes present throughout the entire play. For the most part, homoeroticism is a subtle undertone that takes a humorous twist in the love triangle between Orsino, Olivia, and Viola (Caesario). Olivia falls in love with Caesario, who is actually Viola in disguise, so it can be easy to simply overlook her interest in another woman as merely a mistake. However, it's interesting to note that Olivia chooses the feminine and gentle Caesario over picking the more masculine Orsino or Malvolio. Orsino explains Caesario's femininity when he says, " that say thou art a man. Diana’s 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." (1.4.29-32). Orsino also quickly picks Caesario as a favorite among his workers. While Orsino is madly in love with Olivia, he did take a certain liking to Caesario. It isn't explicitly a homosexual attraction, but Valentine did say that "If the duke continue these favors towards [Caesario, he is] like to be much advanced. [Orsino] hath known [him] but three days, and already [he is] no stranger." (1.4.1-3). Orsino may have simply been attracted to Caesario's femininity, however it certainly does provoke a homosexual undertone. The most explicit representation of the homoerotic theme in the play goes back to Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio certainly cares deeply for Sebastian and is even willing to risk his life by going to Illyria, where Orsino endangers him:

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. (2.1.32-35).

Other Themes

The passage also displays the protective feelings of Antonio for Sebastian that may be inferred as a paternal or fraternal. These same feelings are present between Malvolio and Olivia, and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Antonio acts as an older brother for Sebastian and it may be that he just sees him as a younger brother rather than having any homoerotic feelings towards him. This protectiveness is also present in Malvolio's feelings toward Olivia, and Sir Toby's feelings toward Sir Andrew. Malvolio seems to be the one that Olivia relies on for advice, and she trusts him to take care of things while she is not able to, as he is her most loyal servant. Malvolio even conveys his opinions strongly to Olivia (thought she may not always agree), such as when he states to her about Feste:

I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal: I saw him

put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain

than a stone. Look you now, he's out of his guard already; unless you

laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged. I protest, I take these

wise men that crow so at these set kind of fools, no better than the fools'

zanies. (1.5.64-68)

Malvolio's love for Olivia however, isn't quite as ambiguous as Antonio's for Sebastian; Antonio's love jumps the line between erotic and brotherly love. Olivia has just lost her brother, and so it is only natural for her to depend on Malvolio more strongly and treat him like a brother. On the other hand, Malvolio doesn't see her like a sister. In the second act of the play, it is revealed that Malvolio actually loves Olivia in a romantic way and sees himself getting married to her, as he mentions "Maria once told me [Olivia] did affect me: and I have heard herself come
thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion." (2.4.8-20). Romantic as it may be for Malvolio, his protective nature is only a substitute for Olivia. Another protective relationship is observed between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew. Sir Toby wants Sir Andrew to marry Olivia, and constantly tries to sway the situation in Sir Andrews favor. He acts as a sort of guardian towards him and even goes on to lecture Sir Andrew about how he hides his talents, saying, "Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before 'em? Are they like to take dust, like Mistress Mall’s picture? Why dost thou not go to church in a galliard and come home in a coranto?" (1.3.101-103).

Loyalty is another strong theme that is depicted in this passage, and this theme relates strongly to the rest of the play as well. While deception is obviously a major theme in the play, loyalty is the opposing force that leads to the conflict in the play. For instance, the relationship between Sebastian and Antonio is probably the only one that seems to have no deception in it. Antonio rescues Sebastian, and they get off to an honest start whilst developing respect and admiration for one another. As such, they eventually become loyal to one another, as the passage shows. Of course, it can be inferred that since Antonio's feelings toward Sebastian are ambiguous (whether homoerotic or brotherly), that in itself is a form of deceit. As such, while Antonio is very loyal to Sebastian, he is technically keeping his feeling for him as well. A strong portrayal of loyalty is Orsino's love for Olivia. "O, then unfold the passion of my love; Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith." (1.4.22-23). This speech is just one of the many countless attempts for Orsino to win over Olivia's love. No matter how many times she rejects him, he still goes after her. At the end of the play when Orsino finally takes Viola, it rather builds on his loyalty toward Olivia. He has finally come to terms and let Olivia go, and has perhaps even accepted his own fate in Viola's true love towards him. Orsino is another character that isn't actually deceitful, again extenuating his loyalty and character from the rest. Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew are deceitful when they play their game on Malvolio, and hide the fact from Olivia as well. Viola is deceitful with her guise as Caesario; something that overall may even seem unnecessary. However, Olivia is perhaps the most deceitful character of them all. She leaves Malvolio's feelings hanging, and never explicitly rejects Orsino. All the while, she tries to sway Caesario by saying, " Get you to your lord; I cannot love him: let him send no more; unless, perchance, you come to me again, to tell me how he takes it. (1.5.221-224). Olivia also takes advantage of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria feeling sorry for her and trying to help her. Olivia's character is ultimately juxtaposed with the three aforementioned characters, as she is loyal to no one.

Throughout Twelfth Night, there are constant themes of homoeroticism, which are the base of the primary conflict as Viola's cross-dressing leads to so many problems. Many times, these homoerotic instances are ambiguous and can also be interpreted as protectiveness. The passage with Antonio's speech shows strong examples of both of these elements, along with the chaos that is caused by them between loyalty and deceit. In the case of Antonio, his loyalty is just as ambiguous as his feelings for Sebastian.


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