The way in which cross dressing and homoeroticism are presented in Shakespearian plays reveals details about the historical context in which these plays were written and performed. By discussing fluid gender identities and sexualities under the ruse of a disguise, Shakespeare draws on techniques dating back to Greek and Roman playwrights to discuss homoeroticism without taboo. The discussion of gender and sexuality is a particularly interesting one in recent re-readings in light of contemporary gender theory debates. In Shakespeare’s As You like It and Twelfth Night, the characters of Viola and Rosalind both engage in cross-dressing and homoeroticism; however, whereas Viola remains continuously defined by her feminine self despite her changes in appearance, Rosalind connects with both the masculine and the feminine aspects of her identity.
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Before exploring the specific examples of Viola and Rosalind as examples of Shakespeare’s discussion of gender identity, it is important to understand the historical context of homosexuality-and sexuality in general-in England during Shakespeare’s life. In Bruce R. Smith’s Homosexuality in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics, Smith notes that while gender issues are age-old, certain aspects of sexual politics are actually very modern social constructs, and Shakespeare’s contemporaries actually had an appreciation for the exotic and the imaginative. Smith writes, “We miss this imaginative dimension to sexual experience if all we attend to is moral discourse, legal discourse, and medical discourse, with their narrow interest in sex as a physical act” (Smith, 15). Shakespeare’s writing lacks these common modern limitations. In fact, one sees that though both Twelfth Night and As You Like It are romantic comedies, there is practically no emphasis on sex as an act. Rather, these plays explore topics much more interesting to Shakespeare’s audience and perhaps to readers and viewers in general: the differences between identity and perception, desire, and the many-faceted nature of love.
In Twelfth Night, gender is a central theme which focuses on both the fluid and uncertain nature in which men and women define themselves. In this play, this theme is expressed primarily through the character of Viola, whose cross dressing results in a conflict involving two other characters: Orsino and Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino, who believes Viola is male while Olivia, Orsino’s object of desire, falls in love with Viola’s male guise. A very similar dilemma is present in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Rosalind and Celia flee the court and Rosalind dresses as a man, naming herself Ganymede, for their protection. Rosalind’s false identity creates another version of the love triangle: Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede while Ganymede manipulates Orlando, with whom she is in love, and who unwittingly returns such affection with his love for Rosalind. The gender issues inherent in Twelfth Night, though similar to those in As You Like It in that the male disguises of both female protagonists are desirable to women, has some major differences. Orsino desires Viola/Cesario as a male companion and confidant, while Olivia desires Viola/Cesario because she believes Viola is an attractive male. Although Viola’s gender ambiguity probably allowed her access to otherwise unavailable information from Orsino as she became his confidant, Ganymede’s ambiguity is much more intentionally manipulative while remaining benevolent; her “manipulation” instructs Orlando on how to be a better lover, a lesson from which both players may benefit.
Furthermore, Rosalind differs from Viola in that she seems more genuinely invested in her masculine disguise. In her article “Rosalind-cum-Ganymede’s Three Marriages in As You Like it,” Wu Lin-na discusses the power Rosalind experiences by acting as a man, specifically in what she is allowed to verbally express. She writes:
‘Rosalind’ only gains her tongue with her male disguise, as she becomes Rosalind/Ganymede. She is ‘silent and patient’ in the court and she loses her tongue as she relinquishes her disguise: except for the Epilogue, she has no lines after she has given herself to father and husband. Only when she is dressed as a man, can she attain the features that she believes women should possess, which is
Quite ironic (Lin-na, 53).
Butler illustrates the concept that the desire to desire usually consumes itself once the desire is achieved. According to Butler (1999), “this desire for desire is exploited in the process of social regulation for if the terms by which we gain social recognition for ourselves are those by which we are regulated and gain social existence, then to affirm one’s existence is to capitulate to one’s subordination” (p.79). On desires Rosalind says that ” if myself I hold intelligence, or have acquaintance with mine own desires, if that I do not dream or be not franticâ€¦.Never so much as in a thought unborn did I offend your highness” (Shakespeare 34) In the play “as you like it” a kind of homoeroticism arises from the cross-dressing of Rosalind. Everybody in the play, both men and women seem to like Ganymede, the little beautiful boy who resembles a woman because he is actually Rosalind in disguise. Cecilia says to Rosalind “No, thy words are too precious to be cast away upon curs, throw some of them at me, come lame me with reasons” (Shakespeare p.32).
Throughout the play, Rosalind appears troubled with gender undecidability. She is obsessed and fully conscious of this problem. When Rosalind hears of Orlando’s accident she faints and when she wakes up her first question is “what becomes of Orlando” she also asks if she’ll go immediately but “this was well counterfeited” (Shakespeare p.186). Rosalinda appears to values her double identity more than anything else. She is afraid of being deprived of the right to be a man. She enjoys being a man and even gets obsessed by it. Rosalind’s disguise “proving a busy actor in Silvius and Phebe’s play reflects this addiction (Lin-na, Wu p.53).
Rosalind, who pretends to be a man (Ganymede), takes the role of Ganymede and unconsciously poses as male rival against Phebe. She is aware that Phebe is in love with Ganymede but goes ahead to inform Phebe about the whereabouts of his cottage. After taking phebe through a tormenting moment, she/he consoles Silvius as a generous winner; she tells Silvius that “if she loves me, I will charge her to love you, if she will not, I will never leave her unless thou entreat her” (Shakespeare pp. 82-82).
In Viola’s situation, she responds to her environment by transforming her outward appearance and gender identity. After surviving a shipwreck, it is safer for her to dress and pass as a man than as a woman. The characters around her then respond to her outward appearance and therefore understand Viola as a man; Viola’s gender appearance defines her and her interactions with others and collapses the difference between appearance and reality. This is particularly interesting considering that Olivia actually falls in love with her in disguise as Cesario: “Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections with an invisible and subtle stealth. To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be” (1.5.288-290). This declaration of adoration reveals that Olivia has unwittingly fallen in love with a woman. It also illustrates the profound affect that one’s gender identity has on one’s interpersonal developments. Had Viola not assumed the role of a male page, Olivia would arguably never have found herself enamored of her. In this way, however, Viola’s experiments with her gender identity come to have a liberating effect on Olivia, for she comes to act on a sexual and emotional desire that she would not have otherwise.
For Viola, on the other hand, adoption of a male persona is far from liberating. Indeed, she dismisses it as the cause of much mischief: “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness. Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (2.2.27-28). Viola is overwhelmed by the profound affect her adoption of a male identity comes to have on the many people she encounters. The most pronounced impact is on the aforementioned adorations of Olivia and platonic confidences of the Duke. Having generated a vicious cycle of unrequited love through her curious persona, Viola finds herself powerless to do anything about it, as made apparent in the rhyming couplet which ends the scene: “O time, thou must untangle this, not I. It is too hard a knot for me t’untie” (2.2.40-41). The instability of Viola’s gender identity, both with respect to her personal and public perception, demonstrates the overall fluidity of gender identity as an ongoing process of misapprehension.
If it is true that our gender identities are not fixed, it seems equally true that our sexual desire is equally uncategorical to respond to shifting identities. In her essay “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in Twelfth Night,” Jami Ake claims that Viola is merely play-acting as a man and not actually attempting to be a man and that Olivia is only in love with Viola under the pretense that Viola is actually Cesario allows for an early homoerotic discourse to emerge that would otherwise be unavailable; the freedom of this discourse emerges from ambiguity as opposed to absolute and fully determined homoeroticism. Viola, as Orsino’s messenger, delivers love oral love letters to Olivia; however, Viola instinctively translates Orsino’s letters into a language she finds more appealing for a female audience. Ake writes:
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As Viola appropriates the pastoral as a space for female, rather than male, homoerotic desire, she imagines a realm for Olivia that promises real erotic reciprocity as its end, a union unrestricted by the social arrangements of rank and gender to which Olivia carefully conforms. Moreover, her performance employs a strategic grammatical indirection that allows her to situate her promised pastoral realm in an imaginary conditional space (set apart by ‘if’), even as she renders it momentarily present to Olivia. Viola’s poetic performance thus provides a fragile emblem for ‘lesbian’ desire in the play: privatized and textually untraceable (Ake, 376).
The freedom with which Viola and Olivia enter into an erotic discourse, then, is possible because of its imagined nature: to the reader, they are not real lesbians; to Viola, she is not really delivering love letters to Olivia, but translating them into a women’s language. In both instances, the play is saved from social disapproval because the homoeroticism is mentioned only in jest before ultimately returning to the heterosexual paradigm. In fact, the play concludes on this note: resolution and stability are restored when Sebastion, Viola’s twin brother, effectively replaces Viola as Olivia’s object of affection, and Viola reveals her identity to Orsino.
Shakespeare’s explorations of cross-dressing and homoeroticism ultimately fall within storylines of heterosexual romance. However, his plays do examine various types of love, revealing that love is not, in fact absolute and that it comes in many forms. The aforementioned relationship between Viola and Orsino depicts the love of a friend and confidant. Lin-na continues this discussion of types of love by examining what she refers to as the three different marriages Rosalind encounters: the Rosalind-Celia marriage, the Rosalind-Orlando marriage, and the Ganymede-Orlando marriage. Lin-na claims that Rosalind’s ambiguous gender identity allows her erotic mobility to create these marriages. Rosalind’s choice of names for her masculine identity contributes to this effect, as “Ganymede” is a name with male homosexual connotations, linked to both Jove and to Zeus and thus the homosexually inspired name contributes to the overall sexual ambiguity with which she proceeds. Rosalind marries Orlando as both her personas: Rosalind and Ganymede. The marriage between Orlando and Ganymede, a symbol of homoeroticism, takes place in presence of Celia who acts as the priest. The marriage is initiated on the request of Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, who requests Celia, (Act IV, Scene I)
“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?
Come, sister, you shall be the priest and marry us.
Give me your hand, Orlando. What do you say, sister? (4.1.113-116)
In fact, Rosalind is reluctant to marry Orlando the second time, when he requests to marry the “real Rosalind”, as it would require her to depart from her Ganymede/Rosalind ambiguity. Although Rosalind’s gender identity is ambiguous, embodying both the masculine and the feminine, Orlando’s sexuality is purely heterosexual, which inspires his desire to marry Rosalind without her gender ambiguity and only as a woman.
Although both Twelfth Night and As You Like It play with gender ambiguity and the resulting homoeroticism the characters consciously or unconsciously engage in, only Rosalind truly engages with her masculine disguise at the level of her true gender identity. For Viola, her masculine disguise is merely that: a disguise that allows her to move safely and from which she readily departs when a convenient opportunity, the introduction of her twin brother, presents itself: “If nothing lets to make us happy both/But this my masculine usurped attire/Do not embrace me till each circumstance of place,time,fortune do cohere and jump.That I am Viola.(5.1.245-249) For Rosalind, however, the masculine disguise allows her to be herself in a way previously unavailable to her because of cultural restrictions on women. As a man, she is able to act how she would like to act as a woman but cannot. That Orlando wishes to marry Rosalind only as Rosalind and not the ambiguous construction of Rosalind/Ganymede means that in her marriage she will lack freedom that her masculine ambiguity allowed her as Ganymede. Where Viola always remains essentially woman throughout her cross-dressing, Rosalind’s adoption of masculine traits becomes part of her identity that she is reluctant to give up. Shakespeare uses differences such as these to create complex characters for an audience craving both comedy and depth.
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