Shakespearing #24: Twelfth Night

Shakespearing #24 by David Foley

Twelfth Night

24 Twelfth Night

I am sure that a lot of the coyness and silliness that accompanies productions of Shakespeare that include cross-dressing roles is an attempt to steer them clear of the Queer.

This is Jeanette Winterson in one of her more high-handed modes, and it always makes me want to roll my eyes a bit. “Oh, Jeanette,” I want to say.

And yet.

You have to give her Twelfth Night. It’s pretty queer. It’s queer even if you’re just reading it, and I can only imagine what it was like seeing it back in the day when an adolescent boy played Viola who’s disguised as an adolescent boy who’s hiding a secret crush on an older guy (who agrees to marry him/her without ever having seen him/her in women’s clothes). And another boy played Olivia who falls in love with a boy who’s really a girl played by a boy. And then there’s Antonio, the seafaring man (you know how they are) whose desire for Sebastian, “[m]ore sharp than filed steel,” drives him to risk all in Illyria, and whose anguish at the supposed Sebastian’s betrayal (“how vild an idol proves this god!”) might come from De Profundis. What kind of echo is it that Antonio shares a name with the man who pledged a pound of flesh for his beloved Bassanio in Merchant of Venice?

Scholars will tell me I’m misunderstanding these things, that the Elizabethan ideal of male friendship would amply contain the love of both Antonios for their friends. Sure. But. It’s also true that the obliviousness of straight folks has always allowed the signals of queerness to travel through the ether unremarked, caught only by certain attuned apparatuses.

If you sometimes get a queer vibe off Shakespeare, it’s more a matter of catching those signals than, say, Sonnet 20, which can still be construed as a hyperbolic expression of male friendship.

One such signal, though admittedly an ambiguous one, is how good he is with women. It’s exciting to see Shakespeare produce, so soon after Rosalind, a cross-dressing female of an entirely different stripe. Where Rosalind is witty, Viola is lyric, whether in the yearning breadth of the “willow cabin” speech or the pooled melancholy of “Patience on a monument.” And Olivia is just a great character. She’s smart, funny, contradictory, and wonderfully human. I said in my Hamlet posting that Shakespeare is sometimes not good with female sexuality. But I want to temper that. He’s actually quite good with female desire. (Perhaps another signal?) Look at Juliet. Look at Olivia.

These signals, faint enough, may be illusory, but I’m interested in the question they bring up, which I can express (clumsily), “How does a culture of queerness express itself in this or any age?” When I search the internet for information on Elizabethan homosexuality, I get lots of stuff about male friendship and the severe social, religious, and legal strictures against homosexuality, plus the usual caveats that the notion of a homosexual person is a relatively recent construction. But it seems to me that certain things persist through time, and among these are the ways in which men who share a sexual taste proclaim to each other their separate and special status. It doesn’t so much matter whether Marlowe actually said, “All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools.” It matters that, to his accusers, it sounded like something someone might say. Shakespeare may not have intended to send the signals Twelfth Night does, but there must have been men in the audience who winked at each other when they received them.


David FoleyDavid Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, ParadiseNance O’NeilThe Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

One response to “Shakespearing #24: Twelfth Night”

  1. […] image of same-sex affection running through the play makes we wonder again, as I did in my Twelfth Night posting, what signals were being sent and received in Shakespeare’s theater. There’s the bachelor […]

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