Author Archives: vhlee

Gender Fluidity and the Ambiguity of Sexual Orientation

Since the early 17th century, the state has had influence over theatre in many countries, whether it is strict censorship of play’s content or rules regarding actor’s costumes. In England, however, the censoring of ideas was not as strong as those seen in France during the 17th century. As Zarilli states, “English playwrights simply had to avoid inflammatory political and religious issues; they were not expected to reinforce the absolutist values of the regime [as in France]” (Zarilli, 206). The lack of censorship of “sexual suggestiveness and homoerotic ideas” allowed English playwrights to explore different perspectives regarding characters’ gender fluidity and sexual orientation, themes shown in Twelfth Night (Zarilli, 230). Further, “the freedom for actors to wear costumes of opposite genders and [different] classes in England” promoted gender-changing behavior (Zarilli, 206). During this period in England, homoerotic feelings were also not unusual especially because only men were permitted to act, young boys played female roles. As Zarilli puts it, “Male teachers often formed liaisons with male students, and a master might act on his desire for a male apprentice” (Zarilli, 228). The idea of censoring certain ideas in theatre is similarly seen when television first came out. “Many southern TV stations routinely cut national network feeds of Civil Right coverage, often pretending they were having technical difficulty” (Kovarik, 326). Authority in the South believed that censoring certain stations that promoted controversial ideas, similar to censoring certain plays, would prevent these ideas from implanting into people’s minds that may lead to chaos or violence.


This theme of gender fluidity and disguise is seen in the protagonist in Twelfth Night. Early in the play, we are introduced to Viola who was saved by a captain after a shipwreck. In order to make a living and provide for herself in a new environment, she decides to disguise herself as a boy to serve the Duke, Orsino, as she states, “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid/For such a disguise as haply shall become” (1.2.54-56). This disguise allowed her to hide her true identity. However, her plan soon becomes problematic as she begins to fall for Orsino. Because of the rigid English societal norms in regards to homosexual relationship in this time, it may have been challenging for Viola to express her love to Orsino as a male. Viola disguises her identity as she responds to Olivia, “I am not who I am” (3.1.131). This idea of disguise and changing identities is similar to Ernest in the Importance of Being Ernest and actors in general when they put on a play for others. When people put on plays or go on social media, they are putting on a disguise and rarely are who they present themselves to be.


The ambiguity of sexual orientation is a theme related to gender fluidity and is shown in several characters. Characters seem not to be in love with people of a certain gender (male/female), but to specific characters or individuals. Orsino is a character in the play that does not fit our categorical views of homosexual or heterosexual. Though Orsino seems to be in love with females such Olivia and Viola, his attraction to Cesario, Viola in disguise, is very evident. At the end of the play, after Viola reveals her true identity, Orsino continues to hold onto his previous belief that Viola is a boy, saying, “Cesario, Come – /For so you shall be while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen, Orinso’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (5.1.370). Orsino’s inability to call Viola by her female name indicates that he may still be interested and attracted to Viola disguised as a boy. Another quote that further stresses Orsino’s love for Viola as a boy is when he refers to her saying, “boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times/Thou never shouldst love woman like to me” (5.1.268). It is unclear whether Orsino is in love with Viola, a woman, or with Viola as her male character, Cesario. It is probable that he is in love with Viola, the person, and disregards her gender. Another character whose sexual orientation is obscured is Sebastian, Viola’s twin. Although Sebastian falls in love with Olivia the moment they meet, once he reunites with Antonio, who saved him after the shipwreck, he states, “Antonio! Oh my dear Antonio, /How have the hours racked and tortured me/ Since I have lost thee!” (5.1.201). Although Sebastian may really care about Antonio as a friend, it is strange that missing Antonio for a couple of hours would torture Sebastian. The words ‘racked’ and ‘tortured’ emphasize Sebastian’s love towards Antonio to a different degree.


Some questions I have while reading through the play was what were the laws regarding gay and lesbian rights in England in the 17th century? Since homoerotic themes were not forbidden in plays, was the society more open about it? Also, what was Shakespeare’s sexual orientation, and whether he experience in the society affected how he shaped his characters?

Modernist Movement: Fascination with liberation and truth


Zarilli discusses that during the modernist theater era, play writers were interested in knowing the truth and depicting reality on stage. However, they often question whether theatre and plays are capable of depicting the multidimensional truth of real life experiences. As Ibsen states, he often “questioned the representational basis of the theater” (Zarilli, p. 389). He questioned it because he understood that the materialist stage cannot clearly depict spiritual realities. Similarly, for Ibsen, photography cannot fully portray entire scenes or event. As Zarilli puts it, “[photography] has little to reveal about human experience” (Zarilli, p. 389). Those who believe in photography as truthful, according to Ibsen, “are led to sentimental and moral blindness” (Zarilli, p.390). The people Ibsen is calling “blind” are precisely the people living in the Norwegian society who do not question but learn to accept everything (societal norms) that it taught to them as infallible. Through this play, Ibsen hopes to awaken those who are suppressed in the society and show them a way to freedom and learn what is their individual truth. For Ibsen, being free to learn self-truth is what leads to satisfaction and self-fulfillment.

Having learnt of Marx political views, Ibsen believes that one day inequality will be abolished. In order to achieve freedom (to find the truth), the inferior/working class would have to fight or go against the ruling class. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, the working proletariat must overthrow the bourgeois class in order to achieve a classless society (The Communist Manifesto). In regards to The Doll’s House, the proletariat can be seen as represented by Nora, and that the Bourgeois class as depicted by Torvald. Torvald controls and exploits Nora, and even calls her his “property” (Ibsen, p.61). This is the Norwegian society for Ibsen – a place where women are subordinate to and controlled by men. In the First Act, Nora accepts societal norms as they are presented, and refuses to share with her husband what she has done to obtain enough money to pay his medical bills. However, she soon learns that when the ‘miracle’ did not happen the only way to be free and learn the truth about her own self and have the power to control her life is if she rids herself from Torvald (Ibsen, p.65). This ‘overthrowing of the dominant class’ is achieved in the end of the play when Nora walks out of her old life with Torvald and her children to lead an independent life free of oppression alone, saying, “I must try to educate myself. I must set about it alone” (Ibsen, p.63). Nora has to stop acting and putting a play to please others and leave her family in order to find herself. The freedom to self-reflect is is what Ibsen terms “transcendence,” after having learnt of the idea from Hegel (Zarilli, p.300).

In The Doll’s House, Ibsen also criticizes the contemporary Norwegian society as being overly obsessed with superficialities. During this time period, appearances were often misunderstood as realities. For Torvald, what was important was not so much having a wife there to support and care for, but a beautiful doll he could claim as his possession. After realizing that Nora had forged her father’s signature to save his life, he told her “you must live as we have always done; but of course only in the eyes of the world” (Ibsen, p.59). Torvald’s emphasis that they would continue to live as they do but only for others illustrates that reputation and appearance are what matters. He would rather pretend that life was as it was than face that fact that his wife, who is supposed to be inferior, had saved his life. Torvald represents the Norwegian society who despite knowing the truth continues to pretend to be blind; and he is therefore, not able to be fully satisfied. Torvald’s emphasis on external characteristics is similarly seen in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Gwendolen was hung up on Ernest’s name. It seems that she was just in love with the idea of marrying a man named Ernest and not really in loved with Jack for who he is.

Some of the questions I am interested in finding out is how Nora’s leaving will allow her to find self-fulfillment? Is finding the truth and reality really better than living in a dream world, then why is there a saying “ignorance bliss”?