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?