Love, Homoeroticism, and Patriarchy

William Shakespeare illuminates the sexual desires in England during the early modern period. Shakespeare uses the intimate relationships between opposite-sex couples to allow the audience to explore the desire for same-sex love. This was explored by using “cross-dressed boys between the ages of eight and eighteen” to perform the women characters as stated by Bruce McConachie in Theatre Histories (Zarrilli 227). Throughout the play homoerotic desire is apparent with the use of only male actors. Olivia who is played by a male falls in love with “Cesario” who she believes is a male but, in fact, is Viola who is also played by a male; “Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit/Do give thee five-fold blazon. Not too fast! Soft, soft!/Unless the master were the man. How now?/Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” (1.5, 297-301). Here Olivia has fallen in love with “Cesario” and compares it to catching the bubonic “plague” which had swept through England during the time period and was relatable. The relationship between Antonio and Sebastian also captures homoerotic emotions as well with Antonio proclaiming his devotion to follow Sebastian. These intimate scenes tapped into the homoerotic desires of a Shakespearean audience and evoked various emotions such as pleasure or anxiety.

Shakespeare captures the patriarchal ideology of England through the relationships in the play as well. Orsino exemplifies the sentiment of male over female sexuality when he states to “Cesario”, “There is no woman’s side/Can bide the beating of so strong a passion/As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart/So big, to hold so much; they lack retention./… Make no compare/ Between that love a woman can bear me/ And that I owe Olivia.” (2.4, 92-102). Throughout the play Orsino feels Olivia must love him because no woman can resist him or love as much as he can. Orsino needs Olivia “as a means of cementing alliances and accumulating property through marriage” to solidify the patriarchal order (Zarrilli 228). Orsino ends up marrying Viola who is of an inferior social class which symbolizes the same-sex love by men in superior positions which is enabled by the patriarchal ideology. In addition, Malvolio desire for Olivia’s love can be seen as a relationship that threatened the patriarchy so he was abused by the other characters to be seen as a madman which is similar to men convicted of “sodomy” who were punished for an act that threatened the social order.

What role does the hierarchy of class and gender play in the play?

How come Viola gets married to the Duke while dressed as a boy?

How is foolishness embodied through human behavior in the play?