The Patriarchy and Same-sex Relations of 17th Century England

Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night  provides us with an interesting outlier concerning the thought processes of those who wished to promote the traditional patriarchy, where the male is the head of the household and all reproductive rights are granted to him, of the time.  The play incorporates cross dressing in the form of Viola impersonating a man by the name of Cesario.  Cesario then becomes involved in a love triangle with the fair maiden Olivia and the Duke Orsino.  Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola) while she falls for the Duke who is in love with Olivia.  This provides a type of confusion to the cut and dry heterosexual relationship of the times and somewhat serves to introduce the concept of gender.

Although many theater companies began employing women to play female roles by the 16th century, English companies did not.  This served to reinforce the patriarchy by denying women employment within the theater industry. (Zarrilli, 228)  However, I feel like this choice was a very large contradiction to the country’s aversion to same sex relations.  Men playing female roles would have lead to the portrayal of romantic relationships in theater between two persons who were actually men at a time when homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment or death.  Historians say that one possibility would be the fear of female sexuality, although it is somewhat discredited in that the rest of Europe was certainly not more enlightened to this subject at the time.  (Zarrilli 229)

The most likely reason for the continuance of this tradition was that it was familiar to the audiences.  However, it has been argued that artists like William Shakespeare took advantage of the familiarity to explore more outlandish or forbidden topics such as homoeroticism and same-sex attraction. The Twelfth Night is an excellent example as, although the play ends with two traditional marriages (Olivia to Sebastian and Duke Orsino to Viola) to satisfy the common sentiment of the time, the suggested homoerotic relationships established between Viola and Olivia and Duke Orsino and Cesario are simply glossed over. (Zarrilli, 232)  This leaves us to wonder at the state of the relationships, as Olivia was attracted to Viola in the form of the man, while Orsino takes Viola for his wife with the clear image of her as Cesario, even referring to Viola as Cesario before declaring that she shall be his queen. (Anthology, 533)

For further questions, I would be interested to learn more about other plays that also exhibit relationships without the realm of heterosexuality.  Also, I feel that it would be interesting to examine the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, as Zarrilli also alludes to there being sexual suggestion in their relationship.  Finally, I am wondering if the rest of the class views Shakespeare’s actions deliberate in depicting same-sex relationships as such or if the sole purpose was to divine comedy from the mix up at the end of the play.