Gender Identity Issues in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
In a heterosexually biased society where one is viewed as either male or female with minimal regard for gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender, gender duality is not only ambiguous but also problematic. Twelfth Night revolves around the story of Viola, a heroine who throughout the story struggles with wrongly ascribed sexual identity, subjecting her to instances of accidental gayness and awkward sexual tensions before eventually being appreciated as a woman in the final scene as she readies herself for marriage to Duke Orsino. The struggles of the main characters in the story to align or identify with specific genders affirms the heteronormative nature of society and by extension the challenges facing those appearing as being sexually unique or different. By deviating from the dominant heterosexual norms of the society in which Twelfth Night is set, the rather unconventional romantic pairings of various character in the play effectively challenges the gendered identity socially ascribed notions of sexuality.
Twelfth Night is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most explicit homoerotic texts as it raises fundamental questions about the duality of gender and homoerotic attractions. The play while advancing bisexuality as its dominant theme, it tends to espouse an uncategorical temper about sexual attraction. The play therefore manifests societal construction of sexual identity from the perspective in the renaissance era when the society had not ascribed specific gender identities to homosexuals or bisexuals. Though acknowledging the society as being inherently heterosexual, unconventional relationships such as the romantic connection between Antonio and Sebastian and the emerging love affair between Countess Olivia and Viola are perhaps the clearest manifestations of same-sex love in the early modern culture. The erotic overtones between Olivia and Viola in the first three acts of the play and the homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Sebastian do not only establish same-sex attraction as a major theme of the play but it also highlights gender identity issues as an emerging problem in the early modern culture.