“Let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds” – how Shakespeare creates gender through sexuality in Twelfth Night

How does Shakespeare maintain the gender identity of his female heroine Viola in Twelfth Night, when the character appears only once (and briefly) in women’s clothes, and is never referred to by a female name until the very end of the play? I was prompted to ask this when I saw a recent production of Twelfth Night that aimed to reproduce elements of original Jacobean stage practice, including an all-male cast. When Viola is dressed as a man, referred to as a man, and is actually played by a male actor, the character’s intended gender becomes very obscure indeed, and I was interested to know how the text deals with this obscurity.

I think that Shakespeare’s main method of conveying Viola’s gender is by establishing her sexuality – the gender to which she is romantically/sexually attracted – and that this creates questions for modern audiences that might not arise from productions with women in the female roles.

I was lucky enough to see both all-male productions of Twelfth Night by the company of Shakespeare’s Globe in London – the original in 2002 at the Globe and the revival in 2012 at the Apollo. Most of the characters’ gender identities were clearly established by the wigs, costumes and props, which remained consistent throughout. The female costumes were large and unmistakably different from the male, and in addition the men carried swords and other weapons, while the women had handkerchiefs, veils and other fabrics ready to hand as props. The presentation of Viola, however, was necessarily different. During her first brief appearance in 1.2 wearing a dress, her gender was clearly portrayed, with assistance from the text (the Captain refers to her as "lady" or "madam" in his initial speeches). But from then on Viola appeared only as Cesario, in a similar armed costume to those worn by the male characters. The fact that the actor was also male created a difficulty for the audience – a danger of forgetting that Cesario is supposed to be a woman. This danger is usually removed when watching productions in which Viola is played by an actress, or when reading the text without a male actor before your eyes.

Cesario and Olivia (Johnny Flynn and Mark Rylance)

The actor’s gender in the productions created another problem too. When watching both of these productions I was struck by the homoerotic frisson generated in the scenes between Viola/Cesario and Orsino. It was difficult to forget that both actors were male, perhaps because it is unusual to see single-gender casting in Shakespeare, but also because culturally and politically the idea of same-sex relationships is closer to the surface for a modern audience – they appear frequently in drama and are enshrined in law. Again, the gender identity of Viola’s character was in danger of getting lost.

Because of this, the productions had to work hard to establish Viola’s character as female. Johnny Flynn, playing the role in the 2012 production, spoke in an artificially high voice and used markedly fluid, graceful gestures throughout (especially with his hands) to remind the audience that he was playing a woman. This pronounced, affected style was consistent with the light-hearted, rather pantomime feel of the whole production, and was effective. But would the actor in early seventeenth century productions have relied on the same techniques? Since the original audience was much more familiar with seeing men play women, and was used to seeing a broad range of female characters enacted on stage, it's possible that actors wouldn't have needed to emphasise ‘feminine’ characteristics so much. Indeed, when Mark Rylance successfully played Cleopatra in a 1999 all-male production of Anthony and Cleopatra, he didn't use these techniques to establish the character’s gender, so it's reasonable to assume that high voices and softened gestures weren't necessarily employed in Shakespeare’s day. And if so, the appearance of Viola as man throughout Twelfth Night might be more obscure. So what assistance does the text give to establish the character’s gender for the audience?

Returning to Shakespeare’s text, I looked for the clues that serve to remind the audience that ‘Cesario’ is in fact female. Explicit references are fairly infrequent – Cesario doesn't mention ‘his’ true gender very often, even in soliloquy. The most obvious references come in 2.2 – “As I am a woman” (2.2.38) – and during the duel with Sir Andrew in 3.4: “A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” (3.4.290-1) – but even here, Cesario’s ‘feminine’ fright and inexperience are fully matched by Sir Andrew’s similar fears.

Crucially, there's no explicit reference to help the audience in 1.4, where Viola first appears as Cesario – no “well, here I am dressed as a man” or similar. However, the scene concludes with the line “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (1.4.42), which indicates Viola’s love for Orsino. So the first appearance of Cesario also reveals the character’s sexual preference – and from then on it becomes clear that Viola’s gender is established through her sexuality.

Shakespeare relies on traditional associations of gender and sexuality to remind us that Cesario is a woman throughout the scenes in which the character next appears. Cesario loves a man (Orsino) and so must be a woman; and furthermore, because Cesario does not love a woman (Olivia – and a woman who is presented as highly attractive), Cesario cannot therefore be a man. This works very well to establish Cesario’s gender through 1.5, in which she adheres to her aforementioned feelings for Orsino by describing the pangs of unrequited love – “O, you should not rest / Between the elements of air and earth / But you should pity me” (1.5.263-5) – while resisting Olivia’s attempts at flirtation: “My master, not myself, lacks recompense” (1.5.275). In ensuing scenes, Viola’s sexual preference is built upon (most notably in her soliloquy beginning at 2.2.17) and becomes a steady constant while Olivia and Orsino portray more giddy and changeable passions.

The fact that the sexual preferences of Olivia and Orsino are comically confused at the same time (she falls in love with the ‘wrong’ gender, and he with the appearance of the wrong gender) do not detract from the establishment of Viola’s gender through sexuality, because the gender definitions of Olivia and Orsino are never in question – they are clearly established by their costumes, titles, how they're addressed and their positions in the plot.

The play’s reliance on the assumption that men will fall in love with women (only) and vice versa is the mechanism that resolves the confusion of emotional attachments in 5.1. Olivia’s love for Cesario transfers easily to Sebastian, without any evidence for a sense of disappointment or complaint (either in the text or the Shakespeare’s Globe production) because her sexual attraction cannot remain valid while associated with the ‘wrong’ gender object. Her attraction only fits happily when a twin of the ‘correct’ gender is revealed. Similarly, Orsino’s burgeoning desire for Cesario isn't disappointed by the revelation of its object’s true gender, but rather gratified, and he is pleased to conclude “from this time be / Your master’s mistress” (5.1.316-7).

This all works neatly so long as the audience adheres to the rule that genders shouldn't ordinarily be attracted to each other – but it opens up interesting resonances for audiences who think otherwise. The Shakespeare’s Globe production laid particular emphasis on the growing attraction between Orsino and Viola in 2.4, culminating in a moment during which they almost kissed each other. The resulting frisson between two male actors was unmistakably homoerotic, and generated a metatheatrical dimension that prompted questions about gender/sexuality assumptions. This was surely part of Shakespeare’s intention, though perhaps it's more apparent for a modern audience.

Orsino and Cesario (Liam Brennan and Samuel Barnett)

Shakespeare also plays with the assumptions on which he relies by introducing overt same-sex attraction in his treatment of Antonio. Antonio’s language to Sebastian in 2.1 is quite as impassioned at Orsino’s with regard to Olivia, and perhaps rather more earnest, for being less conditional: “I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport” (2.1.42-3) – and he's still less equivocal in 3.4 and 5.1: “His life I gave him, and did thereto add / My love without redemption or restraint, / All in his dedication” (5.1.74-6). But Antonio is never deceived about Sebastian’s gender. He feels the pain of disappointment when he thinks that Sebastian doesn't appreciate his loving service – “how vile an idol proves this god!” (3.4.356) – in a way that Olivia, for example, does not express in 5.1 when she discovers that the person she fell in love with doesn't, after all, love her in return.

Shakespeare introduces this twist on gender/sexuality assumptions only after he has established Cesario’s gender through her sexual preference in the first act. The reason for introducing Antonio’s same-sex attraction is to add to the comedy confusions, but also to establish the gender of Sebastian’s character. This became clear to me through the re-creation of Jacobean stage practice in a way that might not have been obvious when watching a cross-gendered cast production or simply reading the text. Cesario’s wig and costume were so distinctive in the Shakespeare’s Globe production that whenever Sebastian came on stage it was genuinely confusing – it really was easy to mistake him for Cesario. If an actress was playing Cesario, it would be much simpler to detect the difference when a male actor in the same costume appears as Sebastian – but when both actors are male, and of similar age and appearance, it is easy to be deceived for a moment. From the text alone it's hard to imagine that the audience could be genuinely confused between the two, but in performance it was so.

Cesario and Sebastian

The confusion is enhanced when we see a male character – Antonio – speaking so ardently to Sebastian. The thought immediately arises: “has a man fallen in love with the (female) Cesario?” The confusion and the joke together are soon over, but the result is to establish Sebastian as a definitely male character as opposed to Cesario. He resists Antonio’s overtures of service on his first appearance – “By your patience, no” (2.1.3), and remains impervious to the other man’s emotionally charged overtures here and in 3.3 – “I can no other answer make but thanks” (3.3.14). Because he doesn't desire a man, he must desire women instead (according to traditional gender/sexuality assumptions). This is confirmed when he meets Olivia and is prepared to marry her without previous acquaintance – Antonio’s fidelity and desires are nothing to him, but Olivia’s desires have immediate effect. Interestingly, John Paul Connolly’s portrayal of Antonio in the Apollo theatre production downplayed the homosexual overtones of the character: references to his "love" for Sebastian were given a more fraternal, or even paternal meaning, which was satisfactory, but left his passions rather without motive. This interpretation may have been part of a deliberate decision to limit the number of homoerotic overtones that were already abundant in the production.

Having concluded that Shakespeare relies on the audience’s gender/sexuality assumptions to define the gender of his cross-dressing heroine, while also playing with those assumptions in order to manipulate their inherent comedy and resonances, I came to realise how important attempts to recreate original stage practice are in opening up interpretations of the text. Without the physical performance of a man in the role of Viola, for example, assumptions about the links between desire and gender remain implicit. Performance brings them to the fore. As well as this, the extent to which an audience creates the meaning of a production becomes clear. However faithfully a production might try to reproduce the experience of Shakespeare’s original audience, a modern audience must always see and hear with modern assumptions and expectations, so the writer’s original intentions and meanings are, to an extent, irrecoverably lost to us. Nevertheless, it's Shakespeare’s dexterity in playing with assumptions even as fundamental as gender attraction that makes his work open to reinterpretation and therefore continually re-accessible.