by Wendy Doniger
Twelfth Night makes us think about recognition, particularly gender recognition. It asks if it matters if your best male friend turns out to be the woman you love (as Duke Orsino’s pal “Cesario”—Viola in male drag—eventually becomes his wife). And it asks what happens to your passion when the man you love turns out to be, first, a woman, and then the brother of that woman (as Olivia’s love for “Cesario” is eventually transferred to Viola’s twin brother Sebastian). Most of all, do we love those we love regardless of their biological sex? Regardless of their gender?
Viola explicitly constructs her sexual ambiguity: she plans to present herself to Orsino as neither a man nor a woman, but as a eunuch. Yet clearly no one takes her to be a eunuch: first she is a boy, and then she is a woman. Orsino remarks that “Cesario” looks more like a woman than a man, and Malvolio, mistaking femininity for youth, quips that “Cesario” is “in standing water, between boy and man,” though we know that the standing water is between boy and girl. Yet they take “Cesario” at face value, as a boy, and mistake him for the real thing—Viola’s twin brother Sebastian—when Sebastian finally appears.
Are we to assume that the voices and bodies and personalities of “Cesario” and Sebastian, as well as their faces, are the same? Sebastian is quite different from “Cesario”—not only a different sex, but also a different gender (a violent swordsman). Yet when Orsino sees them both he cries out, in a quasi-liturgical formula, "One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons." Olivia simply croons, "Most wonderful!", both because she realizes that “Cesario” is male after all, and because there are two of him!
There is no point in treating the play like a murder mystery, let alone a legal case. It is a recognition play, which demands that we suspend our disbelief. When the victim of the masquerade finally recognizes the masquerader ("Oh, it’s Viola!"), the audience recognizes the plot ("Oh, it's one of those recognition plays!"). That moment brings with it the same satisfaction as the moment when the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle—or the last line connecting the dots—slips in to reveal the total image. Perhaps we should grant to the characters the same double pleasure and conscious illusion that we grant to ourselves, the right both to see through the trick and to be taken in by it.
The awkward fact that a woman (Olivia) falls in love with a man (“Cesario”) who is a woman (Viola) who falls in love with a man (Orsino) allows the play to express a complex series of meditations on androgyny. On the outside, it would seem that a male “Cesario” is in love with a male Orsino; on the inside, a female Olivia loves a female Viola. Viola/”Cesario” thus experiences simultaneously two different sorts of gender/sex asymmetry, one public, one private. Shakespeare then resolves the triangular tangle by squaring it, adding a fourth person, Sebastian, to make it come out even, like a good dinner party. Sebastian materializes the dream figure of “Cesario,” who has existed only in the infatuated imagination of both Olivia and Orsino but now proves actually to exist, so that Olivia can have him. But why does Olivia love Sebastian? If, in her temporary, grief-induced misanthropy, she loved “Cesario”'s gender (feminine), but not her sex (female), has she really gotten what she wants in Sebastian, who is entirely male?
We might view this story as expressing a kind of gender essentialism: Orsino knows, somehow, that underneath the clothing there really is someone of the opposite sex. But we might, on the other hand, view it as just the opposite, as a story that denies gender altogether. The attraction between Orsino and “Cesario” is a powerful testimony to a love that transcends not sexuality but gender, a love made all the more titillating by the woman's safe hiding place behind man's clothing. Gradually we in the audience share Orsino's confusion: Is this a boy or a girl? And does it matter? Eventually we learn, as Orsino does, that he loves one person, male or female, in a way that renders gender irrelevant.