1The attitude of the disguised character of Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night makes it clear that, on the Renaissance stage in England, masculinity was conventionally equated with the presentation of a sturdy character wearing a hat and a sword that strutted and fretted his hour on the stage, speaking out loud. But on considering the character of Orsino, one may feel a bit uncomfortable and begin to wonder if, as Will Fisher asserts in The Renaissance Beard (156), the beard was enough to make the man. Masculinity may be viewed as a combination of elements that show that one is a man. As Matthew Gutmann put it, it is “what men think and do to be men,” so it has to do with a form of theatricality. Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin (20)believe that the court was one of the typical sites of masculine power and authority. As William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night partly takes place at the male court of the unmarried Duke of Illyria, one may suggest that this comedy is likely to present interesting views of the dramas of masculinity. Though the ruler is in love with beautiful Olivia, his attitude is a far cry from what could be expected of a lover in a comedy: a scrutiny of the text indicates that his masculinity has undergone some sort of transformation. The play makes it clear that the Duke of Illyria is sick; his disease might even be contagious, as I will try to demonstrate. This analysis will contribute to shedding light on the dramatic function of his servant, the male/female character of Viola/Cesario who may be regarded as serving as some sort of medication. The creation of a convincing though dwindling masculine icon raises dramatic problems that will be discussed while trying to determine whether Twelfth Night “disrupts sexual difference” as Catherine Belsey suggests or, on the contrary, contributes to providing a firmer outline for gender, for masculinity in particular.
2Ian Maclean (2) recalls that in the Aristotelian tradition “the notion of female has long been opposed to that of male, aligned with other opposites.” Not only were men and women considered as opposed polarities but the latter were traditionally regarded as “the weaker vessel” that bore the weight of Eve’s sinfulness. Even the word “feminine” was interpreted as pointing to the inferiority of their faith due to the combination of fe and minus (Institori, 177). But in the Renaissance these old prejudices were called into question (Castiglione, 188). Twelfth Night is all about crossing the line that runs between man and woman. The opening situation is the following: the island of Illyria is ruled by Count Orsino who is passionately in love with fair Olivia, his female counterpart. Though opposites, what is most striking about these two characters is their similarities since both have retreated into a secluded world and find themselves unable to love. Olivia has decided to live “like a cloistress” (I,1, 27) and refuses “the company and sight of men” (I,2, 36-7), while Orsino’s desires, “like fell and cruel hounds, E’er pursue” him (I,1, 21-2), instead of pursuing her. The play opens on a speech delivered by Orsino:
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet south
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more,
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there
Of what validity and pitch soe’er
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical. (I,1, 1-15)
3Music, love, perfumes, flowers, sweetness, poetry, fantasy: Orsino’s mind is focused on elements that are conventionally associated with femininity. Moreover his speech enhances his moodiness and fickleness – features that an ill-meaning commentator might describe as typically feminine – and in act II scene 4 Feste refers to him as one wearing “changeable taffeta” (74) to stress his inconstancy. His refusal to go hunt drives the point home.
4The first contact with Orsino, which is also the very beginning of the play, is a most important moment that remains branded in the spectators’ memories. Though it sheds an interesting light on some puzzling lines – especially the Captain’s hesitation in I,2, 40 and Sir Toby’s account in I,3, 106-8–, Alan Sinfield’s theory that Olivia “cannot love” him because he is “too masculine” (68) fails to account for this strange encounter (69):
Actually, Orsino himself doesn’t appear very masculine, but this, I suggest, is because he is courting Olivia. Men were – indeed are – supposed to adopt a submissive, pleading posture during the period of courtship; upon marriage, conventionally they revert to “masculine” stance.
5If his effeminacy should be interpreted as a role he plays to seduce Olivia according to Petrarchan conventions, one may be puzzled by the fact that he is playing this part in his palace, when Olivia is absent. There is certainly more in his attitude than a lover’s strategy.
6The Duke’s behaviour may put one in mind of another Shakespearean character the audience probably laughed at heartily, that is the perfumed popinjay whose arrival on the battlefield is reported and mimicked by an indignant Hotspur in 1 Henry IV:
My liege, I did deny no prisoners:
But I remember, when the fight was done,
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
Breathless and faint, leaning upon my sword,
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dressed,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new-reaped
Showed like a stubble-land at harvest-home.
He was perfumed like a milliner,
And 'twixt his finger and his thumb he held
A pouncet-box, which ever and anon
He gave his nose and took't away again –
Who therewith angry, when it next came there,
Took it in snuff – and still he smiled and talked;
And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He called them untaught knaves, unmannerly
To bring a slovenly unhandsome corpse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold –
To be so pestered with a popinjay! –
Out of my grief and my impatience,
Answered neglectingly, I know not what,
He should or he should not – for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds, God save the mark!
And telling me the sovereign'st thing on earth
Was parmacity for an inward bruise;
And that it was great pity, so it was,
This villainous saltpetre should be digged
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good tall fellow had destroyed
So cowardly, and but for these vile guns
He would himself have been a soldier.
This bald unjointed chat of his, my lord,
Made me to answer indirectly, as I said;
And I beseech you, let not his report
Come current for an accusation
Betwixt my love and your high majesty.
(1 Henry IV, I,3, 28-68)
7Hotspur’s description of the popinjay is evidence that some postures were inappropriate in Elizabethan England when adopted by a man. But in Orsino’s case, these attitudes are not ridiculed and performance records present no instance of a ludicrous Orsino (Elam, 138). And yet his opening speech contains “lady terms” (46) too and for sure his words must have sounded like “bald unjointed chat” (64) to the audience. What is striking is that though he has lost sight of his masculinity, Orsino seems to have kept his authority and his nobility. Therefore one may wonder if a dose of effeminacy could have been accepted as part of early modern masculinity.
8In act I scene 2, Orsino is described by the Captain as “A noble Duke / In nature as in name” (22-3) and the audience rapidly understand that his nobility – the aspect that deserves admiration and respect – has been smothered. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1628), Robert Burton warns the readers against the mollifying effect of love-melancholy and gives a series of examples of its capacity to turn men into women. For example, he mentions the case of Stratocles, the woman hater, who “shaved off his bushy beard, painted his face, curled his hair, and wore a laurel crown to cover his bald pate,” (III,2,2,2) and all this as done out of love. To drive his point home Burton quotes Spenser’s Fairie Queen (V,viii) when the poet says that beauty is likely to undermine manliness:
Naught under heaven so strongly doth allure
The sense of man and all his mind possess,
As beauty’s loveliest bait, that doth procure
Great warriors erst their rigour to suppress,
And mighty hands forget their manliness,
Driven with the power of an heart-burning eye,
And lapt in fetters of a rotten tress,
That can with melting pleasure mollify
Their harden’d hearts inur’d to cruelty.
9This description may apply to noble Orsino. No doubt the Elizabethan spectators identified the love-melancholy character at once and understood that his manliness had been suppressed momentarily. They probably interpreted his inconstancy as being due to this disease since Robert Burton said about the melancholy that they are “Inconstant in all their actions, vertiginous, restless, unapt to resolve of any business, they will and will not, persuaded to and fro upon every small occasion, or word spoken. (III,1,2,2) Love-melancholy was also believed to cause people to theatricalise their lives, hence Orsino’s tendency to confuse his court with a stage. Antitheatricalists, like William Prynne, were fond of demonstrating that an actor “denegerates into a woman” (197). And this process was believed to be contagious since according to Stephen Gosson “spectacles effeminate & soften the hearts of men.” In other words, Orsino’s effeminacy is caused by love-melancholy and it might contaminate his entire court, and maybe the entire island of Illyria. The deepest fear in antitheatrical tracts was the fear of a universal effeminization.
10The danger of effeminacy is just a starting point for the dramatist and after meeting Viola, as early as Act I scene 4, Orsino’s manliness surfaces again since he encourages her to prove fearless and to “leap all civil bounds” (21). At the end of the play, he will even recover his long lost masculine aggressiveness and, like Othello or Macbeth, contemplate killing the thing he loves, in his case fair Olivia:
Why should I not, had I the heart to do it,
Like to th’Egyptian thief at point of death,
Kill what I love – a savage jealousy
That sometimes savours nobly? (V,1, 113-116)
- 1 Kate Aughterson, “Masculinity as Vice in The Dutch Courtesan,” Cahiers Elisabéthains 76, autumn 20 (...)
11Orsino is an awe-inspiring popinjay and his two-sidedness caused Shakespeare to feel the need to remind the audience of his original effeminacy. Therefore when the character appears again in act II scene 4, his first words are: “Give me some music” (1). Orsino’s two facets may be connected with what Kate Aughterson calls the “doubled vision” of the masculine character.1 She compares this dramatic phenomenon with painted anamorphoses. Yet in Shakespeare’s comedy, the two images are combined rather than juxtaposed and Orsino stands out as a feminized masculine sick hero.
12The arrival of shipwrecked Viola in Illyria provides the link between the two isolated polarities. The masculine meets the feminine via a series of transformations: first one must remember that the female parts were traditionally played by young male actors, which implies that when Viola cross-dresses and becomes Cesario, all the actor has to do is to remove his costume and to play what he is: “Four negatives,” Feste says, “make two affirmatives.” (V,1, 19). Secondly, Viola is a character who combines – and denies – the two genders since she pretends she is a eunuch named Cesario. Bartholomeus Cocles declared that after castration, a gelding can no longer be regarded as a man because he is “very much changed from the nature of man, into the nature of woman.”It is noteworthy that her original name (Viola) is directly connected with her borrowed name (Cesario). Indeed according to Phrygian mythology, violets are closely linked with the story of Attis, a very handsome young man who fell in love with Atta, the king’s daughter (or a hermaphrodite, according to a different version of the myth). But goddess Agdistis was deeply in love with him and she was jealous. So she decided to punish him: she drove him raving mad and in his madness he took a knife and emasculated himself in a forest. From the blood he shed were born the first violets. The character of Viola is symbolically both male and female (II,3, 36-39 and V,1, 259) and neither male nor female: it consists of a young male actor playing the part of a woman who dresses as a man who pretends he is a eunuch, that is to say some sort of woman.
13Viola’s transformation from female to male provides an inverted image of the process undergone by Orsino since the Duke is going back to original femininity. Stephen Orgel reminds us that according to Renaissance medical theories, all people “start as women, and the culture confirmed this by dressing all children in skirts until the age of seven or so, (…) when the boy was put into pants, removed from the care of women, and began to be trained as a man.” (678) Orsino’s decision to send a feminine young man to represent him takes on some form of relevance.
For they shall belie thy happy years
That say thou art a man. Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious. Thy small pipe
Is as maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all semblative a woman’s part. (I,4, 30-34)
14The fact that Olivia can love Cesario, the woman turned man, but “cannot love” Orsino, the man turned woman (I,5, 249, 254, 272), presents some sort of coherence if we assume that that the feminine is attracted to the masculine.
15In Twelfth Night, theborderline between masculinity and femininity is clear for the spectators and unclear for the characters. The audience understand perfectly what is happening onstage and one scene in particular sets the two polarities apart. When Viola gets involved in a duel for example, her cowardliness makes it a farce. When challenged, she reaches the limits of her disguise and wants to run away “as if a bear were at (her) heels” (III,4, 287). But when her twin brother, Sebastian, unexpectedly replaces her, the duel becomes a dangerous ordeal. The contrast between Viola and her twin brother – whom she imitates (IV,1, 380) – drives it home that masculinity is not something one may just fake. As Erestus puts it in George Peele’s The Old Wives’ Tale,“Things that seem are not the same” (168). Twelfth Night teaches that men have a different approach to the world and behave differently. As Will Fisher demonstrates in “The Renaissance Beard,” masculinity is “produced around a particular set of physiological features” and “around a certain set of social roles.” (172) It is noteworthy that the use of one or the other character – Viola or Sebastian – is enough to give a scene a farcical tone or a more serious poise, thanks to the conventional contrast between woman’s frailty and man’s courage.
16Though Catherine Belsey is right to assert that “of all Shakespeare’s comedies it is perhaps Twelfth Night which takes the most remarkable risks with the identity of its central figure,” one may suggest that it is the character of Orsino – rather than Viola – who presents the most dangerous form of ambiguity.
17Though she switches easily from female to male, Viola is hardly ever at ease in her new role and her strategy is a plague to her: “Disguise thou art a wickedness, / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (II,2, 28) she says. Like Orsino, she is the victim of a transformation. Yet, contrary to the Duke who is paralyzed by a disease that came upon him, she decides to resort to the use of a disguise that does not give her any insight into masculine feelings: it just causes her to be wedged between a loving woman she cannot love and a man she loves but cannot seduce. The play tends to demonstrate that what prevents her from winning Orsino’s heart is not her statute as a man – doesn’t Antonio feel free to express his love for Sebastian? –, it is rather the fact that her master is already in love with Olivia. But the critic should keep it in mind that what is at stake when such problems are raised is not character psychology but the requirements of dramatic effect. “Coherence is a chimera,” Alan Sinfield declares (51). What Shakespeare’s comedies promise is not the completion of love but the coupling of male and female loving characters and to achieve this the play must restore the masculinity of the Duke and the femininity of his servant.
18Orsino’s inroad into femininity is a dead-end – as it keeps him from meeting Olivia – and the retention of his nobility in spite of his suspicious attitude might originate in exterior elements brought in by the playwright to compensate for his melancholic regression. Shakespeare’s technical concern was probably to balance the parallel developments of the masculine and feminine facets of the character so that the spectators could feel that his manliness would finally surface. Onomastics is one device used by Shakespeare to achieve this effect: the name Orsino, from orso in Italian, refers to the bear, that is to say the most dangerous living creature in the Renaissance, in addition to being a melancholy animal. Michel Pastoureau has clearly demonstrated that it used to be considered as the King of animals before being deposed by the lion at the turn of the 13th century (181). Though Orsino, the melancholy bear, refuses to go hunt in Twelfth Night some of the animal’s greatness is still perceptible in the Duke’s name.
19Theatrical characters are endowed with poetical and cultural density and connecting them with animals or mythological figures may help set their dramatic identity. Critics traditionally associate Orsino and Olivia with Narcissus – his beauty is irresistible – and Viola with echo – she falls desperately in love with the young man whose attention she strives to attract. The commentators found their analyses on the opposition between supposedly male self-love and supposedly female unrequited love. And yet this approach is denied by the original myth insofar as when Narcissus, whom “many a youth and many a girl desired” (61), finally finds himself a victim of his own unresponsive reflection, he feels the pangs of unrequited love too: we may either suggest that he “becomes Echo” or that gender identity has nothing to do with the possibility or the impossibility of love. It could be argued that Shakespeare used the myth as a starting point by stressing the opposition between what is visible – male – and what is not visible – female. Narcissus seduces with his beauty – he becomes a beautiful face in water – and Echo with her words – she becomes a voice. The play opens on the already quoted speech delivered by Orsino. He is on the stage and the spectators can see him speaking. Orsino makes a show of his own melancholy that he stages carefully – and dangerously – before his servants. Though he turns it down, the invitation to hunt is meant to stress his masculinity, as Ovid’s text does with 16 year-old Narcissus who meets Echo while “driving to nets the frightened deer” (61). Orsino’s masculinity is probably reinforced by the subtle connection with Narcissus. Moreover, even though the bear refuses to hunt the hart, he is willing to hunt his own heart anyway. As for Olivia, her voice only can be heard at the beginning of the play and indirectly so, through Valentine’s report (I,1), and her face disappears under a veil. Like Echo, she becomes a faceless voice. Later on, she will often repeat words she has just heard (as in I,5, 281/282-283) and she will say three times the haunting line “I cannot love him” that connects her unmistakably with Echo, who is unable to love Narcissus.
20Orsino strikes the first and the last notes of the play and his progress throughout the comedy looks very much like a restorative process. His masculinity, that had been suppressed by the assaults of love-melancholy, surfaces again in V,1. This transformation is made possible by the intervention of Viola and her male counterpart, Sebastian, that is to say by “A natural perspective, that is and is not.” (V,1, 213). Twelfth Night deals with a cure and a final restoration, it goes, to paraphrase C. L. Barber, “through release to clarification” (6).
21Twelfth Night is a comedy. Leo Salingar even called it “a comedy about comedy” (242). Rather than demonstrate that men and women can swap roles confusingly, it shows that one cannot safely be one sex and the other at the same time, as if the boy actors playing the female parts could voice their own embarrassment with viola when she says: “I am not that I play” (I,5, 179). The world turned upside down that marked Twelfth Night’s festivities and caused a noble Duke to lose sight of his masculinity undergoes a final reversal that enables the servant to become her “former master’s mistress” (V,I, 320). At the close of the play, the little bear is no longer melancholy and he can find his place in the orderly pattern the end of the comedy displays.If all the major characters find a love partner – Malvolio is left unmarried and Feste is outside the male/female polarities –Orsino’s acceptation of Viola sounds disquietingly unemotional. It is even postponed: he refuses to call Cesario her real name, that is Viola, before she has put off her man’s clothes, which does not happen on the stage.One may remember that when Viola proposed to stress the difference between men’s love and women’s love, Orsino retorted revealingly: “Make no compare” (II,4, 101). The comedy asserts difference. What it claims unmistakably is the necessary presence of women for men to assume and fulfil their masculinity. This need is also the starting point of many a comedy and it is best illustrated by the following excerpt from George Wilkin’s play The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (1607):
Scarborrow: Prithee tell me: are you not a woman?
Clare: I know not that, till I am better acquainted with a man.
Scarborrow: And how would you be acquainted with a man?
Clare: To distinguish between himself and myself.
Scarborrow: Why, I am a man.
Clare: That’s more than I know, sir.
Scarborrow: To approve that I am no less, thus I kiss thee.
Clare: And by that proof I am a man too, for I have kissed you. (205-215)