The following is the term paper I presented to Dr. Will Stockton for my English 490 “Women in Literature” class on 18 November. Concerning Sebastian’s sexuality in Twelfth Night it builds on the work of Joseph Pequigney in his essay, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice” among others it attempts to substanciate a claim not only of Sebastian’s bisexuality with his rescuer/ friend Antonio but also his sexual role within that relationship and later his role within a potential marraige with Olivia.
A familiarity with Shakespeare’s play is assumed.
My paper is presented here for those who might be interested in my critical academic work; it is not here to be stolen and plagiarized. I retain the original printed document with Will’s comments.
The Queering of Sebastian
ANTONIO: If you will not murder me for my love, let me
be your servant.
SEBASTIAN: If you will not undo what you have done—
that is, kill him whom you have recovered—desire
it not. … My bosom is full of
kindness, and I am yet so near the manners of my
mother that, upon the least occasion more, mine
eyes will tell tales of me. (2.2.34-41)
Critics have, until recently, largely overlooked the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, focusing instead on the transvestite comedy of Sebastian’s sister and her conquest of the lovesick Orsino. Yet, the relationship between the beautiful boy and his captain/ savior / “friend” Antonio has more recently been referred to as “the strongest and most direct expression of homoerotic feeling in Shakespeare’s plays” (Smith 67) and worthy of examination. The endeavor of this essay, unlike Joseph Pequigney’s essay “The Two Antonios,” is not to “secure the homoerotic character of the friendship” (Pequigney 202) but rather, in building on this work, to explore why Antonio is so taken with Sebastian as an epitome of Renaissance beauty.
Malvolio, in trying to describe the disguised Viola to Olivia, uses words which both seem to describe not only an adolescent but also an androgynous person:
Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy—as a squash is before ‘tis apeascod, or a codling when ‘tis almost an apple. ‘Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man. He is very well favored, and speaks very shrewishly. One would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him. (1.5.155-161)
Cesario is very clearly some form of “in-between.” He is not a boy yet not a man; this alone directs the reader to a sense of adolescence while the reference to “mother’s milk” brings forward the notion of Viola’s physical androgyny and Malvolio’s problem in finding exactly what to make of her. The passage gives us some semblance of Viola’s appearance, but to relate her physicality to her brother’s we must look to the final scene of the play. When both siblings first appear on stage together Antonio points out their similarity:
How have you made division of yourself?
An apple cleft in two is not more twin
Than these two creatures. (5.1.233-235)
The theatergoer, we assume, would have seen two boys dressed similarly: one they are to believe is male and the other female. Yet the two boys, we must believe, looked as identical as two twins possibly could. If both Sebastian and Viola really are identical either they both must appear somewhat effeminate and attractive, or they are both to a large degree masculine, possibly rendering Viola homely looking or wholly unattractive. Given Orsino’s attraction to Cesario/ Viola the former seems unlikely.
The period supports this closeness and easy transgression of sexual boundaries not only by the existence of a transvestite theatre that invited its audience to see young boys as women, but also by the medical science of the day. In Stephen Orgal’s essay “Nobody’s Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women” he writes,
[F]or the Renaissance the line between the sexes was blurred, often frighteningly so. Medical and anatomical treatises from the time of Galen cited homologies in the genital structure of the sexes to show that male and female were versions of unitary species (13).
With a medical community giving only a one sex model of the body, the Renaissance audience seeing Viola and Sebastian on stage as ostensibly identical cannot help but bring up what Phyllis Rackin calls the “widespread and ambivalent mythological tradition centering on the figure of the androgen” (29). As Rackin explains the figure of the androgen was a conflicted image at best:The androgyne could be an image of transcendence- of surpassing the bounds that limit the human condition in a fallen world, of breaking through the constraints that material existence imposes on spiritual aspiration or the personal restrictions that define our roles in society. But the androgyne could also be an object of ridicule or an image of monstrous deformity, of social or physical abnormality. (29)
Orgal elaborates on the abnormality of the androgen that Rackin cites, but he argues that more than a fear that the boy actor will become something monstrous is the fear that the male playgoer will be “seduced by the impersonation, and, losing their reason, will become effeminate… the spectator begins by lusting after a female character, but ends by having sex with the man she ‘really’ is” (Orgal, “Nobody’s” 16).
This focus on the physicality of the androgen is of particular importance in its relevance to Antonio’s perception of Sebastian. Antonio’s basis for affection seems exclusively predicated on the physical. Antonio, insulted, infuriated, and believing Sebastian will not return money he had given him, gives full voice not only to his love for the youth, but also his disappointment, with particular emphasis on his beauty:
This youth that you see here
I snatched one half out of the jaws of death,
Relieved him with such sanctity of love,
And to his image, which methought did promise
Most venerable worth, did I devotion. (3.4.378-382)
It is nothing of Sebastian’s interior to which Antonio has found worth, but rather his “image,” his appearance, and it is to his appearance that has been traitorous:
But, O, how vile an idol proves this god!
Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there’s no blemish but the mind;
None can be called deformed but the unkind.
Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil [.] (3.4.384-388)
In a culture where the anti-theatricalists ardently fear the attraction of, otherwise, normal male theatre-goers to the boy actors leading them to go home and “play sodomite or worse” (Stubbes qtd in Orgal, “Nobody’s” 17). Antonio, at the very least, gives credence to the anti-theatricalists fears. While we cannot know Antonio’s sexual history prior to the play it is clear Sebastian is the only character in which he shows interest. Later in the play Antonio uses words seemingly borrowed from an anti-theatrical tract to explain his presence in Illyria: “A witchcraft drew me hither” (5.1.74). The source of this witchcraft is almost certainly Sebastian’s beauty.
Pequigney historically contextualizes the attraction of men to boys:
According to Freud, ‘what excited a man’s love’ in ancient Greece (and still may do so) was not the masculine character of a boy, but his physical resemblance to a woman as well as his feminine mental qualities,’ with the ‘sexual object’ being ‘someone who combines the character of both sexes’ and a kind of reflection of the subject’s own bisexual nature.” (207)
The passage is meant to refer to the relationship between Orsino and Viola to implicate Orsino’s potential “homoerotic proclivities” (207). But the passage also seems to implicate Antonio in the same manner; it suggests that it is not Sebastian’s masculinity to which Antonio is attracted, but rather his physical and social manifestation of femininity. This possibility seems to directly violate Pequigney’s ascription of homosexuality to Antonio (201) but as Orgal writes in his book Impersonations, such an ascription of this sort is at best anachronistic:
[T]he binary division of sexual appetites into the normative heterosexual and the deviant homosexual is a very recent invention; neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality existed as categories for the Renaissance mind. (59)
While the Renaissance would have had no concept of sexuality it seems appropriate, given our own understanding of sexuality, to codify Antonio as, at the very least, bisexual. Sebastian seems to follow the same codification given, his ability to “erotically respond… to man and woman” (Pequigney 206). While these codifications did not exist at the time of the play they give us another course of analyzing the texts to uncover themes overlooked or invisible in the past.
Pequigney paints Sebastian as a very submissive character, saying he “shows himself obliging [and] complaint [,] alike to the wishes of Olivia and Antonio, as a boy who cannot say no” (205). In Act 2 Scene 1 Sebastian initially puts up resistance to Antonio’s following him:
My stars shine darkly
over me. The malignancy of my fate might perhaps
distemper yours. Therefore I shall crave of you your
leave that I may bear my evils alone. (2.1.3-6)
Yet, later in the play at Act 3 Scene 3 Sebastian makes a point to say he will no longer try to stop Antonio from accompanying him and further that he is pained that Antonio has gone so far to help him:
I would not by my will have troubled you,
But since you make your pleasure of your pains,
I no further chide you…
My kind Antonio,
I can no other make but thanks,
And thanks, and ever thanks… (3.3.1-16)
Even later in the play upon Sebastian first meeting Olivia and her mistaking him for Cesario, he readily agrees to marry her with a simple “Madam, I will” (4.2.69) without any objection or hesitation whatsoever. A short while later when Olivia asks again for the assurance of his willingness to marry her he again responds to placate her: “I’ll follow this good man and go with you / And, having sworn truth ever will be true” (4.3.33-34).
These passages seem to give some credence to Pequigney’s stance that Sebastian is of an accommodating character. Interestingly, in Sebastian’s next scene on stage after his agreement to marry Olivia he comes on alone still in wonder of the marriage. In his contemplation of the quandary in which he has landed he thinks immediately of Antonio and is desirous of his assistance:
And though ‘tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet ‘tis not madness. Where’s Antonio, then?
I could not find him at the Elephant…
His counsel now might do me golden service. (4.3.3-8 )
Pequigney has pointed to this passage for evidence that,
“Sebastian [has come] to depend on Antonio both emotionally and in practical matters: emotionally when he can scarcely hold back tears, the shedding of which he regards as effeminate… at his proposed parting from Antonio; and practically in looking to him for advice when perplexed by Olivia’s unacceptable conduct.” (204)
Sebastian’s contemplation in this soliloquy and his ardent desire for his friend begs the question what exactly happened between them after Antonio rescued him on the beach.
When they initially part on the beach Sebastian confesses to Antonio, “[M]y name / is Sebastian, which I called Roderigo” (2.1.15-16). Neither the play nor most of its critics pause over this passage. Pequigney argues, “The alias may be demystified if it is seen as a means to hide his identity, his true name and family connections, during a drawn-out sexual liaison with a stranger in strange lands.” (205). Given Sebastian’s androgynous physicality, Antonio’s ardent love “[A] desire, / More sharp than filed steel” (3.3.4-5) for the youth, Sebastian’s compliant and pleasing nature, his emotional dependence on Antonio, his initial desire to keep secret his identity, and not least of all his utter confusion and surprise at being thrust into a marriage with Olivia, the play seems to suggest, as Pequigney has argued, the certainly of a physical relationship between he and Antonio.
While it has been well established there is no solid idea of individual sexualities in the Renaissance and much less sexual roles within those sexualities, it is possible to theorize not only that Sebastian and Antonio had a homosexual relationship but also, given the facts, that Antonio was the active participant and Sebastian the passive. Sebastian, as has been established, is not much of an active character. He does not do but is done to, except perhaps when he injures Sir Toby in self-defense. Antonio, on the other hand, is always an active character; he not only saved Sebastian’s life but in the past he has fought sea battles against Orsino’s galleys and in the present of the play continues to offer Sebastian aid, money, and shelter.
Sebastian’s sexuality is further complicated if we examine his role in his marriage to Olivia. Pequigney questions Sebastian’s masculinity and ability to pursue Olivia on his own without Viola “with the strain of passivity in his nature… Sebastian could never have done what was necessary to win Olivia, and his only chance was for his sister to perform this masculine role for him” (209). Pequigney argues for a potential “ménage à trios at Olivia’s house” (206) given Sebastian’s outpouring of affection at seeing Antonio again in Act 5, “How have the hours racked and tortured me/ Since I have lost thee!” (5.1.229-230) yet this seems unlikely as Sebastian earlier pledges fidelity of his vows to Olivia, “I’ll follow this good man and go with you / And, having sworn truth, ever will be true” (4.3.33-34). In shifting to look at Olivia, it seems if there is any woman in the play who might satisfy Sebastian, it is Olivia.
Sebastian, in questioning his own sanity and that of Olivia, finds both impossible on the grounds of Olivia’s power:
I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad—
Or else the lady’s mad. Yey if ‘twere so,
She could not sway her house, command her
Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet, and stable bearing
As I perceive she does. (4.3.13-21)
It is this power and authority in Olivia’s nature that seems to attract Sebastian. In “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England” Jean Howard suggests Olivia as a masculinized woman. Olivia, she writes, “is a woman of property, headstrong and initially intractable, and she lacks any discernable male relatives… to control her or her fortune” (432). Olivia, taken in this light, could be said to be the dominant presence in her relationship with Sebastian just as Antonio has been in his relationship with the youth. Looking at the most examined passage of the play from this perspective it is possible when Sebastian says to Olivia, “You are betrothed both to a maid and a man” (5.1.275) he not only refers solely to himself, as Pequigney has already theorized (208), but more specifically as a boy/girl, a man who has been maid to Antonio’s passions and will be the same for Olivia’s.
Interestingly, this line, which has caused so much debate on Sebastian’s self-definition, is the last line Sebastian speaks in the play. Perhaps he has said just enough.
Howard, Jean. “Crossdressing, the Theater, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418-40.
Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Orgel, Stephen. “Nobody’s Perfect’: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys For Women.” Displacing Homophobia: Gay Male Perspectives in Literature and Culture. Ed. Ronald R. Butters, John M. Clum, and Michael Moon. Durham: Duke UP, 1989. 7-29.
Pequigney, Joseph. “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice.” English Literary Renaissance 22(1992): 201-221.
Racken, Phyllis. “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage.” PMLA 102 (1987): 29-41.
Smith, Bruce. Homosexual Desire In Shakespeare’s England. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1991.