Supremacy Of The Male Characters In Shakespeare’s Plays And Representation Of Homosexuality In Twelfth Night Or What You Will

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“In patriarchal societies, women have been suppressed, marginalized and ignored by the masculine thought that prevails in many areas of life. This situation was directly reflected in the theatre texts related to life and society. However, even if they were ignored, women had a language, discourse, life, culture, art and theatre in their own right and this movement is the same age as the woman.”(Çakmak, 2013, p. 24) Shakespeare has never written a fully independent female character, perhaps because of the period in which he lived. In many of his works there are quite unusual, idealistic, radical women, but at the end of the work these women have always made decisions that contradict this unusual character and have exhibited surprise endings. The happy ending understanding of a woman comes to exist with the acceptance of the superiority of her man and coming round. That’s why it can be said that in Shakespeare’s plays women are generally weak, pure and defenceless. They are not strong and dominant ones and it shows that he did not fall down on them. This may sometimes cause to think that it is because of the fact that at that time only men would play or he was homosexual.

In this study any definite judgement about the playwright is avoided and his probable efforts to highlight the homosexuality in his play twelfth night or what you will is studied beside the investigation of the formation process of homosexuality and his time with regard to the gender gap. Finally, although the characters do not seem to be homosexual at first sight, their attitudes and behaviours have been examined in this respect.

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1. Background of Homosexuality in Elizabethan England

The article in which Bray (1990) examines the development of the concepts of male friendship and sodomite in the 16th century, he indicates that the reaction caused by the two concepts is quite different. The first one was universally appreciated, while the second caused fear and executions, however, at some point they progressed in parallel with each other. Based on his research, it seems that homosexuality did not exist as a concept but it appears in the attitudes and behaviours of people. This argument is also supported by Murphy (1996). Homosexuality was, in principle, a crime that anyone could do, such as swear or murder. This was not part of the individual’s nature; it was a part of the whole humanity. But the term ‘sodomy’ in Elizabethan period features more than our idea of ‘contemporary homosexuality’. It involved more dangerous sets of sexual acts where it was only a part of the sexual intercourses among people of the same gender. It was close to an idea like immorality. It is considered to be a masculine sin. However, it is not only a sexual offence, but a political and religious crime, and this is what most clearly explains why it is associated with such a fear. (Bray, 1990)

Formally, homosexuality would cause tough accusations. However, this general thought differs according to the different genders, cultures and time. The number of women who were accused was less than men. The proofs of the attitudes and sexual manners in Renaissance time show a big change according to the age, gender, class and the power of the individuals. As in society life, there is more knowledge about men rather than women, and more are known about supper class such as aristocrats, clergymen and educated humanists rather than the people in low class. Although there is enough information to draw sketchily the limitations of sexual behaviour, there are some gaps that originate many unsolved problems and distinctive limitations in the data on hand.

A small number of nobles were only gay; most of them fulfilled class and gender obligations aimed at getting married to strengthen alliances and gain successors to the dynasty. Scholars who were annoyed by homosexuality considered the favourite persons of the kings such as James I and Henry III of the France as not physical but political and social friend. But his contemporaries saw these as explicitly sexual relations.

The homosexual relationship for many individuals was only one element of what we call bisexuality. Also homosexual activity, though not limited to them, usually occurred between adult men and boys or adolescents. (Duberman, Vicinus, & Chauncey JR., 2001) As cited in (Sokolovic-Cizmek, 2003, p. 42), in “The Sexual Abbertions”, the first of his Three Contributions on the Theory of Sex, Freud comments that a large proportion of male homosexuals “retain the mental quality of masculinity…and that what they look for in their real sexual object are in fact feminine mental traits.” Their “sexual object is not someone of the same sex, but someone who combines the characters of both sexes…a union of both sex characteristics, a compromise between an impulse that seeks for a man and one that seeks for a woman.”

2. Supremacy of Male Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays

In the Renaissance, tragedies of Elizabethan period are important in England. Shakespeare is undoubtedly the most important tragedy writer of this period and all ages. Many tragedies written at the time demanded political conflicts, wars, irrepressible loves, adventures, scenes of violence, feelings of revenge and death. Violence, blood, death were the constant qualities of these plays. The Elizabethan audience also liked this. (Nutku, Dram Sanatı, 1997)

Although Shakespeare, who lived in the 15th century Elizabethan Period, appears to have created contrarian female characters, it is seen that at the end of his works women who accept the supremacy of men and who are passive but integrated with love are dominant. We can hardly see the woman as the idealist and main character. Lady Macbeth is like a man, whose purpose is to integrate the unskilled political identity of Macbeth. Masculinised and her effeminacy seems to have been stolen. Hamlet wreaks his anger on Ophelia and it is clear that her role is not more than settling Hamlet’s anger. Miranda is the key stone of the power struggle of Prospero and does whatever he says because of her loyalty to her father. Desdemona is a sexual object of the battle of passion between men, a purity figure, and an innocent victim in the game of power. Juliet is a victim of exalted love. Cordelia is the daughter of Lear, who has to live the pains of the process of King Lear’s transformation from the king to the human. (Akaltun, 2015)

In the plays all performers were men. No woman ever appeared in a public theatre until the Restoration Age, 1660. Therefore, as in other communities, children played women’s roles in Shakespeare plays. “The actors (boy-actress) of the Elizabethan Age were so skilful that no audience found strange to see men in female roles.”(İpekçi, 2016, p. 10) This case may have become a habit of males to liken the hairless adolescences to females in time. In Elizabethan Theatre all female roles were played by males. In the drama of Shakespeare, As you like it, Rosalind explains this situation to the audience in the epilogue with this sentence: “If I were a woman, I would kiss you all whom beard I like.”(Adıvar, 1943) It shows that the adolescences in woman costumes created a gender complexity in brains of people.

3. Analysis of the Work in terms of Homosexual Thought in Elizabethan England

The twin sisters and brothers Viola and Sebastian are the main characters in The Twelfth Night, because their role allows them to be exposed to the bisexuality which is the dominant theme of the play.

Based on the available sources, it is understood that Shakespeare wrote this play in 1601. He wrote this play in a date between the autumn of 1598 and the beginning of 1602. (Nutku, Onikinci Gece Üzerine, 1988) In the first act second scene, the captain tells Viola about Olivia for the first time and Viola wishes to serve Olivia although she had not even seen her once before. This case supports the homosexual thought that is actually more than a friendship in Elizabethan England. The fact that the captain tells her that Olivia mourns because of losing her brother and does not want anybody beside her gives Viola a fillip to get her interest. Olivia has not met the duke that’s why her feelings about Orsino have not emerged yet. Their meeting in a short time concludes with the sentence of Orsino “I opened for you the closed book of my secret soul.” (Shakespeare, 1623, p. 17) In the first act scene 4, Orsino refers to Cesario (Viola) with the words “lad”, “man” and “youth”, but in a short time he acknowledges the woman in Cesario when talking about her general femininity, gentle voice and ruby lips. (Shakespeare, 1623, pp. 18-19)

It is possible to liken Sebastian’s entrance to a key in the last act. Thanks to him, it will be easy to solve the chaos in an instant and he plays an important role to achieve the uncertainties behind the door. However, if Sebastian did not appear, it is easy to guess how this case would progress. Shakesepare has not mentioned homosexuality as a concept yet in this play, but only touched it, which is deemed immoral and criminal by society. He keeps Homosexuality in front of people’s eyes, but it has never been noticed by anyone. This play is almost like a subconscious work. If Sebastian would not return, Orsino would not get married to Viola. It is obvious that these two people already had such emotions for each other for a certain time to get married. All this time, Orsino bears his love for Cesario, so that as soon as he transforms into Viola, Orsino slacks himself up. Both of them already have extremely been passionate to each other.

Similarly, Antonio, who showed an Elizabethan homoeroticism with his feelings for Sebastian, had to accept Sebastian’s coupling with Viola, which means he lost him to Viola. In the first scene of the second act, Antonio’s discourse “If you will not murder me for my love let me be your servant” (Shakespeare, 1623, p. 39) especially the word “serve” indicates his homoerotic feelings related to Sebastian. The word choice here also suggests homosexuality because in another source ‘servant’ means ‘professed lover, one devoted to the service of a lady’ is from mid-14c. (Harper, 2010). Sebastian feels himself obliged to Antonio, that’s why he gives information about his real name and his family to him. However, it is easily understood from Sebastian’s instant marriage with Viola that Sebastian’s homoerotic attitude toward Antonio is not very strong. Sebastian is a young man and Antonio is older than him. The age difference between these two people supports the understanding of homoerotism in the Elizabethan period. The aim is not to rush into sodomite and have very different sexual relations with him, but to show their feelings by revealing their emotions within themselves in some way. He also wants to go with Antonio Sebastian, but is afraid of his enemies in Orsino’s palace. In his next sentence, he tells that “Else would I very shortly see thee there. But, come what may, I do adore thee so, that danger shall seem sport, and I will go”. (Shakespeare, 1623, pp. 39-40) Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian are so high that he does not hesitate to put himself in danger, even at the risk of his life.


But let concealment, like a worm I’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed? (Shakespeare, 1623, p. 59)

It is seen that Viola, in other words Cesario, attempts to form a substructure for his/her relationship with Orsino, so he/she slowly begins to express her feelings. But she is still pretending to be a man and even though it may seem like a man to man speech does not mean anything, when analysed according to the thought of Elizabethan homoeroticism, despite their same sex, their probable attempt to have common emotions more than a friendship for each other is quite clear. It is also obvious that whatever they want, they can live to the end but the only obstacle between them will be their gender. At the end of the play, all these nodes, solved by the arrival of Sebastian, eliminated the gender gap, which was the only obstacle between them. In this play, Shakespeare avoided all kinds of unnecessary scenes and speech, and tried to convey something to the audience in all dialogues. In all these conversations between the Duke and Viola, despite the fact that they were both men, they managed to create an appropriate infrastructure of love for their future relationships. Cesario (Viola) who was frequently mentioned in the play as a handsome young man even was able to cause confusion including Sir Andrew’s feelings. When Sir Andrew sees him for the first time he uses the word “servant” and the fact that an older man says to a young boy “I am your servant” (3. Act 1. Scene) is one of the biggest indicators of homoeroticism. Similarly, in the same scene Olivia Says to Viola that she is not someone as she seem. The frequent usage of this case in the play is an effort for conveying to audience the idea that how they are at heart is as important as their appearance of sex.


I could not stay behind you: my desire,

More sharp than filed steel, did spur me forth;

And not all love to see you, though so much

As might have drawn one to a longer voyage,

But jealousy what might befall your travel,

Being skilless in these parts; which to a stranger,

Unguided and unfriended, often prove

Rough and unhospitable: my willing love,

The rather by these arguments of fear,

Set forth in your pursuit. (Shakespeare, 1623, p. 87)

It is obvious from Antonio’s words that he has homoerotic feelings for Sebastian. In addition, the fact that he gives his all gold to Sebastian, the fact that he does not want Sebastian to get into a scrape, and that he wants to take care of this young man, is a clear proof of his homoerotic feelings. The attitudes of these two men toward each other, who have just met and have just had a new event, support the understanding of homoerotism in the Elizabethan period. The fact that he gives all of his own money to Sebastian shows that he values or cares him more than himself, or he has tried to gain Sebastian’s interest.


Here, wear this jewel for me, ’tis my picture;

Refuse it not; it hath no tongue to vex you;

And I beseech you come again to-morrow.

What shall you ask of me that I’ll deny,

That honour saved may upon asking give? (Shakespeare, 1623, p. 101)

The sentence that Olivia says to Viola “What shall you ask of me that I’ll deny, That honour saved may upon asking give?” shows to the audience that sexual interaction should not be considered equal with the concept of sexual intercourse in a word, chastity. For this reason, it has been mentioned that characters can have sexual interactions between themselves insofar without sexual intercourse. Viola’s quote “I’m going after a man that I may love more than a woman” and that she says that she has never been a hypocrite is an irony that Shakespeare does smartly. Viola, who is a hypocrite, even though he was a man expressed her feelings for Orsino and wanted to mention that these feelings had nothing to do with gender. He loved him when he was a man, and saw a response from the man he loved. Regardless of the own gender identity of the playwright, what social message was tried to be given in his play “twelfth night or what you will” is quite clear.


Sonuç olarak William Shakespeare, 12. Gecesinde insanın en temel özelliklerinden biri olan cinsiyetine dahi ne kadar yabancı olabileceğini göstermiştir. Toplum insan üzerinde onu en temel özelliklerinden bile mahrum bırakacak düzeyde bir baskı oluşturur. En temel deyimle insanı insan yapan şey hem seçtikleri, hem de vazgeçtikleridir. Bu hikayedeki anahtar olay (Sebastian’ın geri dönmesi) her şeyi çözmüştür. Fakat gerçek hayatta bunlar kolay kolay aşılabilecek şeyler değildir. İnsanların her zaman bir şeyleri yoluna koyabilecekleri araçları yani anahtarları yoktur. Ahlak çok geniş bir kavramdır ve ahlak kuralları bireye, duruma, yaşa, kültüre, dine göre değişlik gösterir. Rönesans dönemi tiyatro kültüründeki kadının yeri, Shakespeare’in eserlerinde kadınlara olan tutumu ve dönemin eşcinsellik anlayışı göz önünde bulundurularak, tüm bu gerçekler objektif bir bakış açısıyla bu çalışmada yansıtılmaya çalışılmıştır. Eşcinselliğin henüz kavram olarak insanların karşısına çıkmamış olması, böyle bir anlayışın var olmadığı anlamına gelmemektedir. Shakespeare’in 12. Gece adlı eserinde sık sık insanların gözü önünde sergilenen bu eşcinsel davranışlar insanların zaman içerisinde bu yozlaşmaya itilmesinde etkili olmuştur. Yani dönemin ahlaki yapısı eserdeki birçok olayla örtüşmemektedir. Shakespeare bunu komediyle ustaca harmanladığı için izleyicide yanlış bir algı oluşmamasını sağlayabilmiştir. Edebiyat hiçbir kurala bağlı kalamayacak kadar özgür ve evrenseldir. Shakespeare de bu kuralsızlığı çokça kullanmış usta bir yazardır.

Nutku (1997) describes the term universal truth as the perspective of opinion and perception that prevails in the author’s or the artist’s self and clarifies that in Shakespeare’s plays it appears in the characters and the universal reality exists with the artist placing the realities of life at his/her own the point of view.


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