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How Does Shakespeare Represent Same-Sex and Opposite-Sex Relationships in the Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night

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Shakespearean plays have often stressed the importance of relationships between men and women; most of Shakespeare’s plays, tragedies and comedies, involve romance between males and females, but the relationships that are far more poignant and effective in the play seem to be the relationships between the plays’ same sex characters. Examples of important same- and opposite-sex relationships appear in both of Shakespeare’s comedic plays Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing center around the intricate and sometimes extremely confusing relationships among the plays’ characters. These two plays also examine how the relationships between the major characters begin, evolve through the course of the play, and the state of that relationship at the end of the play. These relationships often are brought about through deception and confusion and these attributes often drive the course of the play. How Shakespeare portrays relationships among men and women, men and men, and men and women illustrates the social dynamic of the time period and what I believe to be the ultimate repression of women and their roles in society.

In Twelfth Night, most of the important relationships are based on the deception of Viola. Viola’s chooses to disguise herself as a man in Illyria, thus driving the action of the play. “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / The form of my intent” (Shakespeare (2) 50); with this decision Viola causes, not only the confusion in the play, but the final outcome as well. Viola’s gender switch also illustrates the fact that relationships between women and men are ultimately unequal. The only relationship that existed between a man and a woman that appeared to be equal was the relationship between Olivia and Cesario / Viola. The fact that the only relationship that incorporated equality between a male and a female turns out to be a relationship between two women demonstrates that Shakespeare enforced societal stereotypes of the time period in his plays. Every other relationship between men and women in Twelfth Night was very unequal. The fact that Orsino does not even woo Olivia himself shows that he regards Olivia more as a possession and not a partner. Orsino refers to Olivia as something that he wishes to posses and seems to be very “in love with love.” Orsino is very moody and loves to wallow in self-pity and grieve over a woman, and the audience cannot be sure if Orsino actually loves Olivia or just the thought of Olivia. “If music be the food of love, play on; / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, /

The appetite may sicken, and so die,” exclaims Orsino when he is lamenting over the fact that Olivia has ignored his courting attempts (Shakespeare (2) 47). Orsino sends messengers to do his job, yet wonders why Olivia is not immediately taken by Orsino’s mild efforts in winning her. In the end of the play, when Orsino learns that Cesario is Viola, Orsino switches affections to Viola quickly and shows no remorse at the loss of Olivia to Sebastian. This enforces the illustration of women as property and seemingly interchangeable. Viola in a sense becomes Orsino’s “servant” in marriage instead of his man-servant and seems to be completely fine with her role. Another important relationship in Twelfth Night is the one that exists between Viola and Sebastian. This relationship is stressed to be the most important of the play. Viola’s close relationship with her twin brother causes her to assume the identity of a man who looks and acts exactly like the brother she believes she has lost. Shakespeare stresses how important this relationship is by only allowing the confusion in the play to be undone by his arrival as well as the lengthy way in which Viola is finally unmasked. While other male and female relationships are formed and resolved quickly, Sebastian’s unmasking of Viola is sweet and drawn out:

Sebastian: Do I stand there? I never had a brother; / Nor can there be that deity in my nature, / Of here and every where. I had a sister, / Whom the blind waves and surges have devour'd. / Of charity, what kin are you to me? / What countryman? what name? what parentage?

Viola: Of Messaline: Sebastian was my father; / Such a / Sebastian was my brother too, / So went he suited to his watery tomb: / If spirits can assume both form and suit / You come to fright us.

Sebastian: A spirit I am indeed; / But am in that dimension grossly clad / Which from the womb I did participate. / Were you a woman, as the rest goes even, / I should my tears let fall upon your cheek, / And say 'Thrice-welcome, drowned Viola!'

(Shakespeare (2) 125)

While Sebastian and Viola’s reunion is a happy one, it also exemplifies the importance of a man in Viola’s life. Viola could not

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