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University of Toronto Quarterly 76.2 (2007) 679-713

Rethinking Sexuality and Class in Twelfth Night
Nancy Lindheim
Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Toronto

Our critical understanding of Twelfth Night has shifted radically in the past two or three decades. I don't know whether audiences who watched the play continued to 'feel actively good,' as Stephen Booth reported in 1985,1 but critics came to think it a disturbing and cynical affair. Antonio and Malvolio, as it were, took over centre stage, underlining subtexts of unfulfilled homosexual longing and unappeasable class conflict. Though informed by historical research, the readings often turned out (as David Scott Kastan says) 'more significant as records of our present anxieties than as reconstructions of those of Shakespeare's time.'2 Recent shifts of focus in historical and gender-based studies, however, are loosening up the tendency towards automatic foreclosure on such issues. The newer understanding of homoeroticism explores a freedom from labels; the newly probed idea of service strives more faithfully to reflect the social historians' models.3 The time may be ripe not only to unbind the orthodoxies that have coloured the critical view of Twelfth Night, but also to integrate the altered social and historical perspectives with the formal imperatives of writing a comedy. Although my argument tactically sets itself against certain critical positions for purposes of clarity, its aim is a more inclusive understanding of the play.

I want to explore how Shakespeare's calculations in Twelfth Night are geared throughout towards the formal need for a comic ending plausible enough to be satisfying, yet still sensitive to the erotic and social problems his fable creates. Formally, the strongest possibility of comic satisfaction occurs in the final or resolving scene. Because readings of Twelfth Night often dwell on this scene as a site of particular sexual and social dissatisfactions, [End Page 679] it seems an appropriate focus for discussion.4 If we assume that Shakespeare is aware of dissonances he creates, how does he try to prevent their suborning the work's comic shape? (Success is not guaranteed: the ending of All's Well That Ends Well, for example, remains peculiarly disquieting.) Critics of course usually recognize that marriage is the desired closure for comedy. They commit their energies, however, to the homoerotic and societal issues that are explored before convention inevitably descends, arguing that these exert equivalent power over our imaginative or emotional perceptions. Our judgments that Shakespeare fails or refuses to bring off a comic ending stem from assumptions about the recalcitrance of the material. But, as I have implied, early modern frames can also reveal a cultural complexity less dogmatic and more tolerant of comedy's 'what you will.' Adopting the general ordering of issues in the final scene, I begin with conceptual, dramatic, and gender issues surrounding the 'arbitrary' amatory arrangement of the four protagonists before turning to class issues said to be exhibited in the subplot, culminating in the unfair punishment of Malvolio and the marriage of Sir Toby and Maria.

Protests against the arbitrary solutions of Shakespeare's ending often object to Olivia and Orsino's delight in accepting the sexually opposite half of the newly discovered twins as their desired partner. Olivia's unexamined acceptance of Sebastian, like Orsino's abrupt willingness to marry Viola, is, in this interpretation, cynical or desperate dramaturgy, the inexcusable mechanics required by the genre's conventional ending. Yet rather than being 'sudden,' the anticipated pairings have a plausibility that becomes clear upon reflection. (Pride and Prejudice might serve as a novelistic version of the model.) The evidence argues conscious authorial strategy, since it all arises from additions and alterations to the play's sources, mainly in the shaping of Olivia and Sebastian.5 No reader of Barnabe Riche, for example, would ponder the suitability of Julina's marriage to Silvio. They are merely figures who perform actions necessary to the story. Even being a product of language rather than solely of action gives Shakespeare's characters an opacity that solicits probing...


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