The Tragedy of Heterosexuality: The Satirical Subtext of Twelfth Night

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Elizabethan comedy must be in want of a happy ending. By “happy ending,” of course, we mean marriage. If the convention of a Shakespearean tragedy is known to be “everybody dies,” a comedy, in turn, ends in a procession of heterosexual couplings hand in hand down the aisle singing “hey nonny nonny.” Twelfth Night is no different. The play ends with the twins each engaged respectively to their partners of the “correct” sex: Olivia to Sebastian, and Orsino to Viola. Some question the ending of Twelfth Night as having done “justice” to Malvolio, and whether this snubbing implies an ending not so happy. I question whether the tone of the ending does justice to the couples themselves. The play may seemingly end wrapped up in a neat little bow, but the nature of the ending, as awfully convenient as it is, reads as satire rather than a true celebration of heterosexual marriage. Twelfth Night is a parody of words, of reading, of love, and how people read love. It therefore stands to reason that its ending would be just as parodical as every scene that came before it. 

As a talentless hack once wrote, “Words, words, words.” This same man–– Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford–– also happened to write a play called Twelfth Night, which may be summed up neatly in that quotation. It is a play that hinges on subtext: double entendres, innuendoes, mistaken identities, and miscommunication. The comedy of miscommunication is derived from the audience knowing something the characters do not. Miscommunication can be used as a tool for comedy or tragedy, and Shakespeare has employed this device for both. Twelfth Night uses miscommunication to toe the line between the two. When Olivia falls for Cesario, the audience laughs at the taboo of her blunder; when Malvolio is tortured due to Maria’s trick, the audience laughs at his cross-gartered yellow stockings; when Antonio feels betrayed by whom he believes to be Sebastian, the audience laughs at his broken heart. Yet, are these characters not deserving of sympathy? Are Olivia, Malvolio, and Antonio really to be derided and mocked for mistaking the true nature of the object of their affections? For Olivia, the answer is unclear, as she does “get” her Cesario in the end; as for Malvolio and Antonio, there is no such easy fix. Malvolio is too Puritan to be rewarded with a convenient wife, and Antonio is too gay to be rewarded with anything. Olivia, as it turns out, was not gay at all, but merely infatuated by the concept of a man. And Orsino was very much not gay as well, as it turned out Viola was definitely a woman. How convenient! 

When Malvolio reads the letter Maria wrote him in Olivia’s hand, he reads into it exactly what he wishes to see. Much like how audiences at the time were satisfied with the ceremonial couplings and “hey nonny nonny,” readers of today question the nature of this play, the authorial intent behind it, and whether we would be in on Maria’s joke, or be Malvolio parsing out “MOAI.” What we know of Shakespeare is very little. Some (idiots) have even contested whether the name written on his texts is even the man behind the plays to whom he is attributed. We have two longform poems by Shakespeare, some 37 or so odd plays, and 154 sonnets. The sonnets have been analyzed, theorized over, and misquoted, for centuries. What we do know for certain, is that while many are decidedly about women (specifically the infamous “Dark Lady”), there were just as many that imply the receiver of such affections to have been a man, typically dubbed the “Fair Youth.” Now, many scholars have attempted to dig themselves out of this puzzling and frightening hole by claiming that Shakespeare was merely “adopting a woman’s voice” in these sonnets, or that blatant allusions to his lover’s masculinity were simply an overinterpretation of the text. I argue that these scholars were, in fact, under-interpreting the text. The truth is, such practices were standard in the day, as long as you were not caught. Young boys were considered nearly interchangeable with women, which is why boy players in theater troupes were known to play female roles. When Shakespeare has a woman dress as a man to disguise herself, such as Viola does in Twelfth Night, the audience of the day recognizes that this is a boy playing a woman playing a boy. To assume Twelfth Night has layers is not an overzealous reading of the text, it is simply recognizing the humor of the play for what it is. 

When one spends their whole life in the margins, searching for subtext that historians have long tried to erase, critical analysis comes more naturally, as it is not a strain, but habit. LGBT* authors throughout history have often sidestepped taboo through code that only their desired readers would understand. An example of this could be, just as an example, found in a love triangle that subverts the very notion of gender being resolved at the last minute because a character has a twin brother who looks exactly like her and who agrees to marry a total stranger with alacrity. The absurdity of the situation is painted as comedic, a satire of heterosexual institutions, but not an outright admonishment of it. It is not as if Shakespeare is incapable of writing truly poignant and engaging heterosexual love stories. Though many armchair critics may claim that Romeo and Juliet were merely infatuated teenagers and not the paragon of romance as popular culture would deem it, which is not a wholly incorrect conclusion, Beatrice and Benedick are a far superior example anyway, and from a comedy no less. But the couplings of Twelfth Night do little to truly satisfy the romantics in the audience. Sebastian and Olivia’s connection is of the ultimate superficiality, and while Viola and Orsino’s connection is certainly more substantive, it is still based on appearances. Orsino immediately agrees to marry Viola, but would never agree to marry Cesario, even though they are, of course, the same person. As for Antonio, he all but disappears from the play, (Malvolio is still in his box,) and therein the tragedy lies. For the audience either consciously or subconsciously overlooking the “subtext” of his love for Sebastian, it does not matter that he is not able to sing “hey nonny nonny.” As for the audience on alert, Antonio slinking into the margins feels all too familiar. His love for Sebastian may be read as the truest and the purest, for there is no mistaken identity at play, he is merely devoted to Sebastian because he is. Nonetheless, Antonio’s love, which is neither miscommunicated nor comically convenient, is overlooked in favor of Sebastian marrying Olivia. And yet some still argue the ending of this play does not invite criticism. Whatever the intentions of the author may have been, Twelfth Night reads as a satire, and if we were to assume it cannot be read as a satire, then it must be read as a tragedy. 

Twelfth Night’s mission is to make fun and to make fun of. It satirizes the normative forms of love of the era, and the masses’ perception of sex and gender. The play ends in absurdity, a double wedding so nonsensical and overly convenient it could only have been written by a hack or a master parodist. It is a play that hinges on subtext, operating on multiple layers, that invites the audience to choose how to read it. It is no coincidence that its subtitle is both a pun and an invitation on how to read the play. Shakespeare never passes up the opportunity for double, or triple, entendre, or what you will. 

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