In Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, or What You Will, an underlying sense of visual homoeroticism pervades the relationships between characters. Duke Orsino is drawn to Viola when she masquerades as the eunuch Cesario, and Olivia is similarly attracted when she encounters the feminine young “man”. Meanwhile, the sea-captain Antonio directly professes his love for Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, who seems unable to fully address his friend’s feelings. While the final scene of the play attempts to offer resolution once the “true” genders (and sexual orientations) of the characters are understood, the resulting marriages seem to be based on appearances alone. Viola’s revelation allows Orsino to safely wed his love interest (in female form), and Sebastian’s resemblance to Viola enables Olivia to have a socially acceptable marriage as well. In several scenes between the pairs Olivia and Viola and Sebastian and Antonio, visual perception is directly referenced when the characters mention the verb “eyes”. These references, implicit of the presence and status of homosexuality in Renaissance England, were undoubtedly noticed and identified by Elizabethan audiences.
In Act I, Scene V of Twelfth Night Olivia recognizes her interest in Cesario/Viola immediately after meeting him/her:
OLIVIA. Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be. (1.5.286-288)
Using the Oxford English Dictionary’s basic definition of “eye,” “The organ of sight” (OED, sense I.1) Olivia acknowledges the most common trait of love in this play; that it is based on sight, and sight alone. This revelation, however, causes the audience to question Olivia’s sexuality; if her feelings are caused by the sight of a woman disguised as a man (or, perhaps, an extremely effeminate boy), then she is hardly heterosexual. The question of audience response to this discovery is compounded by the fact that both Olivia and Viola would have been played by male actors, adding an even more homosexual undertone. In the historical context of the play, “homosexual” was not yet an identity, although intimate male friendships were common and many critics have interpreted Shakespeare’s sonnets as written for a man. Because the idea of “gay” did not apply to Elizabethan audiences, audience members may have been receptive of the homosexual relationships within the text as simply what editor Stanley Wells calls “differing kinds of love” (Introduction 39).
Olivia’s arousal is instantly recognized by Viola in her soliloquy in Act II,
VIOLA. Fortune forbid my outside may have charmed her.
She made good view of me, indeed so much
That straight methought her eyes had lost her tongue, (2.2.17-20)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “eye” “With reference to the direction of the eye…to exchange amorous glances” (OED, sense I.5 a.). Taken in this sense, the reference to eyes further emphasizes the sexual attraction between Olivia and Viola and the importance of vision in passionate relationships. This definition further applies to the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. When Sebastian relates to Antonio that he is “yet so near the manners of my mother that upon the least occasion more mine eyes will tell tales of me” (2.1.36-37) he implies that his femininity would cause his eyes to betray his true feelings: that of reciprocated passion for his friend.
Sebastian tiptoes around similar feelings in Act III, Scene III:
SEBASTIAN. I am not weary, and ’tis long to night.
I pray you let us satisfy our eyes
With the memorials and things of fame
That do renown this city. (3.3.21-24)
Sebastian’s tone and reference to a long night imply that satisfying their eyes with sights may be the closest form of satisfaction that the two men can achieve together. The dialogue between these characters reveals the internal and social conflict that they faced; that of an intense private love that could not be publicly expressed. While one cannot assume that all members of Elizabethan audiences understood this inexpressible love, it is possible that many men and women who observed this play felt a similar longing for a member of the same sex that they kept solely to themselves.
While neither rampant homosexuality nor homophobia was present in Shakespeare’s times, same-sex relationships did occur, as they have throughout history. What Plato believed to be the “purest form of love,” the love between a man and a boy, is repressed in this play, which indicates the moral codes of the time. Because the characters of Twelfth Night could not fulfill their true desires, they settled for visual reproductions of their lovers: a feminine man and a masculine woman. Shakespeare’s use of the noun “eyes” expresses this necessary relation between love and vision, and perhaps resonated within audience members who relied on altered perceptions to conform to the ideals of their society.