Gender Fluidity in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, an interesting story unfolds of gender identity, love, and sexuality. In the nation of Illyria, after a storm sinks their ship, young Viola and Sebastian find themselves marooned and separated. Viola chances upon a rescue by a ship captain, who tells her about the land where she finds herself lost. He tells her about Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, and his unrequited love for the beautiful Lady Olivia.

Immediately, Viola hatches a plan to hide her identity, assuming the persona of Cesario, and becoming a servant of the duke Orsino in his court. While this may seem an unusual choice to some readers in our modern time, the act of assuming a male persona for women in Shakespeare’s time was not unheard of for many reasons—from feeling safer in traveling alone, to being afforded opportunities for work or leisure that were otherwise reserved only for men, hiding one’s gender through a change of clothing, appearance, and masking of the voice was not unheard of. However, I believe this choice on Viola’s part was more complex than a simple ruse to allow them to live unencumbered in Illyria. Viola’s new persona of Cesario is an exploration of their transgendered nature, and the play itself is a microcosm of sexual diversity for many of the characters.

First, let us look at Viola’s decision to take on a male persona. While it is true that Viola is in a foreign land, and by extension, a place that is potentially hostile to her both as an outsider and as a woman, we see early on that Viola has access to a considerable amount of resources. She is able to give a sum of gold to the captain without a second thought, and also is able to express herself and her desires to the captain and the sailors without any issue. Where the cultural elements of the time may have indicated that a woman would be at the mercy of the men around her by their patriarchal authority, Viola does not appear to be under such constraints, even castaway as she is from her home and her own ship. Viola says “I’ll pay thee bounteously,” (1.2.55) as they explain their plans to infiltrate the duke Orsino’s house under the guise of Cesario, another indicator of their wealth and status. How is it that Viola is so wealthy, so influential, that they are able to pull off this ruse? It is possible that Viola had always intended to embark on a journey the likes of which this play goes through. If Viola had always intended to throw off their female persona, and become a man, it would follow that they had made personal preparations, accumulating wealth which they kept on their person, even when traveling long distances via ship. What’s more, Viola, even before becoming Cesario on stage, behaves and presents themselves with a more traditionally masculine set of mannerisms, conversing freely with the ship captain with an air of authority all their own, even convincing that captain to go along with their plan. The captain says to Viola after they explain the proposed plan to become a servant to duke Orsino, “You be his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be,” (1.2.65). Eunuchs are servants of sultans in the middle east, who protect the harems of the kings, and the mute was a servant assigned to the duty of protecting the eunuchs. If a mute betrayed the sultan or the eunuchs whom they served, they would be blinded according to the laws of the time. (Mowat, Barbara 2019).

Since the captain makes this comparison, it becomes apparent that they are already fully on board with the plan, so much so as to stake their own reputation on it. Would a reputable person with a successful career as a ship captain put their own life and job at risk if they were not convinced the plan would work? Unlikely. This level of devotion shows either a confidence that Viola could pull off the ruse with ease, or that Viola was already so good at presenting in a masculine manner that the captain did not even consider failure as a possibility. Either way, this creates a pattern that can allow a reader to infer the possibility that Viola intended to transition into male whether they had been marooned in Illyria or had made it successfully to their intended destination.

As Cesario spends time with the duke Orsino, they grow closer and closer, both as friends and confidants, as well as in a deeper and personal way. Cesario begins to express attraction to Orsino, as the two discuss what sort of women they are attracted to. As the duke Orsino and Cesario discuss love, the duke observes an understanding of love and attraction in Cesario’s countenance:

ORSINO                                          Thou dost speak masterly.

My life upon ‘t, young though thou art, thine eye

Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves.

Hath it not boy?

VIOLA              A little, by your favor.


What kind of woman is ‘t?

VIOLA                                          Of your complexion.


She is not worth thee, then, What years, i’ faith?

VIOLA            About your years my lord. (2.4.25-34)


In these lines we can infer quite clearly that Cesario is feeling attraction for Orsino. As yet, however, it appears Orsino is oblivious to his attraction to Cesario, or at least sees it only as a strong fraternal bond of friendship. However, as James Stone points out in Crossing Gender in Shakespeare, “… The fluidity and ambivalence of sexual identity in Shakespeare’s transvestite comedies describes a paradigm that calls univocal sexual truth into question, and finds pleasure in dwelling upon the questionable margins of truth.” As Cesario and Orsino do eventually fall in love, and choose a path of marriage, this does raise some interesting questions about Orsino’s understanding of love and his own sexuality.

Orsino spends no time in the play getting to know Cesario as the woman Viola; he knows Cesario only as his close, male friend, whom he confides his deepest feelings in. It is therefore not unreasonable to see that Orsino gains his affections for Cesario as a man, not for the Viola persona whom he has not met nor interacted with. His choice to marry Viola is more a choice to marry Cesario, and is even evident in Orsino’s final words of the play: “Cesario, come, / For so you shall be while you are a man. / But when in other habits you are seen, / Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen,” (5.1.407-411, emphasis added). Orsino speaks of the male Cesario in the present tense, even after learning of Viola, the female alter ego. His words also indicate a possibility that Cesario as a person will continue to exist, even though others of their world may meet the “mistress, and… fancy’s queen,” after they are wed. For the era in which this piece takes place, a relationship between two men, married, as Cesario and Orsino, would not likely be accepted by the people of their society. However, it would not be too much of a stretch, from the language employed by Orsino in his final lines of the play, that while the outward appearance of their marriage would be one between Viola and himself, in their own private company he would continue his relationship with Cesario, whom he truly loves, whom he has come to love throughout the events of the play. By this reading, it could then be inferred that the duke Orsino is pan sexual, attracted to the transgendered male Cesario, whom he seeks to marry.

Shakespeare explored the binaries of gender through the clothing of his characters, as well as their behaviors, and the reactions of those around them in the plays (Garber, Marjorie 1992). In many of his plays, from As You Like it, Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline, Shakespeare has characters who are female don the garb of men to either blend in, pass as men, or achieve action that otherwise was reserved for men in their day. Yet where Twelfth Night differs in this regards is that the majority of the play is spent with Cesario, not Viola, as the character whom we get to know, to understand their motives, and to grow to love ourselves.

Even in the end of the play, after it is revealed that Cesario is Viola, and in many productions a change of dress returns Cesario to the raiment of Viola, yet we are not given any more time in the text to explore Viola as a character. What we know of Viola is given to us through Cesario, not the other way around. It could be said, then, that from what we are given in the play, Cesario is the real character, and Viola is whoever is needed to fill the stage when Cesario cannot be present. No matter the sex Cesario was assigned at birth, the one embodied, chosen, and enacted is that of a male. Cesario is bold, action oriented, and seen as handsome by the women of the play, including the lady Olivia, who eventually decides she wants to marry Cesario, who embodies everything she desires in a man, also calling into question her own sexuality.

The sensibilities of Shakespeare’s time, which were tending toward the puritan ideal, are a major foil to the sexuality of Twelfth Night. These puritan ideals, embodied in Malvolio, are at odds with the freedom of sexual expression and self expression of many of the characters in the play, including Cesario, whom he describes as a man of “very ill manner,” (1.5.152). Malvolio, who’s name even begins with the prefix “Mal,” meaning bad or evil, despises all pleasures, and has an apparent obsession with doing all things with manners and honesty. He is regarded by all in the play as an unpleasant presence, with one character saying of him, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (2.3.114-115). From these lines we can draw a reasonable metaphor that since Cesario represents an alternative lifestyle, Malvolio represents the status quo, upholding what is considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by the conventions of their time. These conventions would smother Cesario if given the chance, staunching out his existence altogether, allowing only Viola to exist; yet the personality of Viola is throughout the play wholly Cesario. Denying Cesario the right to exist would be no different than killing both Cesario and Viola.

The characters of the play foment a scheme to trick Malvolio, tempting him with the prospects of hetero love in an effort to make him appear crazy, so they can have him locked away until the end of the play. This could be seen as a metaphor for taking the existing conventions of gender out of the mix, to allow for Cesario and Orsino to eventually marry by play’s end. Where Malvolio represents the status quo, his removal represents a freeing of the characters in the play from the restrictive conventions of their time, allowing them to express themselves in a more open sexuality, allowing for their trans and alternative sexualities to thrive, to be explored, and to flourish.

Shakespeare’s work is still so relevant today because of the possibilities it offers for interpretations of sex, sexuality, and the gender binary. Of all his plays, Twelfth Night provides the most unique and clear opportunity to explore LGBTQ+ lifestyles, showing a positive and inspiring transition for Viola into Cesario, and the acceptance and love of Orsino toward him. Even with the conventions of Shakespeare’s time, his work shows a depth of human understanding that continues to evoke the personal experiences of day to day life, from sexuality, and beyond.



Shakespeare, William (Edited by Mowat, Barbara A., Werstine, Paul). Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Folger Shakespeare Library, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2019.

Garber, Marjorie B. Vested Interests : Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. Print.

Stone, James W. Crossing Gender in Shakespeare : Feminist Psychoanalysis and the Difference Within. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.


Published by AC Moore

My goal is to one day change the world in the same way Shakespeare did: by infusing the thoughts of the human race with such language and turn-of-phrase that they say them daily, and never even know it was I who wrote it.

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