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Exploring the sexualities of the characters in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

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This will contain SPOILERS!

William Shakespeare is notorious. From Shakespeare's sonnet to his plays, everyone has heard of or read his works. He played with gender roles, and sexuality, and his works are full of societal commentary. Twelfth Night is one of his queerest and most know plays that takes gender roles and sexuality to a new level. Disregarding social norms and early modern ideas, Shakespeare built a ship, wrecked it, and took the audience into a world of ambiguity and drag-ness.

The players

Duke Orsino is a man in love. Completely obsessed with Oliva, but his feelings are not reciprocated. Next on the scene is Viola who believes her twin brother Sebastian perished in a shipwreck. She is in enemy land and is - a woman. To survive she creates Cesario - a male persona that will serve in the Dukes' court. On the other side of the world, you find Sebastian who is very much alive and with his companion Antonio. He believes his sister is dead.

Twelfth Night has many other players, but in this comedy and for this analysis, the top five will show plenty of Shakespeare's early modern ideas on sexual orientation and gender roles.

Sexuality is still a hot topic for modern people. Gay love is a controversy. The acceptance of many genders and gender roles is constantly argued. Shakespeare is a perfect example of disregarding society's opinion and creating a world of modern drama in queerness. The Shakespeare canon is considerably riddled with gay love. William Shakespeare has an obvious disregard for social norms which is seen in his early modern drama. Even Shakespeare's sonnets like Sonnet 29 and many others. Critics speculate if Shakespeare himself was gay.

During the life of Shakespeare, being homosexual was punishable by death. Even with that, female performers were banned. Since no women could play the assigned gender role on stage, men would cross-dress. All of Shakespeare's plays were performed by men in drag!

Sexuality featured in the Twelfth Night

The play highlights the pansexuality embodied in Duke Orsino. Antonio is gay and this is undisputed by most. Olivia is bisexual considering her fascination with Cesario who the audience knows is Viola. Sebastian is straight and shows it. Lastly, you have Viola. She is cisgender and heterosexual but has dressed to kill as Cesario. In essence, Viola is the drag king of the story. Each of these five characters portrays a different sexual orientation. Modern people may understand the definitions, but a short explanation is warranted.


"People who identify as pansexual can feel an attraction to anyone, including individuals who do not identify as a specific gender." - Medical New Today, 2022

A pansexual will not necessarily be attracted to someone for their gender role in society. There is a spectrum to any sexual orientation, but generally speaking, someone pansexual will be attracted to the person as a whole. The gender of the romantic interest will not be a deciding factor in if the person is sexually attracted or not.


"Some people define their gender according to their biological sex. However, other people see themselves as agender or gender-fluid." Medical News Today, 2022

For this article, bisexuality will be determined based on biological sex since it applies to the character dynamics in the Twelfth Night.

Duke Orsino

The madly in love monarch cannot have the one he wants. He may be obsessed with Olivia, but Cesario catches his eye more intimately. Duke Orsino shares feelings and emotions beyond his comfort level. In film adaptations of Twelfth Night, there are moments where the two of them are close to kissing.

Duke says to Cesario I have unclasped / To thee the book even of my secret soul (1.4.). At the end of the play, Duke Orsino loves Viola. Shakespeare did not have the two of them kiss until the reveal of Viola's biological gender.

Why is Duke Orsino Pansexual?

He created an intimate bond with Cesario without regard to his gender. He was attracted to Cesario but fought the desire since it was not acceptable at that time to be homosexual. In a scenario, where it was acceptable they would have kindled a relationship.

Viola aka Cesario

Cesario is created for Viola to survive. Olivia wants to have a sexual relationship with Cesario and he refuses. Viola is in love with the Duke. At one point in the play, Olivia is physically forceful with Cesario. He throws him off instantly and leaves the situation. Viola dressed as Cesario for a purpose. She is not attracted to Olivia beyond that of a sister which she makes clear.

Was Viola Heterosexual?

The information that Shakespeare provides supports that she is simply dressed as a man to be safe. Nothing more and nothing less.

Antonio & Sebastian

Antonio in Twelfth Night is gay! He is in love with Sebastian (the twin of Viola) and follows him to the ends of the earth. Antonio has enemies in the court of the Duke, yet for the love of Sebastian, he risks death to follow him.

If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant./The gentleness of all the gods go with thee!/I have many enemies in Orsino's court,/I could not stay behind you: my desire,/Sharper than filed steel, did spur me forth; (2.1-2.3).

Antonio in is left with his love rejected. Even at the end of the play, when Sebastian chooses Lady Olivia, Antonio leaves because he feels replaced.

Lady Olivia

While the love of the Duke is rejected, Olivia falls for Cesario. It may be a stretch to ping her as bisexual. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to be with Viola's twin is offered she accepts. She is shocked by the unveiling of Viola, but happy to be with Sebastian. Keep in mind that Sebastian is someone she has never met. She does not know him, they have not courted.

The attraction to Cesario is because of physical appearance, not biological sex. The question is: If Viola stayed as Cesario, would Olivia care that her biological sex was female? Purely speculation, Olivia is attracted to bother genders, not biological organs.

The Straight Twin

Sebastian is a b-side character. He obviously in his rejection of Antonio throughout the play. He is not sexually diverse but is needed for the story to progress. Sebastian is important for the endgame of the script. His sexuality is not explored, he is the NPC of the group.

QueerSpeare at its best!

Twelfth Night has a lot to offer to the reader. The casting is diverse for early modern literature. The gender roles are confused and blurry, really the gender roles do not matter. The book is about the good, bad, and ugly things that become when they are obsessed. For every opinion, there is a counter opinion which is great! Literature is about exploring the possible and impossible.

Is Shakespeare gay? The man may or may not have been, but Twelfth Night will always be on the list of queer literature!


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