Queer Theory Applied to Twelfth Night Essay
‘Queer’ is a word that is used to describe something that is not common with the usual thinking pattern of people and conventional norms. ‘Queer’ means something different from the common practices of the society and hence, most of the times, not easily acceptable by the society. Even in the world of literature, ‘queer’ has been used by writers to describe the oddness of the characters or the situation. For example, P.G.Wodehouse used the word ‘queer’ to refer to something strange, Robert Owen used the word ‘queer’ to describe someone who had negative qualities like madness and worthlessness and Brendan Behan used the word ‘queer’ to describe one’s strangeness and difference positively (Sullivan v). So, queer theory is a theory that talks about the people who are, in some way or other, different from those people who follow the conventional way of life.
Definition of queer theory
Queer theory is the theory that states that the identities of a human being are not fixed and hence cannot define who they are (Queer theory n.d.). Hence, according to queer theory, generalizing people according to their identity and expecting them to behave in a certain way is a wrong practice (Queer theory n.d.). Every individual has unique traits and behavior patterns and hence, assuming that “people can be seen collectively on the basis of one shared characteristic is wrong” (Queer theory n.d.). Queer theory came into existence through the study of gay and lesbian characters but is not limited to it (Queer theory n.d.).
According to queer theory, any practice or position that challenges the knowledge, the identities and the norm of the people is a queer practice (Sullivan 43). Hence, Halperin (1995) says that as the queer does not apply only to the unusual identities but also to the practices, queer apart from lesbians and gays, also include married couples without children or married couples with very ‘naughty’ children (Sullivan, 43). So, any sexual practice that is different than the usual accepted norm fits under the queer theory.
In the world of literature, when a writing specifically addresses the issues of those people whose sexual behaviour patterns are different than the accepted sexual behaviour patterns by the society, then the writing is said to be applying queer theory (Turner, 10). Also it has to take sexuality as its main subject. Queer theory does in fact indicate the emergence of new forms of thought, and hence, a new way of working with existing categories and concepts (Turner, 9).
Application of queer theory in William Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’
‘Twelfth Night’ by William Shakespeare is a story of confusion created due to one of the characters, Viola, taking on an identity of opposite sex to serve the Duke of Illyria. One can say that queer theory applies to this story not only because of the change of the identity of Viola but also because of the attraction developed by Olivia, a countess, towards Cesario, who in fact Viola disguised as man.
‘Twelfth night’ is a play which tells the story of a ship-wrecked girl called Viola, who decides to take the identity of a man so that she can be in the service of Orsino, the Duke of Illyria ( Shakespeare 6). Viola reveals her desire of changing her identity to the captain of the ship and asks him to help her
( Shakespeare 6). She says that as it is her deepest desire to serve the Duke, she does not mind taking an identity of a man and be in the service of the Duke by entertaining him with music and songs (Shakespeare 6). This decision of Viola display the characteristics of ‘transgender’.
For a woman or a man, to take the identity of the opposite sex, is not a normal thing to do. Human being’s psychological association with the gender with which he is born, is very strong. For a woman (or a man), to change her identity and become a man, needs a psychological inclination towards opposite sex. This psychological inclination towards dressing up, acting, behaving and playing a role of opposite sex is called transvestitism. “Transvestitism is a practice where a person wears cloths associated with opposite sex to have a psychological gratification” for the desire of belonging to the opposite sex (“Transvestitism.” n.d.). Viola becomes Cesario in attempt to spend time with the Duke and wears man’s attire (Shakespeare 14). Hence, Viola’s decision to become a man to serve the Duke shows that she has the qualities of transgender. It is extremely unconventional practice for a woman to even think that she can take the identity of a man. Taking a disguise of opposite sex, no matter what the situation is, needs a strong mental inclination towards it. Otherwise, in any circumstances, no girl will decide to dress like a man unless she has an innate inclination towards it.
Secondly, the interaction between Viola (disguised as Cesario) and Olivia has been described in such a way that it very strongly gives the idea of physical attraction between them. Viola’s (disguised as Cesario) choice of words while praising Olivia shows a hint of masculine bent of mind. Viola praises Olivia like a man. She seems to enjoy and describe Olivia’s beauty as man would describe it (Shakespeare 28) . This seems a little queer as Viola is a woman and still, she manages to come up with sentences like “if she was in love with her, she would build a cabin outside her house and cry for help often” (Shakespeare 29). This attitude of hers shows that she has the ability to think like a man and seeing Olivia’s beauty, she was mesmerized as a man would be.
Thirdly, queer theory applies to the story as Olivia’s attraction towards Viola seems extremely queer. For the love of her brother, Olivia had renounced love and company of other men (Shakespeare 14). She had also refused the proposal from the Duke. However, Olivia is so impressed with the words, the manners, the physique and the powerful presence of Cesario (who is Viola in disguise) that she instantly gets attracted to him (Shakespeare 29). She feels that he has all the qualities of a gentleman and falls in love with him at first sight. This sudden attraction of Olivia towards Viola gives a hint that she has the traits of a lesbian. It also makes the reader feel that being a woman, Viola understood the emotions of Olivia. As Viola, through her manners, words and behavior, was able to show empathy, understanding and respect towards Olivia’s emotional needs, Olivia felt that someone understands her deeply and hence got attracted towards her. This attraction shows that Olivia found the feminine way in which Viola behaved with her attractive and hence, this gives a hint of lesbian sexuality.
Being a transgender and a lesbian is considered as queer by the society as it is not a conventional way of sexuality. Hence, the queer theory is applicable to the play ‘Twelfth night’ as it describes the transgender and lesbian qualities of Viola and Olivia respectively.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. South Carolina: Forgotten Books, 2008.
Turner, William, The genealogy of queer theory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction To Queer Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
“Transvestitism.” (n.d.). The American Heritage® Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. 23 Oct. 2009.
“Queer Thoery”. Camri, University of Westminster. Retrieved 23 Oct. 2009 from <http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-que1.htm >