Male/Female Duality in “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare

TwelfthNightThis was my first time reading Twelfth Night and I loved it. It was very funny and enjoyable to read. Since Twelfth Night is January 5 and concludes the twelve days of Christmas, it seemed like the right time of the year to read this.

Anyone familiar with this play knows that transvestism and homosexuality figure prominently. Viola is dressed as a man most of the play and although she loves the Duke, she inspires the love of Olivia. The Duke, although he professes his love for Olivia, seems to have at least some interest in Cesario (who is actually Viola in drag). Then there is something going on between Sebastian (Viola’s brother) and Antonio, who is a sea captain who saved Sebastian after he was shipwrecked. And if all this wasn’t crazy enough, Sir Andrew is also in love with Olivia, and Maria (who is Olivia’s attending woman and just happens to be in love with Olivia’s uncle) tricks Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, into thinking Olivia loves him and wants him to come to her cross-gartered and wearing yellow stockings. All this combined sets the stage for some great scenes and some witty dialog.

The dialog is filled with sexual innuendos and double entendres. One of my favorites is when the Duke is addressing Viola in drag and tells her how her voice is like a woman’s because of “his” young age, but in words that imply that he has a very small penis which could be mistaken for female genitalia.

… Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part.

(Act I: scene iv)

The homosexual and transvestite aspects of this play could certainly be explored more, but I found something that for me was much more intriguing, that of a male/female duality. This is something that has fascinated me for a long time—the idea that the human archetype, or Platonic form, encompasses both the masculine and the feminine. In fact, one of the most thought-provoking passages from the Book of Genesis is when god creates the first “man” who is both male and female, just as the godhead appears as a dyad which is both male and female.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

(Genesis: Chapter 1, verse 26-27, King James Version)

Now let’s look at Shakespeare’s text. When the Duke sees Viola and Sebastian together, he states:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective that is and is not!

(Act V: scene i)

There is an implied duality here, where male and female are as one. It reminds me of Carl Jung’s concept of the animus and anima, how the human consciousness has two aspects, a masculine and a feminine.

Shortly afterwards, an allusion is made to the symbolic division of the masculine and feminine.

How have you made division of yourself?
An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin
Than these two creatures.

(Act V: scene i)

This is a clear reference to the biblical myth of Adam and Eve. According to Jewish kabbalistic ideology, the original Adam (called Adam Kadmon) was the archetype for humans and was essentially godlike, containing both the masculine and the feminine. But then the unity was split and this division ultimately led to the fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden. By incorporating the metaphor of the apple, Shakespeare reinforces the connection between Viola and Sebastian and Adam and Eve.

The genius of Shakespeare is that his work can continue to be interpreted in myriad ways. Do I think that Shakespeare consciously made these allusions to Jewish and Platonic mysticism? I would have to say that he probably didn’t. But, he clearly tapped into something greater than himself that inspired his words, words that continue to inspire today.

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3 Comments

Filed under Literature

3 responses to “Male/Female Duality in “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare

  1. Great post! Thanks for some context around an interesting reading of the work.

  2. Pingback: glimpses of esoteric christianity part 3 | Self Improvement, Faith, & Confidence.

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