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Gender and Sexuality in “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice” Essay

“Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice” are two of William Shakespeare’s comedies which are famous for their theme of sexuality and cross-dressing characters. “Twelfth Night” tells the story of a young woman named Viola who pretends to be a man to be able to find work in the household of the Duke of Illyria. On the other hand, “The Merchant of Venice” is a story of a merchant named Antonio who helps his friend Bassanio to win the hands of his love, Portia, by allowing Bassanio to loan money from Shylock and to make Antonio his loan guarantor.

These two Shakespearean comedies similarly contain scenes where a woman cross-dresses as a man to achieve a particular goal. In “Twelfth Night,” Viola pretends to be a man named Cesario to able to get a job under Duke Ullyria, while in “The Merchant of Venice,” Portia and Nerissa dress as men to prevent Shylock from taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The cross-dressing of the characters, therefore, reveals a theme of sexuality in the plays.

Another aspect in the plays that discloses the theme of sexuality is the concept of close friendships or attraction between the same-sex characters in the stories such as Antonio and Bassanio in “The Merchant of Venice,” Olivia and Viola (pretending to be Cesario), Antonio and Sebastian, and Duke Orsino and Cesario (finally revealed as Viola) in “Twelfth Night.” These complicated relationships in the stories show the complexity of sexuality and gender in relation to the attraction, whether physical or emotional, felt by the characters towards the other. With the characters cross-dressing, Shakespeare reveals the nature of sexuality in an obscure light.

Brief Summary of “Twelfth Night”

William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” starts with a scene where the Duke Orsino of the kingdom of Illyria hangs around with music in the background as he thinks about his love for the beautiful Lady Olivia. Unfortunately, Olivia does not return his love because she is still in the midst of mourning for her brother who has died a long time ago.

She rejects suitors and does not entertain marriage proposals. Unknown to these two characters, a young woman and survivor of a shipwreck with the name of Viola lands in the shore of Illyria. Unfamiliar with the place, she wonders if her twin brother Sebastian has died in the shipwreck. Upon hearing the story of Orsino and Olivia from a captain, she decides to work for Olivia in the meantime. However, upon finding out that Olivia does not entertain any strangers, she resorts to working for the Duke instead. This is where the pretension as a man starts. Viola begins dressing as a man with a new identity as Cesario.

Duke Orsino immediately approves of Cesario and hires her as his messenger. The conflict of the story now arises as Viola begins to fall in love with the Duke who thinks she is a man, and he later asks Cesario to send his love letters to Olivia who, also believing that she is man, immediately falls for Cesario. In the end, all is revealed when Cesario and Duke Orsino arrive in Olivia’s house. Olivia greets Cesario with warmth believing her to be her new husband Sebastian, who was rescued by Antonio from the shipwreck.

Witnessing this, Duke Orsino feels betrayed, but when the real Sebastian appears in the scene everyone realizes the truth of Viola and Sebastian’s personality. Duke Orsino proposes marriage to Viola upon finding out that he is truly in love with her, and Sir Toby and Maria also privately marry. The play ends with Malvolio being freed and feeling defeated.

Sexuality and Gender in “Twelfth Night”

“Twelfth Night” embodies a great deal of issues with regard to sexuality regardless of whether it is homosexuality or heterosexuality. Shakespeare has clearly illustrated the ambiguity of the nature of gender and sexuality. The issue of sexuality is evident as characters of the story have their own love interests. Firstly, Orsino’s love for Olivia is described by Cesario to be “With adorations, fertile tears, / With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire” (1.5.238-239). Cesario’s line evidently depicts a passionate feeling which is intensified more by the use of words such as “adoration”, “groans”, “thunder” and “fire”. This choice of words obviously demonstrates an immense imagery of sexuality.

It is also clear that Viola (as Cesario) has fallen in love with the Duke Orsino. She proclaims her misery in “wooing” his lady when in fact, she wishes to be his wife. “To woo your lady. Yet, a barful strife! / Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (1.4.41-42). The concept of hasty attractions between characters is always present in Shakespearean plays.

In “Twelfth Night”, Viola quickly falls in love with the duke, Olivia also hastily becomes attracted to Cesario despite the fact the she has just met him, and Orsino swiftly switches his feelings from Olivia to Viola as soon as he finds out that Cesario is actually a woman. The notion of physical attraction to the opposite clearly demonstrates the concept of sexuality as the characters have not even spent enough time with each other to dismiss their feelings to be of love already. It is most likely to be feelings of lust as the characters would often refer to the physical attributes of the person first every time they ponder about love such as Olivia’s lines “I’ll be sworn thou art: / Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit,” (1.5.273-274)

The fact that Olivia also feels an attraction towards Cesario opens the issue of lesbianism as the audience all know that Cesario is Viola pretending to be a man. Her final monologue upon the departure of Cesario from Olivia’s house reveals her attraction towards the young and handsome messenger. “I’ll be sworn thou art: / Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit, / Do give thee five-fold blazon. Not too fast: soft! soft!” (1.5.273-275). She is easily drawn to the sentimentality of Cesario’s idea when he declares that if he is the one courting Olivia and not his master, he would stay outside her gates and cry out his love for her until she takes pity on him.

Viola’s assurance to Olivia as Cesario also reveals a somewhat obvious attraction of Cesario to Olivia. By delivering those lines, despite the fact the Cesario is a woman, shows that Cesario does believe that Lady Olivia is attractive and beautiful. “’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white / Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.” (1.5.222-223). He could not have delivered it so effectively without imagining Olivia to whom he is referring.

Scholars agree that the concept of cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s plays illustrates the possibility of lessening conflicts between homosexuality and heterosexuality. “Perhaps, the cross-dressed heroines of ‘Twelfth Night or As You Like it offer a symbolic way in which the conflict between male-male friendships and heterosexual marriage can be reconciled” (Smith 147). Cleary, in Olivia’s case of falling for Cesario, she fell in love not only for his handsome appearance but also because he has the sincerity that a woman needs from a lover. Obviously, Orsino does not possess them as he makes no risky effort to prove his love to Olivia. All he does is merely whine and complain about how his love is unrequited.

Another part in the story that engages in the theme of sexuality is the seemingly homosexual love of Antonio to Sebastian. After rescuing Sebastian from the shipwreck, Antonio goes with him wherever he decides to go. He even goes as far as accompanying him to Illyria where he has many enemies. “I have many enemies in Orsino’s court, / come what may, I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (2.1.35-6). According to Smith, The word ‘adore’ is a strong one: “where it’s used elsewhere by Shakespeare, it tends to refer either to the love of mortals for gods, or for an exalted form of romantic courtship” (148). Antonio also entrusts his purse to Sebastian as they part, which reveals his genuine affection for Sebastian. This gesture clearly describes Antonio’s unrequited homosexual love for Sebastian.

At the end of “Twelfth Night,” Duke Orsino still accepts Viola even after discovering that she has fooled him to believe that she was a man. Surprisingly, Orsino tells her that he actually loves her.

“Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou shall never shouldst love woman like to me” (5.1.259-260). It is noticeable that despite his confession of love to her, he still refers to him as “Boy,” which is an indication that he still sees her as Cesario. It can be dismissed that the Duke’s feelings towards Olivia and Viola may be just physical because he is easy to switch his feelings of love from Olivia to Viola. According to the book, A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, “[i]n Twelfth night, embodied sexuality appears to be less important than clothing in establishing gendered identity” (Rackin 123).

Brief Summary of “The Merchant of Venice”

“The Merchant of Venice” is the story of Antonio, a Venetian merchant, who encounters a predicament when Bassanio borrowed a big amount of money from him so he could afford to travel to Belmont and win the hand of Portia. Antonio replies that he cannot lend him any money because he has already invested them on his trade ships, but he assures Bassanio that he could lend from any money lending investor and refer to him as a complete guarantor.

The two men approach Shylock, a Jewish money lender who secretly despises Antonio for humiliating him numerous times in the past. He agrees to lend money to Bassanio under the condition that if Antonio fails to pay the debt, he is entitled to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio. They closed the deal.

Fortunately, Bassanio is able to win Portia’s hand despite the complexity of her dead father’s will but when he finds out that Antonio’s trade ships have been reported missing, he goes back to Venice to help his friend out. With the help of the Duke of Venice and his hired attorney, Balthasar, who is in fact Portia pretending to be a man, try to convince Shylock to negotiate and just take double of the money that he has loaned to Bassanio. Shylock refuses to hear it and insists that he cuts a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Balthasar agrees by also adding that Shylock must cut the flesh without causing it to bleed or else all his properties would be confiscated. Unable to protest any longer, Shylock surrenders and agrees to take the money from Bassanio. He is then prosecuted for attempting to kill a citizen, so half of his properties must go to the government and the other half to Antonio.

In the end, Bassanio and Graziano thank Balthasar and his assistant, who is actually Graziano’s wife Nerissa, by offering presents to them. Balthasar demands to have his ring to which Bassanio hesitates but later gives. Upon returning to Belmont, Portia and Nerissa confront and accuse their husband of infidelity because of the ring that they promised never to give under any circumstances. After a short while of arguments, they reconcile by revealing their true identities in the case of Shylock and Antonio.

Sexuality and Gender in “The Merchant of Venice”

Similar to “Twelfth Night”, “The Merchant of Venice” also includes a scene where a woman dresses as a man to accomplish a goal that would later benefit the protagonists at the end of the story. In this case, Portia is the woman character who pretends to be a male attorney to rescue Antonio from being cut by the vengeful Shylock.

By using her wits and intelligence, she is able to notice a lapse in the earlier contract that the two men have agreed upon which leads to the successful negotiation of Shylock by just taking the money instead of taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. In this regard, the empowerment of the female sexuality is insinuated by means of giving Portia authority in the case. The concept of feminism is clear in this play as female sexuality is deemed to be more empowered in the story than the male sexuality.

Cross-dressing obviously plays a large role in symbolizing sexuality and gender in the play. “Shakespeare uses Portia’s disguise to highlight the struggle between heterosexual love and homosexual love found within the love triangle consisting of Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio” (eNotes.com). In the first part of the story, we witness Antonio’s unexplainable sadness, and when Bassanio arrives, he immediately asks him of his lady-love.

This can be an indication that Antonio feels some kind of affection for Bassanio and it might be the reason why he cannot explain his own sadness. It is also apparent that upon Bassanio’s arrival, Antonio is very interested in finding out about Bassanio’s new love. Antonio’s reference to Basssanio as, “My purse, my person, my extremest means, / Lie all unlock’d to your occasions” (1.1.138-139), reveals an indication that there is more to Antonio’s brotherly feelings towards Bassanio.

It is also clear that Antonio has lent Bassanio a big amount of money before and it is not the first time that Bassanio asks a big favor from him. This gesture of eminent closeness between two male friends demonstrates an implicit depth of relationship which is more than friendship.

The pound of flesh can be a symbol of sexuality in the play. Flesh clearly symbolizes the lust of the flesh, and even though there is no direct evidence that Shylock is homosexual, it can be regarded that the symbolism of flesh refers to the other characters in the story. Clearly, there are a number of couples in the story such as Portia and Bassanio, Jessica and Lorenzo, and Nerissa and Graziano.

This could be a reference that they are examples of people who lust after flesh because of their quick engagements despite the short span of time that they have known each other. It is also apparent that love in this play is much more associated with the hasty physical attraction rather than the concept of extensive courting and getting-to-know-each-other stage. The fact that Portia’s dead father prefers to have a groom for her who can luckily choose the right casket reveals that the present society of the play does not give much importance to feelings but more on practicality.

The concept of patriarchal authority is also apparent in the plot of the play as symbolized by Portia’s father’s will. The will represents the authority that her father still has over her decisions despite the fact that he is already dead. The will, therefore, holds the remaining power of her father which clearly reveals a society where men rule.

According the play’s guide, “The plot parallels and contrasts the rivalry between Portia and Antonio in the main plot and highlights the ‘conflict between male friendship and marriage’ which runs throughout [Shakespeare’s] works” (Janik 186). Clearly, in this play, Portia seems to be the hindrance between Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship. However, in the end, she proves to be the one with the authority, as she disguises herself as a man of law to save Antonio. Thus, Portia’s female sexuality becomes more authoritative in the play because she is able to resolve the problem that neither Antonio nor the Duke of Venice can resolve.


“Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice” encompass a complex plot of mistaken identities and deliberate cross-dressing. The fact that the female characters ultimately save the men from their miseries in the end proves that these Shakespearean plays also include the concept of feminism. However, the theme of sexuality is more focused on the relationships between the heterosexual major characters, while the implicit concept of homosexuality is ambiguous in the male-male friendships. Nevertheless, these two Shakespearean works still embody a story that modern readers could still relate to as the theme of sexuality is continuously present in our society.

Works Cited

Janik, Vicki K. The Merchant of Venice: A Guide to the Play. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.

Rackin, Phyllis. “Shakespeare’s Crossdressing Comedies.” A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works. Eds. Richard Dutton and Jean Elizabeth Howard. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Roma Gill. Oxford: Barron’s Educational Series, 2001.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will. Ed. Cedric Thomas Watts. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1992

Smith, Emma. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

 “The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 40): Introduction.” Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Dana Ramel Barnes. Vol. 40. Gale Cengage, 2006. eNotes.com. 12 Mar 2009 <http://www.enotes.com/shakespearean-criticism/

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