Desire and its discontents
Twelfth Night’s alternative title is What You Will. What’s in a name? we might ask with Juliet. A parent’s impulse to play? In Will Shakespeare’s ‘romantic comedies’ will—meaning, for the Elizabethans, both the assertion of power and sexual desire 1 —is the principal concern of the characters and motivator of the plot. Twelfth Night, in particular, offers multiple images of ‘the mobility of desire’ 2 —a theme which was taken up enthusiastically in performance in response to the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s, but was increasingly sidestepped in the more conservative atmosphere of the 1980s.
In performances of the last fifty years, the figure of Malvolio— ‘ill-will’—begins as that of the traditional puritanical killjoy, denying ‘cakes and ale’ to the drunken Sir Toby, but develops into a disturbing image of the madman who cannot reconcile his sexual fantasies and the realities of his class position. Gender, in this play, becomes an ever more unstable mask: Orsino and Olivia behave increasingly ‘improperly’ as the play’s interest in the fluidity of sexuality is explored in performance. Viola always exists in the margins between genders: claiming first that she will present herself as ‘an eunuch’ to Orsino, she is called by him ‘boy’, wooed by Olivia who thinks she is male (or thinks she thinks so), and never herself changes out of her male costume once she assumes it after I.2. That she has an identical twin in the male Sebastian is of course a biological impossibility: it is a fantasy of desire undifferentiated, uncontrolled by the constraints of gender: the play ‘enables not only the fantasy that one need not choose between a homosexual and a heterosexual bond but that one need not become either male or female, that one can be both Viola and Sebastian, both maid and man.’ 3