Homosexuality in Twelfth Night

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In medieval and Elizabethan England, homosexuality was not only looked down upon, but was a crime punishable by law. Found perpetrators, including the famous King Edward II, were horribly punished. Edward was killed by “the slow and painful insertion of a red, hot poker into his anus”, along with his lover, who “had his genitals cut off and burned” (Sanders). Such is the world in which a bisexual William Shakespeare lived. Though he married Anne Hathaway at the age of 18, he was rumored to have had extramarital affairs with numerous men while in London (“Shakespeare’s Sexuality”). Gay men are present in many of Shakespeare’s plays, most prominently Twelfth Night. A sailor named Antonio falls in love with a man of noble birth named Sebastian, whom Antonio rescued from a shipwreck. However, Antonio’s love only brings him grief, as the straight Sebastian views Antonio’s homosexual advances merely as gestures of friendship, and eventually marries a countess named Olivia. Shakespeare manifests himself in his character of Antonio, conveying a warning against being blinded by love, especially homosexual love, in Elizabethan England.

When the reader first meets Antonio, he has recently rescued Sebastian, who decides to go into town and meet the local duke, Orsino. Though he clearly loves Sebastian with a deep passion, Antonio cannot bring himself to say it, for to admit homosexuality would be tantamount to death. However, Antonio does give many strong hints, even offering to be Sebastian’s servant when Sebastian tells Antonio that he must leave him: “If you will not murder me for my love, let me/ be your servant” (2.1.34-35). Shakespeare also expresses his love for another man, but in a more secretive way. Shakespeare tells of his love for a “fair youth” in Sonnet 18, stating that the youth is “more lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day (“Shakespeare’s Sexuality”). Shakespeare states that, while a summer’s beauty fades with the coming of autumn and winter,...
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