Twelfth Night, gender, William Shakespeare, Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler


Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night appears to some readers as a conservative story of gender-bending, in which all is made “right” in the end. The central character, Viola, disguises herself as Cesario in order to survive. In the final scenes of the play, this character reveals herself to have been a woman all along, and immediately enters a cis-heterosexual marriage with the Duke Orsino. To other readers, the play appears to be an early depiction of what we might now call transmasculinity. In this view, the central character is not just dressing up as a man to survive; he really is Cesario. This essay intervenes in that discussion by finding a middle path that refuses to resolve Viola/Cesario’s gender trouble. Thurston Wilder refers to the character as “Viola/Cesario” throughout, and uses the slash between their two names as a visual representation of what is here called “gender wobble.” Placing Feste the clown’s epilogue into conversation with work by Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler, the author argues that the epilogue destabilizes the apparent cis-heterosexual tidiness of the play’s ending. Then, the essay reads the play backwards from the epilogue, uncovering Viola/Cesario’s gender wobble from the moment they “reveal” themselves to “be” Viola at the end to the first time they step foot in Illyria at the beginning. The framework of the “wobble” embraces the messiness of gender and creates space to locate possible resonances with trans experience in Twelfth Night without asserting a definitive reading of Viola/Cesario’s gender.