Incongruous Liaisons

boy-george1The 1980’s band, Culture Club released their song Karma Chameleon, explaining that, “The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.” I believe that Boy George wrote this song as an expression of his own life experiences and physical appearance. The meaning of this song would resonate strongly with the characters of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.


Cross dressing was common in the Elizabethan era and was most often found on the stage of theatrical performances. It can be described as individuals wearing clothes that are not associated with their gender.  Young male actors who had not yet hit puberty were always cast in the roles of women on the stage.  Shakespeare was well versed with the concept of cross dressing and often used this vehicle within his plays.  One play in particular that challenges the identity of gender and sexual orientation is Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night.  “Homosexuality existed in Renaissance society and Shakespeare knew it. Furthermore, Shakespeare wrote with a homosexually aware audience in mind. Otherwise, lines such as Hamlet’s “Man delights not me–nor woman neither” would not play (lI.ii.309)” (Van Watson).  Twelfth Night’s main character, Viola, spends most of her stage time disguised as Cesario, a man.  With this disguise, Viola (as Cesario), earns Duke Orsino’s trust and begins falling in love with him.  The Duke is in love with Olivia who does not want anything to do with the Duke.  However, when Olivia meets Cesario (Viola in disguise), she falls in love with him.  This creates a love triangle of mistaken true identity between characters that are unaware of Cesario (Viola’s) true gender.  By the end of the play all is revealed; Viola, playing Cesario, states that she is really female, the Duke then asks her to marry him, yet the Duke still wants her to leave the male disguise on even after Viola has revealed her true self.

twelfth_night_by_kikki_chan-d3126s3ORSINO: …Meantime, sweet sister,

We will not part from hence. Cesario, come –

for you shall be while you are a man

but when in other habits you are seen,

Orisno’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen (V.i.375-378)


This aspect makes Twelfth Night one of the earliest works cited for differing views on gendered roles.  “Her performative roles as the maiden Viola and ‘‘boy’’ Cesario, as well her position as the object of desire for both a man (Duke Orsino) and a woman (Countess Olivia), effectually eroticize her ‘‘service’’ to these figures and place her at the center of a sexual and therefore social and economic matrix” (Thomas).  The homoerotic relationships that transpire while Viola is disguised as Cesario leave Duke Orsino and Olivia conflicted with their gendered identities.  Twelfth Night blurs the typical heterosexual relationships.  Shakespeare’s play allows the characters to be attracted to someone of the same and opposite sex (in the case of Duke Orsino and Olivia).  Orsino displays homosexual tendencies in regards to Cesario and heterosexual tendencies towards Olivia. Olivia’s heterosexual tendencies towards Cesario could be viewed as homosexual since Cesario is actually a woman in disguise.


Along with Orsino and Olivia struggling with their sexual identities, Viola faces some internal confusion as well.  By adopting the behaviour of the opposite sex while disguised as Cesario, Viola becomes a transvestite.  She enjoys playing the character of Cesario and feels conflicted when her secret is out and she can freely be Viola again.  Current pop culture displays numerous forms of transgression in ways similar to Shakespeare and his play, pushing the envelope on society’s accepted norms and values.  The major motion picture She’s The Man, appears to be a modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  In a similar vein, the 1975 film, Rocky Horror Picture Show, is a perfect example of blurring the line between the search for identity and confusion of sexual orientation.  Both works address controversial subject matter presented through a humorous plot line for the audience.

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One thought on “Incongruous Liaisons

  1. Reblogged this on What's My Role? and commented:
    I am not going to get a chance to touch on Twelfth Night, however a classmate of mine has done an excellent job describing how cross-dressing is a way for people to perform their opposite gender roles. She includes some great modern day examples as well such as the movies She’s the Man and Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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