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Beyond “Impossible” Desire: Cross-Dressing as a Gateway for Lesbian Homoeroticism in Twelfth Night and The New Arcadia

By Emma Williamson

Valerie Traub posits that “the changeability of dress [is] the originating instance of homoeroticism,” underscoring the power of cross-dressing as an early modern literary means of exploring homosexual desire (157). William Shakespeare’s 1602 comedy, Twelfth Night and Book II of Sir Philip Sidney’s The New Arcadia, revised in 1580, both focalize cross-dressing lesbian potentiality and heterosexual instability within characters’ attraction toward cross-dressed individuals. In Twelfth Night, Viola as the cross-dressed Cesario, woos Olivia with her anti-Petrarchan language and thoughtful nature, distinguishing Cesario from the other men in Illyria. Thus, as he/she becomes an object of Olivia’s desire, Viola’s gender ambiguity complicates the distinctions between homo- and hetero-erotic attraction and allows for reading lesbian poetics within their romantic pairing. The homoerotic relationship in The New Arcadia is far more defined as it is built upon the naive and sexually sheltered Princess Philoclea’s desire for the cross-dressed Prince Pyrocles, who she believes is a woman. Philoclea falls for Zelmane, Pyrocles’ female persona, despite a fear that sex between them would prove “impossible” due to her lack of knowledge surrounding same-sex desire (Sidney 145). Philoclea is fully convinced of Zelmane’s femininity, and Zelmane is described with female pronouns throughout Book II. It is only when “Pyrocles discloses his male identity and the couple reforms as a heterosexual one” that readers are no longer “promoted to think of the relationship as involving two women” (Levin 464).  The cross-dressing disguises of these characters suspend traditional perceptions of gender and sexual desire, suggesting homoerotic potential between the disguised character and their female-desiring subject. While both Book II of The New Arcadia and Twelfth Night end in heterosexual unions, cross-dressing permits the exploration of lesbian homoerotic potential within the bounds of an overarching heterosexual narrative. The works’ heteronormative conclusions do not mean, however, that homosexual desires cease the moment the disguises come off. Instead, the characters’ sexual journeys reveal the fact that homosexual desires are indeed not “impossible” at all, and same-sex attraction exists beyond the confines of overarching heterosexual “resolutions.” 

In Twelfth Night, a cross-dressed Viola realizes the poetics of Orsino’s physical Petrarchan verse are failing to attract Olivia, and she thus calls upon her own knowledge of female desire to give rise to a new form of poetry designed for the female gaze. As Viola/Cesario recites Orsino’s verse, “‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white / Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on” (I.v.227-228), Olivia rebukes the Petrarchan masculinity of Orsino’s blazon, complaining “every particle and utensil labelled to my will, as, / item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes” (I.v.235-236). Orsino’s poetic genre reduces Olivia to her physicality, “labell[ing]” and fragmenting her into pieces, and silencing her voice in favor of the idealized “item[s]” of a woman’s exterior appearance. The inadequacy of Orsino’s “ostensibly heteroerotic” Petrarchan verse provides Viola with the opportunity to employ the superior, “pastoral poetics of female desire” inspired by her own female experience (Ake 376). Realizing that to maintain her dialogue with Olivia she must “draw upon her own intuitions and imaginations… inventing words that exhibit a knowledge of—and can elicit—female desire,” Viola revises the poetic script to produce a new language of female homoeroticism (380). Improvising a new dramatic space, Viola proclaims:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills (Shakespeare I.v.258-261)

The absence of hierarchy between lovers, and lack of female fragmenting poetics, with the passive “masculine” speaker (Viola) asking for an active female subject (Olivia) to “make,” “call” and “write,” for him, subverts conventions of heterosexual Elizabethan poetry. It is only this verse, founded in Viola reaching “for a language that she believes would seem appealing to a woman much like herself” (Ake 380), that leaves Olivia stirred and affirming, “You might do much” (I.v.267). Based on the female desires she feels Olivia may experience much like herself, Viola successfully seduces Olivia and “affords us a glimpse of a tentative ‘lesbian’ poetics as one female character imagines and articulates the words that will seduce another” (Ake 376). Through Olivia’s decided rejection of men like Orsino in favour of Cesario/Viola, Viola reveals Olivia’s attraction to her originates from Viola’s language which is not tied to masculine poetics at all, but instead a new language of female-female desire and understanding.

Among Viola’s words, physical appearance, and actions, it is difficult to determine a singular source of Olivia’s passion; however, Cesario’s feminine appearance ultimately plays a role in attracting Olivia. Olivia navigates her thoughts and newfound feelings for her new acquaintance:

Above my fortunes, yet my state is well.
‘I am a gentleman.’ 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— (Shakespeare I.v.280-284)

As she marvels at the memory of cross-dressed Viola’s “tongue, [face], [limbs], actions, and spirit,” the feminine features she believes are pieces of a man are part of what draws her to her/him. According to Orsino, Cesario’s face and voice are “semblative [of] a woman’s part,” suggesting a feminine quality to the cross-dressed Viola’s male persona (I.v.33). Cesario’s “spirit,” and ability to reconfigure masculine verse to speak to the female gaze also allures Olivia until she questions “so quickly may one catch the plague?” (I.v.285). This plague of lovesickness, “from the point of view of gendered identity in the play, casts her as an unwitting lesbian” (Charles 131). In her soliloquy, Olivia destabilizes how much she is “unwitting,” or rather in denial, of her lesbian attraction to the feminine Cesario/Viola, as she considers “this youth’s perfections,” and culminates in a resounding “Well, let it be.” (Shakespeare I.v.285,287). Regardless of the differences separating Cesario from other men, Olivia’s acceptance that she has fallen for Cesario hints that these very differences entice her. Whether it is Cesario’s feminine nature, or Viola’s feminine “spirit,” itself, Olivia’s sudden love for a cross-dressed woman signifies exploratory homoeroticism. 

Despite invoking a language encouraging Olivia’s affection, Viola does not feel the same attraction and instead denies the homoerotic implication by suggesting Olivia would no longer feel the same if Viola revealed her true sex. Although Olivia was attracted to Cesario/Viola’s “tongue, [face], [limbs], actions, and spirit” (I.v.283), upon receiving Olivia’s ring, Viola cries “Poor lady, she were better love a dream! / Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (II.ii.25-27). Though it was partially the “spirit” of her verse that allured Olivia—her words, and their ability to speak past the physical and toward the female gaze and desires of her soul—Viola believes Olivia’s attraction is solely contingent on her male “disguise.” Apostrophically accusing her disguise of “wickedness,” Viola highlights her anxiety over this “mistaken sexual identity,” and her belief that her cross-dressed performance verges dangerously close to actual homoeroticism (Walen 420). Not only is lesbian potential displayed as “wickedness,” but Viola’s “articulation of anxiety has implicitly served as the summation of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century attitudes toward female homoeroticism” (Traub 157). Despite outwardly criticizing accidental female homosexuality and scorning any suggestion of acting on those impulses, the comedy still acts as an “imaginative space where two female bodies erotically positioned in the narrative could signify sexual practice” (Walen 413). As only one side of the pair outwardly refutes the homoerotic potential of their relationship, Olivia’s attraction toward Viola does not merely disappear because of Viola’s rejection of such “wickedness.”  Instead, it suggests female homosexuality’s presence as a conceptual category set at odds with the later heterosexual marriages concluding the play, and the comedic navigation needed to overcome one for the other.

While Olivia may perceive Viola as a man, Philoclea fully believes Zelmane is a woman and thus overt homoerotics are far more apparent in The New Arcadia. Even Pyrocels’/Zelmane’s cousin and close friend, Musidorus, saw “the appearing of a lady” upon seeing Pyrocles in his cross-dressed attire (Sidney 57). While Twelfth Night comically reminds the viewer of Viola’s devotion to Orsino, and the unwanted nature of Olivia’s continued homoerotic advances, in The New Arcadia, “as Zelmane did often eye her, [Philoclea] would often eye Zelmane” (142). If Twelfth Night denies reciprocal homoerotic lesbian attraction, The New Arcadia explicitly presents it. Despite Zelmane’s reality as a cross-dressed man, to Philoclea, she is a woman, and same-sex attraction in Sidney’s text gives “way to sexual desire. It becomes easy for us to think of the man with whom she is in love as a woman” (Levin 465). Despite the pair’s overt suggestion of lesbianism, the narrator describes their relationship in the familiar language of heterosexual, chaste, forbidden love literature. Describing their love, Sidney explains “Zelmane, as much as Gynecia’s jealousy would suffer, desired to be near Philoclea; Philoclea, as much as Gynecia’s jealousy would suffer, desired to be near Zelmane” (Sidney 142). Sidney’s emotive treatment of their love promotes the implication “that same-sex love and heterosexual love are comparable and that the pathos of young lovers, regardless of their love object, should move us” (Levin 460). Prioritizing their love as the object of narrative importance, and disparaging the parental and societal boundaries limiting their opportunity to be together, Sidney shockingly urges the reader to root for the couple. His use of cross-dressing thus allows a gateway to highlight lesbian homoerotics while inscribing young love as the virtue to fight for, not the sexual orientation of its participants.

The text traces Philoclea’s thoughts in a monologue as she fully comes to realize the gravity of her same-sex love for Zelmane, with her sheltered lack of sexual understanding only temporarily stalling her sexual awakening. First wishing that Zelmane “were her sister,” she continues to increase the level of desired connection between them: “Then grown bolder she would wish either herself, or Zelmane, a man, that there might success a blessed marriage between them” (Sidney 142). Wishing for what she believes is an impossible feat to secure a proper marriage between them, Philoclea continues to grow more desperate: “Such a work for my desire to take out, which is as much impossible?” (145). Philoclea’s distressing awareness that she, in her limited understanding of sexuality, assumes they cannot have sex, highlights that her regret “is not that she desires to sin but that doing the deed is an ‘impossibility’ of female-female sex” (Levin 471). Her inability to assimilate her desires with what she was taught about sexuality forces the reader to sympathize with her, despite her outward wishes to engage in lesbian sex. Sidney “suggests we should pity Philoclea, in recognition of the forces that tear at her,” rather than criticize her sexual desires (Levin 475). Despite the obstacles of her naïveté, her same-sex love becomes apparent at the end of her monologue. Rebuffing her previous fears, she demands “away then all vain examinations of why and how. Thou lovest me, most excellent Zelmane, and I love thee” (Sidney 145). As Philoclea wrestles with her developing same-sex attraction, and confidently comes out the other side empowered in her lesbian desires, Sidney utilizes cross-dressing to fully flesh out a lesbian sexual awakening, while technically within the bounds of heterosexual deniability.

Although Pyrocles is in fact a man and Book II ends in their societally sanctioned mutual love and heterosexual union, some ambiguities point to Philoclea’s unresolved homoerotic desires. Upon learning Pyrocles’ true identity, Philoclea assures him that she will love him, though also stating, “O Zelmane, for so I love to call thee, since in that name my love first began, and in the shade of that name my love shall best lie hidden” (Sidney 214). By ascribing the origins of her love for Pyrocles to his female cross-dressed persona, Philoclea does not negate her lesbian desires, instead, she brings them with her into the heterosexual union. By continuing to call Pyrocles “Zelmane,” Philoclea suggests their relationship, before Pyrocles revealed his identity, was one founded in love and suggests her continued love for Pyrocles was formed in her homoerotic experience with his Amazonian persona. Her earlier monologue on her love for Zelmane is singular, and “no other passage in early modern English literature is nearly as full and explicit dealing with a woman’s sexual desire of a woman and the possibility of sexual activity between them” (Levin 464). Therefore, as she brings her same-sex desires with her into the heterosexually sanctioned narrative, she destabilizes the supremacy of heterosexuality as the culminating factor in their happy union. Philoclea fell in love with another woman, and although that woman is, in reality, a man, “the narrator leaves unresolved whether Philoclea’s heterosexual life necessarily involves a fading or rejection of homosexual impulses” (Levin 475).

Once acknowledging her love, Olivia, like Philoclea, refuses to ignore it, despite Viola’s attempts to ward her off. As Viola assumes that Olivia’s love would vanish if she knew Viola/Cesario’s true sex, she attempts to send Olivia hints that she is not what she desires: “I am not what I am,” however, Olivia rebukes her concerns, “I would you were as I would have you be” (III.i.139-140). Their back-and-forth, “in textual isolation…functions as [a] profound if unsystematic critique of gender identity as a boundary to licit love” (Charles, 134). Since Olivia refuses to heed Viola’s warnings that she would not be attracted to her if she knew what she truly was, Olivia’s “repeated flirtations create a homoerotic tension in the narrative space” (Walen 420). She is resolute in her devotion to Cesario until the end of the play, even when she hears Cesario claim he loves Orsino, and is heartbroken “Ay me detested, how am I beguiled!” (Shakespeare V.i.135). Remaining steadfast in her devotion, she refuses even this as a deterrent, calling Cesario “husband” despite his supposed proclamation of male homosexual love (V.i.140). Throughout Viola’s assurance that she is not as she appears and loves a man, Olivia remains steadfast in her devotion to Viola. She is not horrified when she believes her future husband is confessing love for another man but instead feels rejected in his place. This implies that Olivia’s concern is not Cesario’s sex nor sexuality, but her love for, and desired closeness to, Cesario/Viola in a potentially homoerotic way. 

When it is finally revealed that Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, and Viola are different people and that Olivia has been “betrothed to both a maid and a man,” she immediately sets herself on marrying Sebastian, and consequently, remains very close to Viola (V.i.257). Olivia instigates her marriage to Sebastian, “to think me as well a sister as a wife,” as well as proposing for Orsino to marry Viola, all while ensuring both weddings take place together “at my house and at my proper cost” (V.i.310). Once Orsino and Sebastian agree to the plan, her immediate reaction is to tell Viola: “A sister, you are she” (V.i.318). This demonstrates “that her emotional investment is in Viola rather than Sebastian” (Walen 421). Olivia’s concern with keeping Viola in proximity, and orchestrating her closeness through sanctioned heterosexual unions, suggests a deep devotion that may not neatly fit into a heterosexual marriage with her brother. To keep Viola as a sister is much like the wish Philoclea had for Zelmane before asserting her true lesbian desire: “she wish that she were her sister, that such a natural band might make her more special to her” (Sidney 142). The “natural band” that Olivia ascribes to Viola through their heterosexual marriages ensures they remain close, and Olivia’s potential homoerotic desire may continue to remain within a sanctioned heterosexual space. This confusion is wrought “by the reconciliation of Viola’s identical twin, and the heterosexual unions suppress the female homoerotics,” however, they do not negate Olivia’s feelings for Viola (Walen 421). Instead, her quickness to realize Viola was slipping from her grasp, and to instead marry the socially authorized male version of Viola, reinforces her homoerotic attraction toward Viola. These marriages thus do not “suppress” potential lesbian homoeroticism at all, but instead further legitimize the women’s proximity within close female relationships.

As Olivia asserts Viola shall be “a sister [-in-law],” the play suggests that such closeness is the second-best option she has to asserting Viola as a lover, and imbues homoerotic potential into female-female relationships. As all “three scenes between Olivia and Viola happen privately, [this raises] the expectation of physical intimacy between the characters” (Walen 420). The private nature of their meetings aligns with the hidden nature of female relationships that take place behind closed doors. The bond women shared could be considered that of close female friendship, but whether relationships slipped into more homoerotic ones was difficult to determine within female-only spaces. Olivia and Viola’s ability to grow their potentially homoerotic relationship privately as sisters-in-law and close female friends mirrors the actions of Zelmane, whose “gestures were consistent in the spirit of friendship yet communicated passion” (Levin 469). As Zelmane “camouflaged her seduction by adhering to the forms governing the development of female friendship” she too was able to live unsupervised in a lodge with Philoclea and evoke homoerotic desire while remaining within the governing social codes of female-female relationships (468). These homoerotic elements, as difficult as they are to extricate from the discourse surrounding merely close female bonds and loving female friendships, highlight how “lesbianism [was] almost invisible in the [English Renaissance]” (Traub 363). The closed sisterhood of women, removed from spheres of male supervision, was a space that could promote erotic potential while hidden under the guise of female friendship. As Philoclea did indeed “find that Zelmane’s friendship was full of impatient desire,” the lines between female “friendship” and female homoerotic “desire” also remain blurred in Viola and Olivia’s newly formed sisterhood (Sidney 142).

Cross-dressed characters in Twelfth Night and The New Arcadia complicate the distinctions between homo- and heteroerotic attraction and allow for potential lesbian homoerotic potential to nettle the work’s heteroerotic conclusions. Between their new societally sanctioned male partners and their previous homoerotic female relationships, the true sexual desires of Philoclea and Viola are left unstable. Therefore Traub’s posited “invisibility” of female homosexual relationships, and their physical “impossibility” are both negated. Homoerotic tensions and the potentiality for female-female sex remain in the subtext of both works’ conclusions. The same-sex attraction explored throughout the works remains implied in the characters’ demonstrated sexual desires; and even though the cross-dressed disguises have come off, one may change their clothes, but not their heart.  

Works Cited

Ake, Jami. “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in ‘Twelfth Night.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 43, no. 2, 2003, pp. 375–94. JSTOR,

Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in ‘Twelfth Night.’” Theatre Journal, vol. 49, no. 2, 1997, pp. 121–41. JSTOR,

Levin, Richard A. “What? How? Female-Female Desire in Sidney’s ‘New Arcadia.’” Criticism, vol. 39, no. 4, 1997, pp. 463–79. JSTOR,

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Oxford Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Sidney, Philip. “Book II” The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, The New Arcadia. 1590. edited by Ernest A Baker, London, George Routledge and Sons, Ltd, 1907, pp. 121–299.

Traub, Valerie. “Chapter 4: The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England.” The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 150–169.

Traub, Valerie. “The Rewards of Lesbian History.” Feminist Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, 1999, pp. 363–94. JSTOR,

Walen, Denise A. “Constructions of Female Homoerotics in Early Modern Drama.” Theatre Journal, vol. 54, no. 3, 2002, pp. 411–30. JSTOR,