I had expected Tvordi's analysis of the homoerotic elements in these plays to follow the conventional path and consider the erotics of cross-dressing. But I rather loved this different look at agency and power differentials within the two couples it examines. This is, of course, one of the two articles that led me to discuss this collection in the blog.
Tvordi, Jessica. 1999. “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticisim in As You Like It and Twelfth Night” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2
Tvordi, Jessica. “Female Alliance and the Construction of Homoeroticisim”
Tvordi’s article digs into the importance of female alliances for characters in early modern drama, and how those alliances represent a whole range of relationships including family, friendship, service, marriage resistance, and even desire. [Note: the topic of f/f desire in early modern drama is even more deeply examined by Walen 2005 https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/4373] But given the imperatives of the “marriage plot,” these alliances are often broken or left behind in the play’s resolution. More rarely, pairs of female characters make a space for f/f alliances entirely apart from heterosexual marriage, as with Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It and Maria and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Within these bonds they support and rely on each other, even as one member of the pair is pursuing a heterosexual goal. Tvordi’s argument is that these persistent, supportive f/f relationships also involve an intense emotional bond that shades into the erotic.
As I get to this point in the article, my immediate reaction is surprise and curiosity that it is the Maria-Olivia bond that is being considered, not the Viola-Olivia bond, which is the more obvious site of homoeroticism in Twelfth Night. But Tvordi addresses that in a brief review of the state-of-the field of early modern female homoeroticism (in 1999). Female transvestite figures, rather than helping to shed light on images of, and attitudes toward, female homoeroticism, tend to create the potential for male characters “to cross erotic boundaries through their interactions with the transvestite figure”. That is, despite the illusion of f/f desire created by female characters interacting with cross-dressed women, Shakespeare’s cross-dressed women are all solidly pursuing heterosexual goals (under the superficial appearance of m/m eroticism).
The verbal expression of desire between women in Shakespeare comes from more traditionally “feminine” characters, and can rival the romantic speeches of m/f couples. These characters do not overtly challenge gender roles (and within the plot, rarely successfully challenge heterosexual imperatives) which has led to their homoerotic aspects being overlooked. Both Celia and Maria challenge standard gender roles and the boundaries of sexuality, not only in regard to Rosalind and Olivia respectively, but with other characters.
But female “erotic alliances” aren’t necessarily symmetric and entirely supportive. Both Celia and Maria act to interfere with their partner’s heterosexual ventures in part to maintain the importance of their own role: Maria with respect to her role in Olivia’s household, and Celia as friend and ally. There are significant differences between the two pairs: Maria-Olivia involves differences of class and status while Celia-Rosalind are close kin and nominally equal in class. Celia makes regular verbal expressions of her love for Rosalind, while Maria demonstrates her devotion primarily through acts rather than words. [Note: On the other hand, as I noted in the Shakespeare podcast. https://alpennia.com/blog/lesbian-historic-motif-podcast-episode-208-sha... Shakespeare is unusually coy with respect to explicit reference to f/f sexual possibilities, in comparison with his contemporaries.] But Tvordi suggests that the verbal expressions in As You Like It can be used to fill in the silences in Twelfth Night regarding how the relationship between Maria and Olivia may have developed before the play, or in offstage moments. [Note: I’m a bit uneasy about applying this idea to a work of literature, as opposed to applying it to biography. The characters do not technically have a life other than what’s in the script.]
The plays also contrast in that As You Like It overtly promotes heterosexual goals (imperiling the f/f alliance) while Twelfth Night is overtly hostile to heterosexual pairing (leaving space for a sympathetic treatment of the Maria-Olivia bond). As You Like It contrasts Rosalind’s overt gender transgression as Ganymede with Celia’s verbal expressions of love for Rosalind, and her actions to create and maintain a homoerotic alliance. Whereas Rosalind does not return similar expressions and her actions are in pursuit of a heterosexual bond (or at least reflect a heterosexual obsession). From the very beginning of the play, Celia drives the actions, motivated by her love for Rosalind, and consistently acts in support of that alliance.
The Celia-Rosalind bond is framed as a “girlhood friendship” (similarly to Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to the somewhat more passoinage Emilia-Flavina in The Two Noble Kinsmen), the language of these friendships is passionate and erotically charged. The imagery of these friendships is that of similarity, of love that is inspired by equality and likeness. And in As You Like It other characters comment on the intense nature of Celia and Rosalind’s love “dearer than…sisters.” But the friendship is asymmetric: although they are of equal birth, Celia has more power due to her father’s usurpation of the throne, and Rosalind has clearly cooled somewhat toward her as a result.
Thus the alliance is in the process of re-negotiation, where Celia offers Rosalind continued love and personal support in exchange for Rosalind turning away from the pursuit of heterosexual alliance and accepting their new power differential. When Orlando enters the scene, Celia repeatedly tries to discourage Rosalind’s attentions to him. Although Rosalind is typically attributed to have more agency, due to her decision to disguise herself as a man, when the actual actions in the initial scenes of the play are examined, it is Celia who acts with more agency. But when Rosalind crosses the gender boundary, conventional relations give her (back) the greater power between them. In the presence of others, Celia plays the subservient woman, returning to her more assertive personality only when she is alone with Rosalind.
At Rosalind’s emphatic choice of Orlando, Celia essential disappears from the play, returning with no explanation as a romantic door prize for Orlando’s brother, an abrupt turn of events that even Orlando questions.
In Twelfth Night, acting as Olivia’s waiting woman, Maria supports her rejection of male authority and courtship, including when it comes in the form of the cross-dressed Viola. There is no direct evidence of an erotic aspect to this bond, except perhaps in seeing a parallel with the eroticized master-servant relationship of Duke Orsino and the disguised Viola, the asymmetric attraction of Olivia for Cesario/Viola (playing a servant), and perhaps more overtly, of Viola’s brother Sebastien and his servant Antonio. Within this complex of eroticized cross-class relationships, the erotic potential of the Maria-Olivia alliance can be seen as implied, even if not expressed.
Maria’s defense against the male suitors can be seen as a two-sided defense of female sovereignty: of Olivia’s independent single state, and of her own position administering Olivia’s household. All the male figures in the household hold less power (and indeed are presented as comic figures). But Olivia’s bending to the attractions of Cesario/Viola proves the weak spot in their defenses, and Maria is sent away so that Olivia is free to open negotiations.
Even the ultimate marriages of both women renegotiate, rather than disrupting, their bond. In marrying Sir Toby, Maria relinquishes the servant-mistress bond that gave her authority within Olivia’s household, but gains social rank and the claim of kinship to Olivia. And Viola, too, is welcomed into an alliance of female equals (her disguise being left behind) rather than being resisted as a male intruder.
Tvordi posits that there is a direct relationship between the degree to which the play is invested in heterosexuality, the degree to which homoerotic relations are expressed overtly, and whether those homoerotic relations are maintained or disrupted by the play’s conclusion. If the core of the play is less about the imperative of marriage, then there is less need to depict the female homoerotic alliance as being clearly present and challenged.