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Powerful male friendships were more the norm in Shakespeare’s day than in our own, and Antonio’s language can be seen as simply the expression of a purely platonic passion. However, Antonio’s words can also be seen as carrying an obvious homoerotic charge. It seems safe to say here that if Antonio were a woman, we would read her speech and actions as an unambiguous expression of her love for Sebastian and hope that he would return this love. In a play so concerned with bending gender roles—a play in which Orsino can seem to be attracted to Viola, for instance, even before she reveals herself to be a woman and not a man, and in which Olivia can fall for a man who is really a woman—Antonio’s passion for Sebastian is erotic rather than platonic.
Leaving Antonio and Sebastian, the play returns to Viola, who is the central character in the action, and thus the only one who understands the entirety of the complicated love triangle. Orsino loves Olivia, who loves Viola, who in turn loves Orsino—but matters are hardly this simple, because both Orsino and Olivia are mistaken about Viola’s real gender. Viola knows that romantic love, ideally, should lead to marriage. But in this particular triangle, there seems to be no hope of a resolution anywhere. Calling herself a “poor monster”—implying not that she is ugly but rather something not quite human, halfway between man and woman—Viola puts her finger on the problem (II.ii.32). Homoerotic love is not a real or final option in Shakespeare’s comedies: as a man, Viola cannot win Orsino’s love, but as a woman, she cannot return Olivia’s. Finally giving herself up into the hands of fate, she says despairingly, “O time, thou must untangle this, not I. / It is too hard a knot for me t’untie” (II.ii.38–39). But fate—or, more accurately, the playwright—has already set the untangling forces in motion.
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